Solving Ireland’s Youth Unemployment Crisis

A recently published survey of students should make sobering reading for Ireland’s politicians. The poll, conducted by international research firm Trendence, asked 6,000 students in Irish universities if they intend to leave the country after graduation to secure a job in their chosen field. 27 per cent answered ‘yes’. In comparison, just 19 per cent of British students surveyed expect to emigrate for their first job.

That Irish students are willing to migrate for work is hardly a new phenomenon, but it does reflect a lack of job opportunities at home that is fast reaching chronic levels. According to the latest available data from Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics office, around one in three of under-25s in Ireland are out of education and without a job.

The situation in Ireland is, unfortunately, anything but unique. The unemployment rate among Spain’s under-25s rose to 50.5pc in January. The youth unemployment situation in Greece is just as bad. Across the rest of Europe’s so-called periphery the situation is scarcely better.

In his 2010 book, The Culture of the New Capitalism, sociologist Richard Sennett talks of a ‘spectre of uselessness’ that haunts workers, particularly in the west. ‘A defining image of the Great Depression in the 1930s,’ Sennett writes, ‘shows men clustered outside the gates of a shuttered factory, waiting for work, despite the evidence of there own eyes. The image still disturbs because the spectre of uselessness has not ended.’

To visit to any one of the lengthening dole queues across Ireland is to see this uselessness in action, or, more correctly, inaction. As I discovered recently on a visit to my local social welfare office in the Midlands, the lines of the unemployed in Ireland are packed with intelligent young people. Many have college educations. Some lost their jobs in the downturn, but more still have never had a job, they emerged from university into a country without work. All are waiting for their benefits or to apply for jobs that simply do not exist.

Official unemployment in Ireland has been hovering around 15 per cent for a couple of years now. Without emigration it would doubtless be higher – especially among young people.

It is a dereliction of duty among Ireland’s political classes to rely on London, Sydney and Toronto to solve the nation’s unemployment problem – just as it was for Michael Noonan, earlier this year, to describe the decision to leave the country as ‘a lifestyle’.

The European Union has, for once, been relatively quick to appreciate the scale of the unfolding crisis. The Commission, under the “Youth Opportunities Initiative”, is proposing to redirect €30 billion of uncommitted European Social Fund money to help develop the employability of young people across the region.

Following a European Council meeting in January, EU President Barroso wrote to the eight member states with youth unemployment levels significantly above the EU average: Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Lithuania, Italy, Portugal, Latvia and Ireland. In his letter President Barroso wrote that, ‘We need to make a special effort to boost growth and tackle the problem of youth unemployment.’ Barroso went on to say that Ireland should set up an action team to come up with a strategy for getting young people back to work.

Speaking in the Dail during a visit from Commission officials in February, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, as expected, praised the President’s initiative but stopped short of committing funds to new youth unemployment strategies. ‘We will, in the first instance, be looking at whether employment programmes might be re-focused to better effect,’ Kenny told the house.

In truth, it should not take a letter from the European President for Irish politicians to realise the breath of the problem. Last year, the National Youth Council of Ireland published a report entitled ‘Youth Unemployment in Ireland: A Forgotten Generation’. Its findings make for grim reading: 90 per cent of respondents said that being unemployed had negatively effected their sense of well-being; more than half said the quality of jobs information provided at social welfare offices was ‘unsatisfactory’ or ‘poor’; and seven in ten said they were likely to emigrate in the following twelve months.

When it comes to youth unemployment, identifying the problem is likely to prove much easier than solving it. This is, in part, an effect of what the Harvard economist Richard Freeman calls ‘the Great Doubling’: in the two decades after 1989 the world’s labour force grew from 1.5 billion to 3 billion people. As the amount of labour doubled, its value was reduced, and continues to be reduced. In the US real wages have not grown since the late 1970s, while in the UK (if not Ireland) wages have been stagnated for a number of years too.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) puts youth unemployment at 74.6 million people across the world. Before our eyes we are witnessing the emergence of what Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason calls ‘a new sociological type: the graduate with no future’.

Next month the ILO will host hundreds of young people for a forum in Geneva on youth unemployment. Answers to the problem won’t come easy. The historic level of debt in the global economy is not simply going to disappear – but there may be creative solutions that small countries such as Ireland could experiment with, including the introduction of shorter working weeks and increased job sharing.

