In the past few weeks, I have been working abroad in the US and the Gulf. The one thing you realise when working abroad, from talking to people and listening to what is going on, is that the world is not waiting for Ireland to get its act together. The world is moving on, facing new challenges.
The world economy, seen from where I am now in Abu Dhabi, looks to be motoring along. Obviously, there are economic worries in this region, which is so dependent on world growth. A major concern is China – whether it is the largest credit bubble the world has ever seen. People are also concerned that India is losing its way.
There is the ever-present worry about geopolitics. People here worry that a bruised US, under Barack Obama, will not be the ‘policeman’ that this part of the world has come to expect. It is clear that the US has no stomach for Iraq mark 2 in Syria. This vacuum is creating nervousness in the oil states, and this angst is particularly elevated by the revolutions in other Arab countries.
Iran’s continued support for the Assad regime in Syria, pitting it against Saudi Arabia for supremacy in the region, is rarely far from conversations. The oil-rich states continue the policy of buying peace and prosperity, using oil revenues to make sure there is no repeat of a Tunisia, Libya or Egypt in the gleaming petro-cities of the Gulf.
With all this talk here about “who might undermine whom” next, the peaceful achievements of the EU shouldn’t be underestimated. Imagine a Europe where the talk was about which big bully was going to finance which revolution in what neighbouring state next?
Even those worried about the European economy know the last 60 years of European history have been quite remarkable in terms of what has been achieved.
This is why recent political trends and the aloofness of Europe’s political elite are so worrying, because in this recession there have been winners and losers and the trends are now quite definitive.
While much comment post-Italian election is focused on the euro, austerity and debts, there is something much, much greater going on in Europe, the Arab world and Ireland. It is a generational war, where the young are paying a much harsher price in the recession than the middle-aged. This is a very serious problem and one which could define politics in the decades ahead.
At the moment, we do not have the political language to deal with this issue. A few years ago, I wrote a book, The Generation Game, about how this generational divide may play out in Ireland. Since then, the global generational conundrum has got worse, not better, and politics hasn’t dealt with it at all.
So we are still using the old 19th century rhetoric -‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘centre’ and ‘radical’, ‘nationalism’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’ – but these terms don’t capture the essential fact that young people all over the world are not getting a fair stake in their societies.
On practically every indicator – employment, unemployment, wages, pensions, wealth and opportunity – the old are holding on to their gains and the young are paying the price.
The contrast between the decent wages and guaranteed, or partially-guaranteed, pensions of the old, and the yellow-pack wages and zero pensions of the young could not be starker.
In Ireland, of course, this generational divide is heightened, because many young people are caught in negative equity, while those who bought their homes in the 1970s, 1980s or even 1990s are still “quids in” in terms of wealth.
Here’s what the UN has to say about the generational divide in its most recent report on world youth unemployment: “With almost 74 million people in the 15 to 24 age group unemployed around the world, translating into a 12.4 per cent unemployment rate for this subset, job prospects for the world’s younger workers are looking increasingly bleak.”
In Ireland, figures published last week put youth unemployment at 15.9 per cent – and this is only because so many of the youth category have already emigrated. Many young people are on temporary contracts and are paid a pittance just to gain experience.
One way to look at the Croke Park agreement is through the prism of the age divide. When an economy like Ireland is not growing, the pie is fixed and isn’t getting any bigger. The resources of the country are limited. In such cases, national wage agreements are an exercise in divvying up this pie. It is a resource-allocating game. So for one section to gain, another has to lose.
Seen from this angle, there is a monumental struggle going on between the generations. The old are looting the young by ringfencing their pensions, wages and working conditions.
In contrast, the young are having to live off the slim pickings that are left; we can see this in higher unemployment, lower wages, and temporary conditions. In short, the stake of the young in society is becoming more precarious.
This generational divide may well be the defining political issue of our age. Thus far, politics hasn’t deployed language to deal with it.
Indeed, another way of looking at things might be that many of the young who are voting for the ‘left’ all over the world may be cannibalising their own prosperity because the traditional left are now in the business of preserving the status quo through initiatives, like the Croke Park agreement, which overwhelmingly favour the old.
Similarly, all over Europe, the status quo as represented by the political elite’s adherence to low-growth eurocentric policies, favours the old over the young, and it is clear that the young are suffering.
This “young versus old” dilemma links the Arab Spring to the politics of Europe and Ireland. The original impetus of the Arab Spring came from the young on the streets wanting their stake in society.
Something similar may materialise in Europe, but we just haven’t yet come up with the political language to describe such a movement.