The Financial Crisis: A Way Out for Irish Youth?

David Cairns, MYPLACE Project team member at Centro de Investigação e Estudos de Sociologia, Lisbon, Portugal and Work Package Leader on his recently published paper on youth in Ireland in the economic crisis.

This was originally posted on the MYPLACE blog. Follow MYPLACE on Twitter here. For more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website here

This article was based around a recently published paper by the author available HERE.

One of the key contexts for the MYPLACE project is the importance of the financial crisis in young people’s lives. That youth face economic problems is evident in many of our partner countries, most obviously, Spain, Portugal and Greece, but what of the potential impact being made by the crisis upon the future direction of young people’s lives, particularly where there has been a dramatic collapse in the range of life chances?

Our recently completed study, now published on-line inJournal of Youth Studies, looked at the reactions of young people in two cities in the Republic of Ireland, Dublin and Cork, to the crisis. We asked a number of important questions, including whether or not they were contemplating leaving the country. Youth migration is an important, and emotive, subject in Ireland, a phenomenon which was for decades associated with economic failure and cultural backwardness; hence, there is a political meaning to such movement, perhaps not present in other regional contexts. All this was thought to have changed in the 1990s, with the advent of the “Celtic Tiger” boom. This boom was founded not so much upon government policies, but rather the existence of an unusually large youth population, who were not only tertiary educated and English language-speaking but also relatively free of dependents; one reason for this, incidentally, was the removal of restrictions on purchasing contraceptives. For over a decade, GDP soared, as did salaries and the personal prosperity of some, if certainly not all. This ended in 2008, with the arrival of the financial crisis in the wake of the collapse of Lehmann Brothers bank. The Irish property bubble burst, and the local banks who had lent recklessly were left to pay the enormous bill, or rather the Irish population were left to pay the banks’ enormous bill, which was passed onto them courtesy of the Irish government. When it realised that this wasn’t going to be enough, this government then called in the International Monetary Fund, and the rest you probably know already.

So what of youth during this economic crisis period: do they intend to stay or leave? The general assumption, certainly in the Irish media, has been that a new wave of youth migration is imminent. Many local politicians were also no doubt wishing that all those without jobs would simply fly off to places where they would no longer be a burden on the tax payer. This of course, has not happened. While there has been some increase in outward migration, most of this movement can be attributed to return migrants, particularly those going back to Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries. The youth population has for the most part remained in Ireland. Our research, with a sample of 200 tertiary educated young people, confirms this finding, also illustrating that while the financial crisis may be generating an understandable desire to leave, this is not translated into large numbers of exiting young people. There are many reasons why Irish youth don’t, or don’t feel able, to leave, ranging from a dependence upon the resources embedded in their family relationships and friendship ties, i.e. social capital, to a perception that the situations facing them abroad would be no better to what they would encounter at home. Others lack internationally transferrable skills or are limited by their lack of fluency in foreign languages.

There are nevertheless a few isolated cases emerging from our research, which show that some young people are on the verge of moving abroad, mostly to Great Britain, but occasionally to more distant places like Canada, the US and Australia. And as other researchers in the field of youth mobility have shown, it tends to be the best and brightest young people who leave, particularly those from relatively well-off family backgrounds. The family is in fact the most important factor in explaining why young people choose to leave or stay, with friends often proving instrumental.

While Ireland may not be witnessing a mass youth exodus, it still faces the prospect of losing many young people with valuable skills and marketable qualifications. This may not be as politically embarrassing as watching an entire generation of young people fly away across the Atlantic Ocean or drift across the Irish sea, but there is still a sense of young people having been let down by an older generation, who were more concerned with the prices of their properties than the future of their children. What the future hold for those left behind remains to be seen, but the results on the imminent referendum on the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union should be interesting.

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