Saturday 24 March 2018

Brendan O'Connor: Why we should give Millennials a tax break

We need to stop dismissing the millennial generation, says Brendan O'Connor, and try to remember that we were like them once

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Footage and photos from Liam Cosgrave's days in power provided a sharp contrast to today's Ireland. Lots of grey men in grey suits, no country, we might smugly imagine, for young men (though Cosgrave was a young man when he entered the Dail); and no country for women, young or old. Contrast that with our shiny present, and a young, attractive Taoiseach in Lycra with an approval rating of half the population, according to last week's Irish Times poll.

And the centre, the poll told us, is coming back, too. Harmony is being restored. The anger that characterised our national conversation for the past 10 years is apparently in abeyance.

But even now are we any country for young people?

Dig into that poll and you find Sinn Fein is the most popular party in the country with young people. Among voters aged 18 to 24, 31pc support Sinn Fein, while only 21pc support Fine Gael. Fianna Fail is breathing down Sinn Fein's neck at 29pc in this demographic. Indeed, the state of the parties among those aged 18 to 24 actually mirrors the overall national support for parties, except Sinn Fein is the equivalent of Fine Gael for young voters. Fine Gael is the largest party nationally with 31pc of support, and Sinn Fein occupies exactly the same dominance among young people. Among all voters, Sinn Fein enjoys just 19pc of support, which is roughly where Fine Gael stands with young voters. Fianna Fail enjoys 29pc of support both overall and among 18 to 24 year olds, which is heartening for them.

Between those aged 25 to 34, Sinn Fein is also the dominant party at 27pc, versus 23pc each for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

Overall then, Sinn Fein is the most popular political party for people under 34. Sinn Fein is the mainstream political choice for Millennials. It is their Fine Gael/Fianna Fail.

So while on one hand everything might look rosy in the garden for mainstream politics, on the other hand, Ireland could be looking at a youthquake on a par with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. The question all mainstream politicians must ask now is: do we need to start listening to these young people?

It is fashionable to dismiss the millennial generation. The very word Millennial has become a casual term of abuse for some. We slag them for being lazy, entitled, precious and for having their heads full of silly ideas. We bemoan the fact that they won't listen to the common sense of those who are older, wiser and better than them. And maybe that's true to some extent. But then, isn't it true of every generation of young people? Try and think back to when you were young and you knew it all.

We had different values to our parents, and we rolled our eyes at how they didn't get it and no one listened to us. We wanted to change the world, and we could see clearly what was wrong with it. And we were frustrated, because no one would listen to us. In the university scene certainly, the ones who engaged with mainstream politics were regarded as the freaks. Most people were hung up on causes, injustices, the late 1980s and early 1990s version of the modern culture wars and identity politics.

And yes, we grew out of some of it, and most of us became more conservative as life required we knuckle down. And we grew to accept that our parents weren't wrong about everything. But equally we did change the world. In terms of tolerance, sexuality and social issues, the values that were so weird and radical back then have now become the mainstream. So why then do we resent so much this next generation putting their stamp on the world? They are, to use the cliche, the future, and the world will be theirs for longer than it will be ours. So maybe we need to listen to them, to treat them like adults.

More important, if the political mainstream, the centre, wants to win them back, society needs to give this generation a stake in the status quo. We need to give them the hope of secure employment, a roof over their heads, a hope of some kind of future. When we are young, we don't crave security so much, but as we move through our 20s and start to think about settling down and kids and the future, we might not be as satisfied with a zero-hours contract, or cycling around with a box of food on your back, or no prospect of ever owning a home. And more and more young people I talk to, even ones with reasonably good careers, who will tell you baldly that they have given up on the notion of ever owning a home.

So maybe we need to stop dismissing them because they remind us too much of us when we were young and foolish, or because they think they know it all like we used to do.

One thing that bothered us all when we were young was that older people wouldn't let go of everything - of being in charge, of dictating the agenda, of owning everything. Maybe we should remember how that felt, and be more gracious about handing over the world to these kids.

In Britain, there is obviously huge interest right now in trying to find out what young people want, because virtually no young people are going to vote Tory any more as things stand. Compare Theresa May's disastrous Tory conference, and the general old-folks-home vibe there, to the young, energetic and evangelical Labour conference. We can roll our eyes all we want about how the young people at the Labour conference don't remember how awful socialism is and are being manipulated by cynical old lefties. The fact is that Labour is tapping into what concerns these young people. And those things are, according to recent YouGov research, health, climate change, education and housing. Indeed, among 18 to 28 year olds climate change was the biggest issue. These under-40s are less interested in Brexit, immigration, crime and welfare.

Sinn Fein has much in common with Corbyn's Labour right now. They are free to promise whatever they want because they are not sullied by having been in power recently. They are free to present themselves as the solution, because they are not seen as part of the problem.

William Hague, one of the people who is soul searching on how the Tories could court young people, has been encouraging radical ideas. One of them, that he admits many people will think is mad, but that has a certain simplistic charm, is this: Lower tax rates for the under-30s. Hague points out that they pay a low proportion of the overall tax take anyway, so a small increase for those over 30 could lead to a meaningful rate cut for those under 30. I agree with Hague that some people will call it daft, but I also agree with him that it has merit as an idea.

Millennials feel completely screwed over by my generation and by the baby boomers. They feel we left the country in a pretty crappy condition for them due to our greed and folly. They also feel that older people have hoarded much of the property in this country and left it out of their reach. Many of them feel no stake in Ireland, and they feel no hope of ever getting a stake.

If the centre parties want to be the mainstream political parties for this generation, perhaps they need, as Hague suggests, to get more radical. In fairness they are finally, too late, paying more attention to housing. The focus on health is ongoing, if ineffectual. And it does seem older people are finally waking up to the issue of climate change. But who will be the party to put their money where their mouth is? Who will be the one to daringly court the younger vote, at the risk of alienating some older voters, by costing and floating the idea of lower taxes for Millennials? Who of them at least will start listening to young people? Or will we, like Britain, leave it too late.

Sunday Independent

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