Sunday 27 May 2018

Comment: For love nor money - why single millennials are Ireland's real put-upon squeezed middle

Last week's OECD report shows that more marriages of tax convenience may be on the way here, writes Donal Lynch

Millennials (stock photo)
Millennials (stock photo)
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Earlier this year, I went on Claire Byrne Live, to talk about the upcoming referendum.

One of the other items on the programme featured an interview with two heterosexual Dublin men, Matt and Michael, who had decided to get married "for tax and inheritance reasons". It was a curious little story, which was eventually reported as far afield as The New York Times.

There were discussions on radio here about whether the plan was tax avoidance in plain sight (it wasn't).

People were struck by the deep affection the two men had for each other, and it was interesting, just a few years after the marriage referendum, to see a platonic male-union driven by such deeply unromantic and practical concerns.

Love has hardly driven the gay population of Ireland to the altar - there have only been a couple of thousand marriages since 2015 - but maybe, the thought occurred, they could do it for money.

That Matt and Michael might have been on to something was further underlined last week by the latest OECD report, which indicates that the vast majority of the tax burden in Ireland's tax system falls squarely on single people.

Stock image
Stock image

When all things are considered, families with children pay only a tiny fraction - barely one 20th of the amount a single person with no children pays. We prop up the welfare state and other people's lifestyle choices with our returns and when we're not getting screwed by the taxman, consumer society, the employment marketplace, and even the housing crisis, is there to do it. The fastest- growing segment of the Irish population is its real squeezed middle.

The sheer expense of being single would almost drive you to marriage. In some senses, the housing crisis itself almost has two tiers: it was reported last week that the average single person in Dublin would take 21 years to save a deposit for a house. The majority of new buyers, it has been shown, are couples. So families hoover up the country's wealth, even as they hoover up the majority of the state payouts and tax breaks.

Relationships don't alter the basic price of services, but they do give couples one competitive advantage: everything is cut in half - a particular cruelty at weddings where being single and dateless already makes you stand out like a sore thumb, before you realise you're paying double the price for your room.

It was the hospitality industry, after all, which coined the phrase "single supplement". Other industries like insurance are not far behind in their levels of singleton discrimination.

Married life is much easier on the wallet than being single.

A couple can sit at home, vegging in front of Netflix with a takeaway, a single person must flee the Havisham gloom of their flat and go on the hunt for company.

The cliche of the singleton sitting home alone with a TV dinner belies the reality that those solitary nights are balanced by the eye-watering expense of date nights, where men are often expected to pick up the tab and women have to spend hundreds on grooming and makeup to make sure they feel in the game.

Couples take realistic account of each other's incomes, however, the person you're trying to woo into bed or betrothal doesn't care about that and nor do you. If you get sick and can't work as a single person, it's tough luck; in a couple, if one person is ill, there is generally another income to fall back on.

The heavy tax burden placed on single people discriminates against millennials, who make up the biggest swathe of spouse-less people in our society.

Thus a group, which has already seen its future sold by previous generations, again suffers a kind of political punishment in the name of family values.

'But', you might cry, like Reverend Lovejoy's wife on the Simpsons, 'won't someone please think of the children'. Surely skewing everything in favour of the carers of children, indirectly helps children and is thus an investment in the future.

In order to really believe that, you would have to think that single people are something other than someone's children and they only deserve support once they have achieved something - a relationship and offspring - which already improves the quality of life, life expectancy and so on, of those who have them.

In the years it takes to get there (if indeed they ever do) their spending is dismissed as frivolous and their financial goals subjugated to those of the breeding minority.

When someone tells me about a cash-strapped father, I feel pity, but I also think he chose a path with its own great rewards.

I'm just not sure I should have to foot the bill for him to do so. As Bill Maher once said, 'you've got twins in the school play, I've got twins in the hot tub. We both made our choices'.

That night on Claire Byrne it struck me that even though the two items - abortion and Mike and Matt - were poles apart in tone, they had a commonality.

If the referendum is carried, it will be because we, as a society, sanction the idea that people should be allowed to choose to not become parents, even if that means defying biology.

We are allowing for the fact that one choice is not worse than another - hence the phrase pro-choice (not pro-abortion).

Perhaps a wider ripple of that idea should be that those who are not in committed relationships are as deserving of a fair slice of the fiscal pie as those who are.

Single aunts and uncles aren't second class citizens in the family, and they shouldn't be in terms of something as tedious, yet significant, as our tax code.

Sunday Independent

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