Monday 16 September 2019

The realities of being 17 in Ireland in 2017

The first Irish children born into the digital age are now on the cusp of adulthood - but they are facing into a future without many of the securities previous generations took for granted. In the first of a new four-part series, John Meagher reports on the teenagers with more opportunities and freedom, but also a greater fear for tomorrow's world

Home bird: Shane Dowling in Donabate, Co Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers
Home bird: Shane Dowling in Donabate, Co Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers
Eoin Scarlett at his home in Fairview, Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers
Teenager Jade Gill at her home in Longford. Picture: Arthur Carron
John Meagher

John Meagher

James O'Reilly is a 17-year-old from Dublin who enjoys playing both hurling and the piano. This summer he will sit the Leaving Cert and, soon after, take those first, tentative steps into adulthood.

Keenly interested in politics, he joined Young Fine Gael as soon as he was of age and is now a member of the European Youth Parliament, Ireland.

"I'm very excited for the future," he says, "but part of me is nervous, too. There's so much uncertainty in the world following Trump and Brexit, and we don't know how they're going to affect us."

Like many 17-year-olds of his generation - and those who went before - James hopes to be working full time in a profession he loves, 10 years from now. "[Data] analytics or politics, but I could see myself living in France or America then."

James is part of Generation Z, those who were born around 2000 - and the generation straight after the millennials (so called because many of them became adults at the turn of the millennium).

If millennials have come to be seen as the first generation ever to be poorer than their parents due to uncertainties in the labour market, lack of work permanency, shortage of housing and absence of pensions, some suspect that Generation Z could be even worse off (in financial terms).

"School leavers are inheriting a planet in free fall," says one of the country's leading youth campaigners, Ruairí McKiernan.

"Job security is gone, technology is replacing jobs, healthcare and housing are in crisis, banks, corporations and faceless institutions are encroaching on democracy.

"Rising inequality, where the fruits of humanity's labour are unfairly distributed, and a lack of visionary leadership has led to the revival of fascist movements that are growing in the US, Britain and throughout the EU. And, perhaps, the biggest threat facing us all is climate change and the need to radically reinvent how the world economy works."

Yet, Generation Z is the most connected generation of all - the first to be truly 'digital native' and with a huge wealth of information at their fingertips.

"I've tried to imagine what a world without the internet would be like," says James, "and I can't." A study showed that the average 10-to-16-year-old in the UK spends three hours a day online, and there's little reason to suspect it's any different here.

"We need to be able to give them the critical faculties to help to handle the bombardment of information," says Séan Campbell, CEO of the youth-development organisation Foróige.

"That's why non-formal education, like what we do here, can be so important. We have to help this generation to be resilient, especially when they look to their careers, and they might have to change job seven or eight times - or 14 or 15 times - in their lives."

Dearbhla Kelly is especially well placed to appraise the ever-changing jobs market. The career guidance specialist and author of Career Coach: A Step By Step Guide to Helping Your Teen Find Their Life's Purpose says the past 20 years have seen enormous changes in the jobs landscape, and she believes shifts in the next 20 will be just as seismic.

"It's been said that 40pc of the jobs we'll have in the future haven't been devised yet," she says. "Even 10 years ago, many of the roles that are there today would have been impossible to understand - who would have known what a digital influencer is? There's no doubt that the landscape will continue to shift dramatically."

She says some parents might struggle to make sense of this new world.

"The days of a job-for-life are long gone for many people. So, too, are pensions and the sort of job security that people took for granted in the past. Parents need to be mindful that it's changed a huge degree since they were at school."

But while it is understandable if there's concern about the future from both teens and their parents, Kelly insists that there are some skills that can be honed and improved no matter what the future has in store. "I'm a great believer in getting the core skills right," she says. "People skills, communications skills, social skills… these are qualities that will always be important and valuable, irrespective of what career you go for. I would argue that while many of today's teens are very connected on social media, they miss out on some of these skills.

"They may have lots of Facebook friends, but they're not connecting in the real world in the way that previous generations might have - and that'll be a problem for them going forward."

She is also concerned that this generation risk burnout from being constantly 'on'. "Look, even those of my generation (mid-40s) can find that they're glued to their smartphone all the time, but it's particularly acute when it comes to Generation Z. They've never known a world before the internet, and the younger ones would have been born around the time that social media first came on stream so there's always a danger that for some, they'll have a skewed view of the world."

For Fintan O'Mahony, a secondary school teacher at Scoil Mhuire, Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, this generation might just be more prepared for the vagaries of the world than their immediate predecessors. "They're a group that roll up their sleeves and aren't afraid of hard work," he says.

"There's little feeling of the world owing them a living. Maybe that's because when they started secondary school, the country was in the depths of recession, and they don't have the sort of inflated expectations that might have been there before."

O'Mahony says few of the 17-year-olds he encounters in his teaching job are unaware of how different the 'grown-up world' is compared to the one their parents knew. But he has detected in some a sense of fear for tomorrow's world. "They're anxious in a way that previous generations maybe weren't," he says. "They're conscious of all the talk about how insecure aspects of the world are, and may be in the future, too."

He says today's teens are demonstrating an adaptability that could prove invaluable as they take those first tentative steps into adulthood. "They're certainly more adaptable in how they see the world than I was at 17 or 18 (in the late 1980s), and it's good that they are because the sort of securities we took for granted are over."

O'Mahony says those parents who accept that the world is a very different place now, especially when it comes to jobs, financial security and housing, are more likely to be well placed to help their child negotiate the ups and downs ahead.

"Generally, though, I feel very optimistic for this generation," he says. "For them, there really is a sense that the world is a smaller place and technology has helped enable that."

