During both Clinton elections in the 1990s, US political analysts identified a new group who were pivotal to the success of any candidate. In 1992, the ‘soccer mom’ became that most prized and elusive of all American voters – the uncommitted, non-partisan swing voter.
Soccer moms voted in their hundreds of thousands for Bill Clinton and by doing so, they guaranteed his double victory.
Soccer moms are the type of young mothers – typically in their thirties – who you see all over our suburbs. Her daily life is one superannuated school run. In the past few years, soccer mums and GAA mums, tennis mums, rugby mums, swimming mums, piano mums and “whatever else your child must do in his hyper-organised after-school life” mums, have come to dominate suburban Ireland.
These women could dictate the next election here if they decide to back a candidate.
They are the product of three major demographic/social trends. First, they are having kids later. Irish first-time mothers are now the oldest in Europe. The mother’s average age for the first child today is just over 30. Second, these mums are the most educated Irish mothers ever. Many have had good careers in their twenties – which explains the postponed conception.
The phenomenon of the front-loaded female career in Ireland (where everything is packed into the first ten years) is very real – much more real than for Irish men. Third, the cost of childcare and the dominance of long-hours in white collar Ireland, forces many women out of the work force just when their male colleagues are coming into their own.
Despite all our talk of an entrepreneurial society, corporate Ireland is dominated by what could be termed the ‘Salatariat’ – this is the well paid, professional salary-men who work extraordinarily long hours for someone else. Typically, the Salatariat take no risks beyond buying second homes in tax-sheltered golf resorts in Lahinch.
The Salatariat is the elite of our new, respectability-obsessed burgeoning middle class. If you wanted to see them at play, the Ryder Cup was the place to be. Never have so many salary-men bunked off work. With three floors of corporate hospitality tents on offer, this was a Bacanallian orgy for bean counters. The place was awash with sensible slacks and Pringle jumpers – all hidden under branded water-proof gear. After the weekend of free beers and soggy canapes, it was back to the desk for another 60-hour week.
This corporate regime (which absorbs time more than energy or ability) pits the two great organisations of the 21st century – the firm and the family – against each other.
As a result, many professional women decide to pack it in after a year or two of trying to juggle career and kids, feeling constantly torn between divided loyalties. Mothers can’t compete with the Salatariat. So Ireland is left with a hyper-educated, assertive, clever, ambitious and aspirational phalanx of “GAA mums”. Although you see them at soccer and hockey clubs, the GAA is where the Irish equivalent of American “soccer moms” congregates. Interestingly in suburban Ireland, the GAA is winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the new middle class. Mothers who never had any dealings with the GAA, either as children or young women, are signing up their kids and getting involved in the GAA over and above other sports. Today’s GAA mums are a very different breed to those who used to make the sandwiches years ago.
They are more Jimmy Choo than Jimmy Barry Murphy and these women could easily determine the next election.
If you want to see the pretty face of this New Ireland, go out to the suburbs of any city or the outskirts of any town this Saturday morning. You will see legions of scrubbed kids in immaculate miniature county colours bailing out of pristine Ford Galaxys with the ubiquitous “baby on board” sign and county flag fixed to the roof. The GAA mum with her trade-mark tied-back hair, stretches her face when she looks in the car mirror – the way women in their thirties do.
She is the world’s finest multi-tasker, taking calls on her mobile while tying the youngest’s laces, finding the eldest’s ballet shoes and making sure everyone knows when and where to be collected. She must have been a formidable employee.
She is chummy without being too clubby, patient without being fawning; but she is steely and competitive. She has lost it once or twice on the sidelines, but generally it’s the over-exuberant, and usually hungover, Dads who let the side down over dodgy refereeing decisions that their short-sightedness prevented them from seeing clearly in the first place.
GAA mum wants the best for her kids and knows how to get it. She didn’t leave the workforce and her pay-packet to be a bad parent. The stakes are high and she knows it. Her fridge door – in her “fabulous” kitchen extension – is a magnetic altar to her children’s full schedule and achievements.
Politically, GAA mums are tolerant and liberal without being left-wing or agitating.
They are the first generation of Irish women to fully benefit from the culture wars of the 1980s and most are old enough to have taken teenage sides in these battles. The vast majority voted for divorce and lower taxes in the 1990s. In company, they are probably smarter than their salary-man husbands but don’t feel the need to show it too often. Many have decided, for the next decade at least, to express themselves through their children – which is a tall order for the child. But at least thousands of our over-tested kids are in the same boat.
In the years ahead, if trends in other countries are repeated, GAA mums will initiate divorces in large numbers when their children leave the nest. A quick glance at today’s lonely hearts ads suggests that this is already happening. Late divorces are a western phenomenon and are a function of prolonged health, independent attitudes, boredom and of course an active secondary market in second-time-around lovers!
Taken together, GAA mums are the most interesting emerging demographic group in the country. They already take all the major decisions in the house from what car is bought to where holidays are taken and what schools the children go to. While the political system has not twigged their importance just yet, it’s clear that most advertisers have.
FOR example, where I live, Cuala, the local GAA team, not the local rugby team is sponsored by the quintessential middle class estate agent , Sherry FitzGerald. Twenty years ago, the rugby team with its professional sheepskin-wearing, hipflask-swilling supporters would have had no competition in the sponsorship field. Today – thanks to GAA mums – the GAA is where the cash is.
If these women decide to engage with the political system to agitate for better childcare, more flexible work conditions, more money for the health system and better looking fit foreign gardeners, next time it will be “Wendy the Waxer”, not “Paddy the Plasterer” that Bertie goes to when in need.