Opinion: there is clearly a growing generational demand for economic, political and social change in Ireland

By Robert Sweeney, University of Leeds

The general election has brought to the fore issues that have been relevant for a long time, some even before the financial crisis, such as health, housing and the cost of living. Though these issues are largely not new, they are taking on a new complexion. Discontent that has been bubbling beneath the surface for several years now, across many layers of society, is now manifesting itself politically in a much more forceful manner. The rise of the young vote as a political force is best described as a previously dormant movement, now no longer willing to acquiesce with business as usual. And the young have plenty about which to be discontented.

I am writing this piece, as an economic policy researcher with TASC, the Think Tank for Action on Social Change, where we have been researching and tracking inequality in Ireland over the past two decades. I am also writing as someone in their thirties who returned to Ireland two years ago, having been away for the best part of a decade after the crash.

Some qualifications to my argument are necessary, as they always are. The division between the young and old has to some extent always been the struggle between rich and poor. After all, those of us on the career ladder grow our earnings as we climb each rung through life.

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, John Burke finds out about the issues which are influence some first-time voters in Limerick and Kilkenny 

The "young" are not a homogeneous group with the same prospects, interests, opportunities and, indeed, desires. Someone born and raised in a working class community is likely to face a starkly different future to someone like me, born and raised in Tramore, a charming but mostly middle class town in Co. Waterford. And it is those who are from the most deprived communities, those with the most cause for rage, who are least likely to turn out and vote. Children of the elite, often instructed and cultivated in the private schools that litter our educational landscape, are another story all together.

Those caveats aside, there are clear generational issues in this cycle. One problem is the seeming inability, or unwillingness, to address the housing crisis. House prices across the developed world have rebounded with a bang, to the benefit of homeowners but to the detriment of renters and those seeking to get on the property ladder, who are mostly younger. Average house prices nationally are now almost seven times average income. This means that owning a home is simply out of reach for the vast majority of us. Indeed, this is an issue that has consistently emerged in our TASC research.

The dysfunction of the Irish system was made all the more stark when my significant other and I recently looked at the property we lived in in Leeds, where we both studied. Now living in Finglas, the privilege of not handing over dead money each month and actually owning our one bedroom apartment would cost us a cool €200,000. Our apartment in Leeds, located in the city centre and of comparable quality, would cost us around £40,000 (€46,966). Leeds, of course, is not a capital city, but is considered the financial centre of the UK outside of London.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Hugh Brennan from the O Cualann Cohousing Alliance on how build new affordable three-bedroom houses for €215,000 in Dublin

We could get a lengthy mortgage. After all, Irish people can look forward to working into their late sixties. This is despite a young population, one of the highest fertility rates in the EU and productivity growth the envy of most mature economies. In short, Ireland’s highly favourable demographic and medium-term economic prospects belie the need to have the highest pension age in the OECD.

The existential threat of global warming is another focal point of generational conflict. It is not hyperbolic to say that it is difficult to think of a greater crime than not addressing climate change. For all the death and destruction that has been inflicted upon peoples – especially by Europeans – none has been so great so as to threaten us all.

Ireland can and should be doing more to ensure climate action is happening and that a "just transition", a transition to an environmentally sustainable economy which does not threaten livelihoods, is in place. As TASC has been recently advocating, many of the policies that are needed should be pursued anyway as good, public policy, such as making homes more energy efficient.

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Carole Coleman meets students making four-hour daily commutes on crowded public transport

Another area is better public transport. My wife grew up in a lower-middle class barra of Rio de Janeiro and complains regularly that Dublin is "worse than Tijuca", where she later lived, and "as bad as Penha", the aforementioned barra. And she’s not wrong. A recent study put Dublin in league with Rome and Rio as one of the most congested major cities, a damning indictment for a city its size. To get from Finglas to Tallaght can take just half an hour by car, but it can three times as long on public transport with traffic. There are basically no buses that connect hub with hub. The transport picture in rural Ireland is not much better. Government policy, which continues to prioritise roads over public transport, means that we will be reliant on cars for many more years to come, despite the writing on the wall.

It’s not just transport and housing that make life more difficult here. The Irish health system is similarly dysfunctional. When we got sick in the UK, we just went to the local student clinic, where you were usually seen that day, without having to pay. It was closed on the weekends, but you could go to another clinic if necessary, again without having to pay. If I had a headache, I could pick up a pack of paracetamol in Tesco for 30p (35c). Of course this is paid through taxation, but the British system is cheaper even on that count. The UK spends less than 10% of their national income on healthcare whereas Ireland spends almost 12%. Presumably, when you take out the profit motive, you get the care you need, not the care that generates income.

All of these intransigent problems should put paid to some popular myths. For instance, Ireland does not have, as is often claimed, one of the highest standards of living in the EU. Eurostat’s actual individual consumption metric is the most comprehensive measure of living standards across the EU. It factors the consumption of both private and public goods and services, and so is superior to other metrics such as income per person. On that measure, we have the 12th highest living standard in the EU, just below Italy and marginally above Cyprus.

The rise of the young vote is an undeniable political force that will determine the governments of the future

The young vote may not be decisive this time round. We may well end up with the same two parties in government as we currently have, albeit with the roles reversed. But the rise of the young vote is an undeniable political force that will determine the governments of the future. In Ireland, the referendums have shown how much appetite there is for cultural change. Clearly, there is growing appetite for economic change too.

Dr Robert Sweeney is an economic policy researcher with TASC, the Think Thank for Action on Social Change


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