Friday 30 September 2016

Why are we so afraid to speak of the recovery?

It is verboten in Ireland to suggest that things might be getting better, even when the evidence suggests they are

Published 30/08/2015 | 02:30

SHOPPING THE WAY TO RECOVERY: Retail sales had their highest jump in 10 years last month and retail in general is up 10pc on the year
SHOPPING THE WAY TO RECOVERY: Retail sales had their highest jump in 10 years last month and retail in general is up 10pc on the year

Why is it that we dare not speak of a recovery? Part of it is, of course, because we have been burnt quite recently. We have been largely conditioned to believe now that the last boom experienced in Ireland was an illusion, a chimera that we were wrong to ever buy into. And it ended so disastrously, and we paid such a terrible price for it, that we almost fear any signs of success now.

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Just as there was a time where we became very adept at filtering out and ignoring any negative signs of the economy, now we seem to have developed the opposite trait, where we are able to ignore any good news.

In the past week we have seen stunningly good news on the economy. On jobs, which are central to a real recovery, a grass-roots recovery that people feel in their pockets, there were 20,000 more people employed in the second quarter of the year than in the first quarter.

Dan O'Brien, not one given to cheerleading or hysteria, pointed out in the Irish Independent on Thursday that the employment trend over the last three years goes 40pc of the way to reversing the decline in employment from the peak of the boom to the trough of the recession.

O'Brien points out too that new jobs are spread across most of the regions, so the notion that it's all happening in Dublin, while the rest of the country is a wasteland, is not actually true.

In cold figures, unemployment dropped by 17pc in the past year. The long-term unemployment rate, the most challenging end of the unemployment spectrum, dropped from 6.8pc to 5.5pc in the past year, which suggests that even those who had given up hope are starting to find jobs.

Just as employment grew across the regions, it also grew across nearly all sectors. Another myth that we cling to to reinforce our negativity is that the only new jobs are for smart, young, tech graduates, in companies that contribute little else to the local economy. But construction and manufacturing and other bread-and-butter sectors saw jobs growth as well.

It is generally agreed now that the recovery, which was initially referred to as an export-led, and even sometimes as a jobless recovery, is not just export-led and is certainly not jobless. There is life creeping back into the domestic economy too. Small businesses are making people full time, maybe taking back on a staff member or two. There is also, to my mind, a new entrepreneurial generation coming to the fore in Ireland too.

There are new local shops and restaurants and small tech companies, and no, they are not all the idle follies of hipsters. Dismiss the hipsters at your peril. As the hipster culture has become increasingly mainstream, it is breathing new life into cities like Dublin, Cork and Limerick. It is seeing the development of new industries like the craft beer sector, and it is rejuvenating the food sector too. Somewhere out there a hipster could be growing the new Cully and Sully, the Ballymaloe spin-off soup company that sold for ¤15m, or the new Avoca, which is apparently to be sold for tens of millions.

The other standard line offered to counteract any talk of a recovery is the line that people are not feeling it yet in their pockets. But how can you say that the 20,000 new households who now have a worker in them since Q2 of this year are not feeling the recovery in their pockets? New CSO figures also show that pay generally has risen by nearly 2pc in the last year. That's not enormous but it's better than the savage cuts everyone experienced for six or seven years.

In some sectors, it is up much more. Administrative and support services workers have seen pay rise in the past 12 months by an average of 8.8pc. While information and communication, predictably perhaps, are up by 4.4pc. Pay is now pretty much recovered to what it was in 2010 and there is momentum there.

Consumer confidence is up too. Retail sales had their highest jump in 10 years last month and retail in general is up 10pc on the year. These are more stellar figures and they certainly suggest that contrary to what we are being told in the media, many people are actually feeling the recovery in their pockets.

I'm sorry to bore you with figures, but it is no harm to remind ourselves of these things. Because I'll admit, I'm as bad as anyone else for not believing it all. Habits are hard to break and we have become so used to being in a bad news/recession mindset that it's difficult to see things any other way. It can be hard to see when the tide is turning. And of course, any discussion like this has to take into account that many people still have it very hard in this country and we have a homelessness problem and still an unemployment problem and an emigration problem. And of course no one is suggesting that everything is perfect.

But recovery has to start somewhere. And if we are not prepared to acknowledge that things might be getting better until everyone is happy, then, unfortunately, we will never be ready to accept a recovery.

There can also be specific cultural problems in Ireland with trying to say things might be going well. Anyone who dares to air this view in any public space, like on a TV discussion show, will quickly be shot down as being out of touch with the so-called "ordinary people" who are all struggling. It is considered distasteful to suggest that anything is going well while there are still so many of these people. And we are reminded all the time that the recovery is unequal and patchy. And so it is.

But there are those who are daring to talk about recovery. The Labour party have clearly decided that their only hope is to remind people of where we were four years ago and where we are now, and to note the difference. Joanna Tuffy, in an admirably reckless move, took Aengus O Snodaigh to task during the week for recovery denial: "Sinn Fein are misery junkies", she said, "and as far as they are concerned, the more people who are out of work, the more people who are in mortgage arrears, and the less money families have to spend, the better."

She continued: "Aengus O Snodaigh and his party feed off the uncertainty and anxiety that people experience at times of economic difficulty... But now that the recovery is under way Sinn Fein are petrified, and that's why they have tried to dismiss the recovery as 'false'."

"Is it false, that in July, sales of new cars increased by 48pc year on year? Is it false that car sales are set to exceed 100,000 for the first time since 2008? Is it false that so far this year, the number of foreign trips taken by Irish people has increased by 14.1pc to 1.3 million?

"Is it false that spending on home improvements by families has increased by 32pc this year, and that over 33,000 works have been registered for the Home Renovation Scheme at average value of €15,457 per job?

"Nobody is saying that everything is rosy in the garden, or that all our problems have been solved, but it is clear that things are getting a bit better for a lot of people."

While some people have taken Tuffy to task for the veracity of her figures, or her interpretation of figures, the vast majority of the abuse she has received has been for daring to suggest that things are getting better. It is verboten in many circles to say anything good could be happening. This kind of groupthink is as corrosive in its own way as the kind of relentless positivity that got us in trouble the last time.

We are all agreed that we should proceed cautiously, and we are all definitely agreed that we don't want to lose the run of ourselves again. But conducting our own psychological recession between real recessions is a grim way to proceed.

Sunday Independent

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