The construction boom masked the longer-term transformational changes that are going on in Ireland, and all western economies
An Israeli friend of mine who advised one of the most embattled Israeli administrations of recent years told me that the key with any crisis was to get through the first two days.
Then the problem you thought was insurmountable would be superseded and eclipsed by the next one.
This two-day rule allowed that particular government to stay in power – reasonably successfully – for a full term, despite a multitude of crises.
Irrespective of whether you are in politics or business, in a crisis, time horizons shorten dramatically. It is a case of just getting through one panic to be able to meet the next challenge. But if our time horizons shorten dramatically, how do we see the big picture? If we are all focused on the next crater in the road, who is keeping an eye on where we are actually going?
Sometimes listening to the debate in Ireland and watching the constant firefighting, it is hard not to get the sense that few are focusing on what type of country we are going to be in a few years time. What are the consequences of the Great Irish Depression and what legacy will we be dealing with?
At the height of the boom, in 2004, the character Breakfast Roll Man came tome as I was having a coffee, looking out the window and watching the world going by the Spar in Inchicore. He was a loveable lad, working on the sites, making good money and spending it. He wasn’t the most academic as he pulled on his Johnny Blue and flirted with the Lithuanian check-out girl. He was an Irish male, in a job, with a future and he was having fun. But most crucially, he was looking forward to a future which could be planned. He had prospects and thus self-respect. More to the point, he didn’t have a short-time horizon; he was making plans for the next few years.
Now he and hundreds of thousands of Irish lads like him are among the major victims of the recession. And, if trends in other countries are anything to go by, the long-term legacy of the recession will be felt permanently in this class – young men without educational qualifications. We are having a ‘mancession’ in Ireland. A ‘mancession’ is a recession which affects young men disproportionately.
Looking at the live register figures published last Thursday by the CSO, this idea — the mancession — is borne out by the numbers. It is not that women are not losing their jobs, but that there are simply so many more men idle. We know that there are many reasons for this, but it is clear that the Mancession is one of the enduring legacies of the slump. There are 296,000 men on the dole as opposed to 172,000women, and the biggest increase in unemployment has come among men. When you examine the figure for long-term unemployed, an even more dramatic picture is painted.
According to the CSO: ‘‘The number of long-term claimants on the live register in August 2011 was 191,578.The number of male long-term claimants increased by 30,488 (up 28.3 per cent) in the year to August 2011.”
The gradual erosion of the economic strength of this less-educated group of young men has been going on in the western world for some time now. The building boom in Ireland masked this because the Breakfast Roll Men were gainfully employed on the sites.
In fact, just as the housing boom made the broad middle class in Ireland feel richer than they were, the construction bonanza made Breakfast Roll Man feel more secure than he actually was. By giving relatively well-paid work to so many young lads, the construction boom masked the longer-term transformational changes that are going on in Ireland, and all western economies.
The construction boom offset the reduction in manual manufacturing jobs where these men would, in the past, have found work. So for a decade or so, the boom on building sites obscured the employment implication for young men of fundamental changes in manufacturing.
Therefore, one way of looking at it is that the housing boom minimised the ‘penalty’ for not going on to more education and getting more training. Now it has been cruelly exposed.
Over the past three decades, the major change is the gradual fall in the average wage of the manual working man. In the US, the average wage for working men is, in real terms, now 32 per cent lower than it was in 1973.
If you look at the sectors worldwide that are now growing, they value the analytical mind where a premium is put on creative people who can work in teams. This appears to be favouring women, and we can see these developments in the service sector in Ireland, and the growing feminisation of professions such as law and medicine.
Another significant development is in education where, in Ireland, girls on average do much better than boys in their Leaving Cert and subsequently in college. A lecturer friend of mine from one of the big universities is amazed at the quality of the girls in his course and underwhelmed by the young men. This observation is again seen in the different grades achieved by men and women graduates.
Needless to say, there are many thousands of brilliant young men working and doing well in Ireland. However, the big trends regarding male opportunity are significant and, if not addressed, will have enormous consequences for society. If the mancession is allowed to take its course, the political implications of having hundreds of thousands of idle, bored and ultimately angry young men are all too obvious.
Ireland’s mancession is real. You can see it on street corners. You can see it in country towns as well as big cities, and it is not just economic. It is social, emotional and psychological too.
Just ask any parent with an unemployed son hanging around the house. At the moment, the government is firefighting the latest crisis and this gives no one the opportunity to see how the recession is actually affecting the fabric of our country.
As they say in football, the real general is the midfielder who is keeping his head when everyone around him is losing theirs. Is there such a person among our ruling and political class who will put the long-term interest of our people above everything else? At the moment, we are turning the country into a large debt-servicing agency, choosing debt servitude over economic vibrancy.
This won’t cut dole queues; it will protect those who already have wealth at the expense of those who don’t even have a wage. As male unemployment rises and rises, how long do you think these young lads will loaf around aimlessly before they realise that there is more to life than daytime TV, a few cans and Call Of Duty? How long will it be until they get really pissed off? And what then?