The other day a friend of mine, driven demented by her son, screamed: “Will he ever grow up?”
The son in question, a really nice young man – clever, sociable, kind and very funny – is still living at home, aged 26. So too are most of his friends.
His mother, knocking back the pinot grigio, asked rhetorically: “What were we doing at 26? We had flats, jobs, we’d lived in London or New York, and we were independent.”
While it’s true that each generation laments the failings of the next generation, when dropping my own children to the Dart on their way to school this week, this friend’s observation struck me as very important.
Growing up is difficult. There can be little doubt about it. Yet moving from the state of emotional, moral and financial dependency to emotional, moral and financial independence is a part of how the person becomes a fully involved member of the society. Ideally, this should start to happen in the late teens and should be finished by or before the late 20s.
The traditional route to independence goes through five broad phases, which can vary from person to person, but usually goes along this pretty well-accepted cycle:
1. Leave school
2. Leave home
3. Become financially independent of parents
4. Settle down with someone
5. Have a child
It is essential that the economy, which should be merely the facilitator of process, encourages the move from dependence to independence for our population in their 20s.
One of my fears, looking at the plight of twentysomethings in this country, is that despite all the energy, brains, enthusiasm, creativity, the fun, optimism and potential, the economic opportunity is stacked against them. This lack of economic opportunity is retarding the move from dependence to independence. This is the best-educated generation of Irish twentysomethings ever, yet they are not achieving their potential early. And not getting started early has costs.
Before examining the costs, consider the following:
The proportion of Irish “dependants” aged 18-30 who are living at home stands at 42 per cent. This is despite having the highest emigration in Europe in this particular demographic.
In total, 440,000 Irish people, aged 18 or over, still live with their parents. One reason has to be the very high levels of Irish youth unemployment. The Irish youth unemployment rate is 25 per cent, which, although down from 31 per cent in February 2012, is still incredibly high. Of those twentysomethings in work, many thousands are on unpaid internships.
For example, 86,000 people are working in publicly funded ‘labour activation schemes’ such as JobBridge. This number has nearly doubled in four years – up from 45,000 in 2009.
Now, 28.6 per cent of interns eventually progressed to employment with their host organisation, but this meant that 71 per cent didn’t.
Ireland is full of unemployed or underemployed young people, and this problem has costs which are much greater than simply annoying their mother with washing and borrowing the car.
In the US, where they have data for the long-term impact of unemployment and underemployment on twentysomethings, the evidence is truly shocking. The lasting negative impact of not getting started on the career path in your 20s is unambiguous.
Research carried out by journalist and writer Don Peck from the American magazine The Atlantic found that the psychological impact of being unemployed in your 20s is extraordinary. People who are unemployed at this crucial time are much more likely to suffer from depression in later life. They cling more tightly to jobs and become incredibly risk-averse. Their wages, over the entire span of their working life, never recover to the level of people who have jobs in their 20s.
They are much more likely to be alcoholics, and to beat their partners. Their physical health deteriorates. Amazingly, people who lose their job just when they are getting started, in the 27-30 age bracket, have shorter life-spans (one and a half years) than those who never lost their job. Some research in the US contends that long-term unemployment is the emotional equivalent of losing your spouse.
A person’s confidence can be permanently shattered by the loss of opportunity in their 20s. In short, they settle for much less over the course of their entire lives. Unemployment affects the quality of our relationships because it affects the quality of our relationships with ourselves – our self-worth.
The affirming process of moving from dependency to independence, is retarded by the lazy notion that the twentysomethings have time on their side. Sometimes we hear older people, when confronted by underperformance of our twentysomethings, retort that the young ones have lots of time and things will pan out.
But things don’t pan out. Things get worse. In a person’s life, nothing is more urgent than now. Tomorrow can wait but today can’t. Today determines tomorrow. If we leave young adults to drift, that’s exactly what they will do. They will drift from one dead-end job to another without ever amassing the knowledge, discipline and savvy to get the best out of themselves.
This is why all our economic resources should be focused on intervention in the labour market for young people to give them a chance. Maybe drastically reducing the tax bill on younger workers or giving tax credit to companies that employ the under-30s could help.
The worst thing we can do is have a recovery and not use it to help the people who will eventually help us.
We know that the economic fortunes of twentysomethings have a profound effect on their lives. We also know that confident twentysomethings can do wonderful things. What age were Page and Brin when they set up Google? What age was Zuckerberg when he set up Facebook?
Brilliant things happen when optimistic people in their 20s reach for the sky. We should never forget that.