Clichés are used all the time to side-step debate and reinforce lazy assumptions, but some, at least, have truth in them. Anyone too young to remember the 1980s must now surely have the odious phrase “you have never had it so good” ringing very loudly in their ears. It was a sentiment we were raised on, readily deployed by our parents or superiors whenever we complained too much or languished in self-pity. But it was, at least in many ways, true.
Until the house of cards (or should it be of ‘houses’?) came crashing down, the Irish had come to regard low taxes and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world as a given. This was the world a student could expect to live and work in after college. Whatever disappointments we encountered along the way, there was always the promise that, out in ‘the real world’, things would be better for us than previous generations. Now, for the first time in a long time, this is no longer the case.
In May, I walked out of a university lecture theatre for the last time and in September I graduated. Life since then has held both the sweet taste of opportunity and the sombre feeling of the loss of it. Days before my last exam I was offered what, as an aspiring journalist, was a dream job in a national newspaper. Then in November I was let go and the term ‘recession’ became more to me than just a word that endlessly filled newspaper headlines. For a while, I bumbled between temporary jobs like some directionless daddy long-legs, before eventually biting the bullet and paying a visit to my local dole office.
When you sign-on for the first time you lose many of your preconceptions about social welfare and its recipients. Suddenly you are aware that it isn’t just the lazy or the apathetic that collect the dole, it is also people who have no other choice. By the end of this year, up to 70,000 people with hard-earned third level qualifications will be among those who don’t have a choice. It would be foolish and arrogant to suggest that recent graduates and those about to graduate are hurting more than most at the moment – for the most part we don’t have other mouths to feed or mortgages to pay.
Nonetheless, as a graduate it is hard to escape a feeling of disillusionment with what we are to inherit. On our road to the world of work we were nourished on two, now hollow-seeming, principles: firstly, that western civilisation is ever-progressing, and that every new generation is better off than the previous one.
And secondly, despite whatever obstacles you may face, if you work hard you will succeed in life. Nice ideas, indeed, but what is the point of studying for three or four years only to be told, as I was in a certain fast food outlet, that even flipping burgers is a job which is out your reach. Most people don’t expect a free ride or an easy passage, but unless there is ladder there for people to try and climb, hopelessness is inevitable. Whatever measures Mr. Cowen and company propose tomorrow, they must at least leave people – graduates or otherwise - with the sense that shaping their own destiny is within their power. Feelings of powerlessness will only serve to prolong this mess.
But despite it all, there is reason for some optimism. Remember that irritating phrase about never having it so good? The expression was coined in 1957 in a speech celebrating the success of Britain’s post-war economy by the then British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. If there was truth in that expression in the wake of the most horrific war the world has ever seen, then surely we can get through this current economic nightmare. In time, I’m sure there will once again be good reason to drive young people mad with that infuriating refrain: “you have never had it so good”.