Last month I gave a presentation on the subject of unemployment to a group of students at NUIM Maynooth. After spending an hour comparing and contrasting the situation facing young people in Europe and Africa, I asked the audience how confident they themselves felt about getting a job. Most were silent, but those that did speak said they expected never to use the degrees they would graduate in. If this does come to pass, we could be looking at the largest ‘lost generation’ in living memory.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Post, April 2012.


Book Review: David Harvey – Rebel Cities

Last January 25, over 50,000 people occupied in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, in protest at the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Less than a week later, the number of protestors in the square and surrounding streets had swelled to more than one million. On February 11, Mubarak resigned as president of Egypt.

On May 15, thousands took to the streets of Madrid and Barcelona to campaign against corruption, bank bailouts and a proposed law restricting internet access. As in Cairo, the demonstrators were mainly young, well-educated and under-employed. Within two days ‘indignados’ had appropriated over 30 public spaces cities and towns across Spain, in a wave of occupations that was to inspire similar movements everywhere from Wall Street and Oakland to Dame Street and Lagos.

‘There is something political in the city air struggling to be expressed’, David Harvey notes midway through this thoughtful, prescient collection of his recent essays and articles. Harvey, a British Marxist geographer based at the City University of New York, has spent a lifetime interrogating the nexus between capitalism and urbanism.

Rebel Cities sees Harvey bring the full force of his analytical mind to bear on the question of just what this inchoate ‘something’ might be, and why it is emerging most prominently in cities.

The slight collection is framed by Harvey’s twin interests in the urban: cities are pivotal sites for capital accumulation and investment, but yet are also, and increasingly so, the location of social and political struggles. This loose division of intellectual labour – between capital accumulation and class struggle – frames the book’s two halves. In the opening chapters (leaning heavily on his theoretical lodestars Karl Marx and French social theorist Henri Lefebrve) Harvey outlines why cities are so important for capitalism. The latter sections are devoted to identifying why cities often make the ideal incubators for ferment and, ultimately, rebellion against the status quo.

Harvey is a committed Marxist who was never seduced by New Labour and Anthony Giddens’ Third Way. From his 1973 work Social Justice and the City to 2010’s The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism, Harvey has consistently exhibited a flexibility and innovation of thought conspicuous by its absence among many of his contemporaries, inside and outside the academy.

Indeed he is one of the few writers on economics to emerge with his reputation enhanced by the global meltdown. Commenting on the proliferation of mortgage debt in the United States in his 2003 work The New Imperialism, Harvey wrote, ‘what happens if and when this property bubble bursts is a matter for serious concern’.

In Rebel Cities, Harvey’s central tenet is that cities are integral to capitalism: it is only by construction and ‘creative destruction’ in urban centres that surpluses can be profitably deployed. Urbanisation solves – or at least appears to solve – the problem of over-accumulation. Constructing, say, airports or apartment blocks delays a crisis of over-accumulation by putting immediate surpluses to use and shifting returns into the future, in the form of expected profits.

It doesn’t take a distinguished scholar to appreciate the dangers of this ploy. As more and more ‘fictitious capital’ is submerged into speculative activity, the threat of an even greater crisis of over-accumulation grows: ‘Speculatively, the asset markets constituted by housing and land have a Ponzi character without a Bernie Madoff at the top.’

When the emperor is revealed to be naked all along – as in Ireland after the 2008 credit crunch – house values plummet amid rampant over-supply and crisis ensues.

The deepest economic crisis for 80 years has created the material conditions for urban tumult on a scale unparalleled in living memory. Meanwhile, the organized left, from trade unions to political parties, has struggled to articulate a creative route out of this impasse for the growing legion of jobless graduates and the unemployed.

One reason for this, as Harvey recognizes, is that an insecure, low paid workforce that is disorganized and predominantly urban has largely usurped the traditional industrial ‘proletariat’. Think of the twenty-somethings with their laptops camping out in Zuccotti Park in New York. This new ‘precariat’ have little time for hierarchical politics, but are forming new alliances around issues as diverse as working conditions and the environment.

Written in terse, economical prose, Rebel Cities is a readable (and timely) introduction to the work of one of the world’s most influential social thinkers. While the chapters on urbanization and monopoly rent had this reviewer reaching for his dusty copies of Marx’s Capital, anyone who has ever wondered why cities look increasingly similar will find the discussions on the role of cultural producers in, often unwittingly, aiding the homogenization of urban space engrossing.

Harvey acknowledges that ‘what we academics so often forget is the role played by the sensibility that arises out of the streets around us.’ It is an omission that Rebel Cities goes a long way to addressing.

