In the late 1980s, Bruges University was full of European students. Those from Ireland were in their early 20s and were marked out for export. They had all graduated, were doing post-graduates and weren’t planning to go back to Ireland. They were also the youngest at college by far – at least five, if not ten years younger than their European counterparts. The Germans, in particular, were much older and most of them had no intention of getting a job after they left. This was just another step in their education. . Who paid for all this? Their parents or the State or both, apparently.
In contrast, all of the Irish scoured the papers for jobs. They knew that this was the end of the line – bills to be paid, work to be done and a big bad world to be embraced. Most of the Irish were to stay on the continent but for others London and New York beckoned. Back then, as our educated German counterparts studied, travelled and found themselves, the Irish students went to work.
As the Germans questioned what their country and their parents had become, the Irish thanked their blessings for a job. As they worried about the Green Party and the environment, we feared American immigration officers. As they re-invented themselves, we made up social security numbers. The reason for this was simple: the Germans were second-generation wealthy while the Irish were still poor.
Fast-forward to Ireland today and we see some remarkably similar trends emerging. Like the Germans of the 1970s and 1980s, more young Irish twentysomethings are going to university than ever before and they are staying longer than ever before. When they do get out, thousands are taking a “year or two out”. A large proportion of our young travellers reject what Ireland has become. They want something different. Like Germans 20 years ago, they are turning their backs on the vulgarity of modern Ireland and its obsessions with economics, finance and wedding planners.
Many regard Ireland’s materialism with suspicion at best, contempt at worst. There are plenty of young Irish people who feel that there is more to us than Heat magazine, Brown Thomas charge cards, property prices, 06 registrations, Man Utd strips and Puerto Banus.
They believe that all the above is superficial, generic and ultimately a useless betrayal of what we are. There must be more to Ireland than a vast ATM churning out crisp fifties. They are looking for something else, something deeper, something authentic that can’t be bought. They are searching for the distinct in all this blandness. They are looking for the something that makes us special. They are searching for community in all this individualism. There must be more to the Irish than SUVs. Otherwise, we are just suburban America with bad weather.
The other week I was talking to Pat, a farmer and businessman from Thurles. He was perplexed that his son Michael – who had just left college – felt so angry. Traditionally, Michael would have taken over the farm but instead he is about to take off for Cambodia. He claimed to have no interest in coming back. His mates, from Roscrea, are practising yoga in an Indian ashram. They are going to hook up in Ho Chi Minh City at Christmas and head for Australia. These lads, in their early 20s, are disillusioned with Ireland, yet they are the country’s future. Or are they?
They are the first generation of Irish people ever to act like a leisured class. They were born in the 1980s and they were teenagers in the later 1990s. They are the children of the property boom. According to Amarach (the economic consultancy) property inheritance alone will amount to ï¿½4bn this year. While not the direct beneficiaries of this, our young “year-outers” are aware of this windfall, which obviously influences their lifestyle choices. Their parents, who worked and are, in many cases, still working flat-out, can’t understand their blasï¿½ attitude and lofty expectations. The question for the future is whether the year-outers will ever deliver on their expectations? Are they the future or will somebody else inherit the country?
The reality of modern Ireland is that for every Irish slacker kid leaving, there are two immigrants with their shirts rolled up coming in, working, paying back debts, sending money home and climbing up the ladder. Pat, Michael’s father, employs 40 Polish workers. They are all in their late teens or early 20s and without them, if he had to rely on his son and his friends, his business would be in trouble.
Who are these foreigners who seem content to do our manual jobs, live four to a room and work all the hours God gave? Just look in the mirror: they are what we were. They are the same type of people who we sent out into the world in the late 1980s. Figures on emigration at the time, reveal that Ireland exported its best and brightest. Between 1986 and 1992, one in four Irish graduates left the country.
So we were exporting five times as many graduates as unskilled workers. Contrary to popular belief, the elite emigrated. We exported an emigre aristocracy and that pattern is being repeated today all over the world. A recent ESRI study revealed that only 3pc of our immigrants as opposed to over 30pc of our indigenous workforce left school without basic qualifications.
So what are the long-term implications of work-shy, Irish middle-class kids heading off to see the world at the same time as educated Polish kids come here to work as hard as they can? Internationally, studies from Israel offer some interesting answers. Israel, as the Jewish homeland, has experienced three separate waves of major mass immigration on the scale we are experiencing at present.
The most recent occurred in the early 1990s when 800,000 Jews from the Soviet Union immigrated. This constituted about 14pc of the population – close to the proportion of foreign born people now living in Ireland. Initially in Tel Aviv, the Russian immigrants took any job they could. Wages at the bottom end were pushed down as a consequence – much the same as is happening here.
The debate focussed on displacement, low wages and worker protection. At first, the middle classes were left largely untouched. As far as they were concerned, if the immigrants brought down the cost of plumbing, dry cleaning and home security, this was fine.
But the Israeli middle classes, just like the Irish middle classes, were living in a dream-world because it was only a matter of time before the educated immigrants started getting jobs commensurate with their qualifications. This took on average eight years. The debate changed from being one about exploitation to one about competition. The economy grew strongly because the immigrant’s productivity rose rapidly. However, the middle classes – who initially thought they would not suffer – found themselves up against much stiffer opposition in business than they had expected.
The main lesson is that educated immigrants will not do the manual jobs forever. They will move up rapidly and they will elbow out and show-up many of our gilded generation. The lad who is washing your car today will be running the garage tomorrow. The girl who is minding your children will be lecturing tomorrow. When the year-outers get bored of the ashram and finally come home, they will find it much harder to get a job.
Like my German classmates in Bruges – who expected to come home to a standard of living above that of their parents – they might find it tough going with an economy growing less robustly and ambitious immigrants. And crucially, as with so many other issues, it is when the middle classes get hit that we can expect the real political fireworks.