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.