This book review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post.

Between the Lines

In 1971, a parliamentary Working Group criticised the speed with which walls, gates and fences were being put up to separate Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. The ‘peace lines’, constructed mainly by the British army, were creating an ‘atmosphere of abnormality’, the Peace Walls Working Group warned. But they did ‘not expect any insurmountable difficulty in bringing together well-meaning people from both sides’, and believed that before long, the barricades would come down; ‘normality’ would return.

Gates in a 'peace line', Lanark Way, West Belfast. © Laurence Cooley 2005

Dismantling the ‘peace lines’ wasn’t a requirement of the Good Friday Agreement. Between 2000 and 2007, seven new barriers were put up and 16 old ones rebuilt or extended. Their history long predates the Troubles, too. In the mid 19th century, the route of the Dublin-Belfast railway was planned deliberately to separate Catholic Pound Loney from Protestant Sandy Row. In 1935, after weeks of sporadic violence in Belfast’s Docklands, with Loyalist snipers firing into nearby Catholic areas, the military built a large fence across Nelson Street.

The corrugated iron fence that bisects Alexandra Park in North Belfast is 120 metres long and 3.5 metres high. Its foundations were laid on 1 September 1994, the day after the army council of the Provisional IRA had announced a ‘complete cessation of military operations’. Seven months ago, a ‘peace gate’ was opened in the fence. Between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., you can walk from the Loyalist Shore Road end of the park to Republican Antrim Road without having to take a half-hour detour. The North Belfast Interface Network, a community group that spent three years canvassing local residents before the gate was opened, reports no incidents of violence in the park since September.

For civic boosters, however, this modest achievement can’t begin to compete with the centenary of the Titanic’s maiden voyage (the ship was built in Belfast). Sixty million pounds of public money was plunged into Eric Kuhne’s shimmering Titanic Belfast ‘experience’, with millions more in PFIs for the Titanic Quarter redevelopment project. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s community sector is reeling from a succession of cuts. The North Belfast Interface Network, which employs five staff in a poky office near Solitude, the home of Cliftonville FC, is struggling to stay afloat. Last year it received £165,000 in funding. For 2012, it has so far secured only £62,000.

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

Will Titanic Quarter Sink?

The Titanic Quarter in Belfast was meant to signal the rebirth of the city, but a downturn in the property market has raised fears about its viability, writes Peter Geoghegan.

The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, a century ago today, but in Belfast the ship’s memory is more alive now than it has ever been. On High Street, Titanic tour buses jostle for space. Around the corner, on Little Donegall Street, the newly minted Titanic Bar has replaced a dilapidated snooker hall. Titanic gimcrack, everything from t-shirts to chocolate, abounds in city centre gift shops.

The main attraction for maritime buffs and curious locals alike is Titanic Belfast, a £97 million ‘experience’ built in the shadow of the slipway on which the ship was launched into Belfast Lough on May 31 1911. Constructed by Todd Architects, working to a design by internationally renowned architect Eric Kuhne, the shimmering structure is a startling addition to the Belfast skyline.

The 125ft tall, glistening silver shell of Titanic Belfast consciously references the prows of four ocean-liners, the logo of White Star Line, the company which commissioned the ship, and, most surprisingly, the ice-berg on which the ill-fated vessel ran aground so fatefully.

Inside, original photographs, CGI animation, 3D imagery and a suspension ride through a mock-up of the Harland and Wolff shipyards tell the tale of the Titanic from its construction in then boomtown Belfast to its eventual demise. ‘Titanic Belfast is iconic not just in its design but in the story that it tells,’ Tim Husbands, CEO of Titanic Belfast Limited told the Sunday Business Post.

For decades after 1912, the Titanic was a source of shame for many in the shipyards and across Northern Ireland, seldom talked about and certainly never celebrated. ‘It was only when Dr (Robert) Ballard filmed the wreck in 1985 and then Mr Cameron made his movie (Titanic) that we had the confidence to do something like this,’ said Mr Husbands.

Titanic Belfast is the centre point of Titanic Quarter, a public-private development on a 184-acre site about a mile east of Belfast city centre. Formerly known as Queens Island, it was here that Belfast’s famous shipyards were located – Samson and Goliath, the iconic yellow Harland and Wolff cranes, still tower over the site.

