Life Learning

Tuesday 25 July 2017

You are not a ‘lost generation’

Diarmaid Ferriter writes, this recession is not the first, and why the power of education can make Ireland a much better place

ON MORE than a few occasions over the last year it has been asserted that the current generation of Irish students are a "lost generation", rendered helpless by the collapse of the economy and job opportunities.

It’s a label that all those contemplating their options at third level should completely reject. Ireland has faced crisis situations before with regard to its economy and society.

These crises were overcome through a mixture of imagination, creativity, new policies, recognising what was wrong and matching that recognition with a determination to do things differently and most importantly, an intellectual capacity to respond to new ideas.

Those who seek to further their education will be doing precisely what is needed to overcome the current problems the country faces, by equipping themselves with the intellectual capacity to create and respond to new ideas.

I came into UCD in 1989 at another difficult time for Ireland at the end of a decade when many of us believed that an American visa was our ticket to freedom. But we were also a generation of students who believed we could change things; that we could make Ireland a better place, and could be assertive and confident and defiant when we thought it necessary.

We demanded change and often achieved it. Those currently contemplating their post second level options are emphatically not a lost generation.

As is clear from the 1950s or the 1980s, economic downturns are cyclical and inevitable and at some stage we are all affected by one or more of them.

The climate into which you emerge from school is something that was beyond your control. That does not mean young Irish people have to philosophical about it or accepting of it.

As a historian, a phrase that irritates me is another one that has been used a lot in the last year: “we are where we are”. It’s a deliberate ploy to discourage an interrogation of what went wrong and how and why we can learn from past mistakes.

The current generation of school leavers have every right to be angry. You have every right to formulate scathing critiques of the individuals, the institutions and the ideas and policies that contributed to the situation we find ourselves in.

Going to third level is supposed to equip you to do think critically and now is not a time for being deferential or just waiting for things to turn, waiting for the new cycle. It is up to young people to lead and lead with confidence.

Your studies can take you anywhere- some of you will be teachers, some lawyers, some broadcasters, some journalists, some doctors.

Some of you don’t know what you want to do; some of you will go abroad. That is not something to be fearful or worried about.

You will, if you spend time away, find encouragement and inspiration; being Irish abroad has changed utterly, and for the better over the last 50 years.

There is a powerful global emigrant family; friends of Ireland in industry, commerce, politics and the arts, all over the world. Of course it is tempting to make comparisons with the 1950s or the 1980s, but those comparisons can only take us so far.

There has been huge social, cultural and economic change in Ireland since you were born. Of course this change has brought its own problems, but much of it has been uplifting and empowering, and it is not going to disappear overnight.

What you will be collectively required to do is re-imagine this country in your own way, and demand more from those who are powerful in this country, especially those who have abused power. You’re an educated, well-travelled generation and you know now that free market economics does not solve all problems; that capitalism itself needs to be re-imagined and restructured.

What you do need is solidarity. One of the reasons things began to improve in Ireland from the late 1980s onwards was because, in stark contrast to what was happening in Britain in the 1980s, where Margaret Thatcher had arrogantly announced that there was no such thing as society, we decided that there was and that we needed to co-operate with each other to make it better.

Education was central to that, and you have all benefited from that and demonstrated how powerful education can be. Whether at home or abroad, national self-awareness is going to remain crucial, as will be supporting young people with fresh ideas in the quest to get the country to start to believe in itself again.

Historically, it has been young people who have instigated and propelled change. The revolution that founded this state nearly 100 years ago was a revolution of the young; that revolution ultimately created a republic.

It is up to you to define what the values of that republic should and will be in the future. Educating yourselves further will be crucial in helping you to find those values.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of Modern Irish History at UCD

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