Since 2005, Titanic Quarter Limited has been joint owned by Pat Doherty’s Harcourt Developments and financier Dermot Desmond, with land provided by site owners Belfast Harbour Commissioners. Ambitious plans for the Titanic Quality development have been stalled by the downturn in the Northern Irish housing market, but a number of apartment complexes have been built as well as a Premier Inn hotel, which opened in 2010. Belfast Metropolitan College, with over 17,000 students, and the Northern Ireland Public Records Office are based in Titanic Quarter too.

‘We think Titanic Quarter has the potential to pull people into Belfast to give them a reason to come to Belfast,’ said Michael Graham, Director of Corporate Real Estate, Titanic Quarter Limited.

Speaking from the renovated Edwardian director’s dining room of Harland and Wolff, which has become the headquarters of Titanic Quarter Limited, Graham outlined a dramatic vision for a sprawling site that remains largely brownfield. ‘It’ll take a little while but the overall cost of the project could be anything up to £8-£10 bn,’ he said.

A vast, scale model of the Titanic Quarter, featuring yet to be constructed waterfront hotels, business parks and residential buildings, dominates the ground floor of the company’s headquarters. For Graham, Titanic Quarter is a 100-year plan for the former shipyards, which were themselves built on land reclaimed from Belfast Lough in the 1830s.

Central to this vision of a new city on the banks of Belfast Lough is Eric Kuhne’s plans for a series of radial ‘villages’, comprised of apartment blocks interspersed with green spaces. ‘Ultimately we envisage around 30,000 people living here and around 25,000-30,000 working in the area,’ commented Michael Graham.

However, the Titanic Quarter development has struggled. Although most of the 600 or so apartments already built were sold off the plans, Northern Ireland’s housing market contraction means many properties currently lie empty. A string of retail premises on the site are completely empty, save for a single coffee shop.

The hope now is that Titanic Belfast will give the area a new impetus. Tim Husbands, CEO of Titanic Belfast, estimates that 600 jobs were created during the construction of the building and that the centre will provide 250 permanent jobs.

It is proving a popular attraction: Titanic Belfast has been sold out since it opened, with Mr Husbands estimating that 20,000 people visited in the first week alone. ‘Demand has been huge, we have had people coming from all over the world,’ he said.

Mr Husbands anticipates Titanic Belfast receiving 450,000 visitors this year. But doubts remain about the long-term viability of a centre with such a specific purpose and, at £13.50 for an adult, a high entry price.

A report published in December by the Northern Ireland Audit described the long-term future of Titanic Belfast as ‘doubtful’ and expressed concern that the 290,000 visitors needed every year to break even would not materalise. The report, which also drew attention to the exclusive development rights enjoyed by Titanic Quarter Limited in Titanic Quarter, concluded that: ‘Compared to other world class attractions, the Titanic Signature Building will be one of the most expensive relative to the number of visitors it expects to attract.’

Titanic Belfast was built with £60million of public funds. Mark Hackett, co-director of Forum for Alternative Belfast (FAB), is concerned that Titanic Quarter will become a ‘parallel city’, with Belfast’s less affluent residents effectively excluded. ‘More and more we’ve seen the division between rich and poor as the new division in Belfast,’ said Mr Hackett, one of the lead architects behind the newly MAC arts centre in the Cathedral Quarter.

Along with many conservation groups, Mr Hackett questioned the raising of the Titanic Quarter site in the early years of the millennium, which took place before development began. ‘We could have used the old buildings, fixed them, involved new objects to make an incredible post-industrial expo/conference centre/museum. But we didn’t do that,’ he said.

Glenn Patterson, one of Northern Ireland’s most celebrated novelists and an aficionado of Belfast history, is more circumspect about the new development: ‘As a building, Titanic Belfast is a very interesting addition to the cityscape. You can no more be against it than you can be against the weather. You can only take about it.’

Patterson’s latest novel, The Mill for Grinding Old People Young, is set in Belfast in 1831, at a time when the act to create the Victoria Channel was going through parliament. The channel, designed to improve access for ships to Belfast Port, created Queens Island, which was a public park before becoming home to arguably the world’s most famous shipyards.

According to Patterson, the unintended effect of dredging the Victoria Chanel – the creation of the shipbuilding industry – deftly demonstrates that ‘you don’t know what the consequences of something are going to be’. It’s a maxim that could be applied to Titanic Quarter today.

‘We don’t what the effect of all this redevelopment is going to be. The interesting question is “what will the effect of all this be in 100 years time”?’

This article appeared in the Sunday Business Post, April 15.