Joanna Fortune, a Dublin-based psychotherapist who specialises in child-parent relations, says technology is both a blessing and curse for Generation Z. "They have a world of information available to them that previous generations could only dream about," she says, "and you could spend a long time listing all the ways in which the internet has improved our lives. But there are significant drawbacks too.

"I see plenty of teens who have few meaningful friendships because they live their lives online. They lack the skills to help them interact with others. They're also growing up in a time when there's so much negativity on social media, and discourse there has become debased. And there's also a risk that many of today's teens are isolating themselves from others. That can have significant ramifications when they are older."

Fortune says many parents she meets wish their child would spend less time online but when questioned themselves, admit that their smartphone is always to hand. "We have to lead by example," she says. "It really is a good idea to put all phones and tablets away in the hours before bed and to take regular internet detoxes. When it comes to the point - for teen, or parent - where the last thing they're looking at night is their phone, and it's the first thing they reach for in the morning, something has to be done."

The psychotherapist says that with many of the old reliables - pensions, jobs, three-bedroom houses - no longer nearly as attainable as they once were, it's essential that Generation Z have a true sense of self when facing into the future. "It's not about being defined by what you have or don't have, materially, it's about knowing what's important for you."

Yet, in a world where the financial securities of the past have been badly eroded, she says it's more important than ever for children to learn about saving from an early age. "Even if they put away 10pc of their pocket money, they will grow up with an understanding that saving is vital in an uncertain world."

And an uncertain Ireland. Many of the problems Generation Z will face as adults are specific to this country, according to Ruairí McKiernan. "The national infrastructure is creaking at the seams," he says. "Look at housing, hospitals, schools, childcare, broadband, and the lack of community and youth facilities. The population looks set to grow even further [it's now at 4.8 million, up from 3.2 million in 40 years] and I don't get a sense that government or planning agencies have a visionary plan for this.

"What is needed is joined-up thinking that realises things like job creation, mental health, and climate change are all connected. We need a department of future planning, with representatives of all other departments and involving outside and independent voices, followed by bold and visionary investment unlike anything we have seen before."

But while it would be tempting to worry that this generation faces challenges greater than any other, Foróige's Séan Campbell says it is important to take a wider view. "All generations have significant challenges," he says, "they're different challenges, but they're challenges none the less. At the end of the day, everyone - no matter what era they grew up in - strives for love, security and acceptance."

Dearbhla Kelly has been greatly enthused by the teens she has encountered of late. "So many of them really have their heads screwed on," she says. "Yes, they're going into a world where some of the things we took for granted in the past have been eroded, but I don't know if many of them would want to swap with those from other generations.

"Many that I've meet are hugely confident and entrepreneurial and that may be because they're living in a time when they can find out so much about the world and make the connections to greatly expand their minds."

It's a sentiment echoed by Ruairí McKiernan. "The internet has helped create an era where we can learn, share, campaign and connect on an unprecedented scale. Thanks to heroic whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, we know more about how the world really works and young people are to the fore in terms of not buying into the pillars of power that seek to control them.

"Aside from that, there's more sexual freedom, more openness when it comes to emotional expression, especially for men, and women have more opportunities and freedoms than in the past. And there's a kind of spiritual freedom emerging whereby younger people are freer now to decide what to believe in and who they want to be.

"That can only be a good thing."

We don't get everything on a plate like some people think

Shane dowling, 16, Dublin

'I'm a bit of a home bird and really hope to be living in Ireland when I'm older. I like the idea of having a masters - which my mother always tells me I'll have to pay for myself - but I'd like to see myself working in PR or politics 10 years from now.

I'm not particularly nervous about adulthood - I don't mean for that to sound arrogant - but I feel I have enough confidence about myself. We will enter a world of challenges, but I think all generations have faced those. Hopefully, there won't be a recession in the next 10 or 20 years, but you never do know.

Some say my generation might have it easy, but I think there's quite a bit of pressure on us, academically, and it might be more intense to what previous generations experienced. And we don't get everything on a plate like some might think.

When I think of my grandparents' life, I think we have it much better than them. They had to work very hard and they didn't have the sort of opportunities people my age have or will have.

One thing I think that our generation has that previous ones didn't is respect from older people. We're not talked down to. Our opinions are seen to have validity. It probably reflects that Ireland is a more tolerant place now than it's ever been before.

Some of my age group might use the internet too often, but I really think many of us know when to put the phone down. You can't study properly if you're constantly being distracted but, that said, schools themselves don't make it easy because so much of the curriculum and homework is done online. The temptation to open Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat is always there."

'We've no memories of  the boom, but the recession is something we won't forget'

Eoin scarlett, 17, Dublin

Eoin Scarlett at his home in Fairview, Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers

'In 2027, I'd love to have finished college, with a masters and PhD behind me and be living and ­working in Ireland.

I think our generation probably has it easier than the one my parents had. We have so many opportunities and the internet has made so much possible. I love that you can find out anything so quickly, but there are times where I feel I spend too much time online.

I have no memories of the boom years, but the recession is something that people my age won't forget.

It coincided with the time we started secondary school and we could see how much uncertainty it ­created. I ­remember Obama talking about hope when he became US President.

It's all so ­different now with Trump. What if he lowers corporation tax in the US? Would that have an impact on all the tech jobs in Ireland? They're very important for our economy.

I think a lot of people of my generation are more realistic about the future than some give us credit for. We know that some of the things that were taken for granted are gone - like secure jobs - but I don't think people expect to be in the same career for life in the way that previous generations were.

What is of concern to my age group is safety, due to 9/11 and Isis - that really is something that worries us.

I think we have a different relationship to the internet than millennials have. They were the first generation to have to make sense of social media and they made mistakes, like putting up stuff on Facebook they shouldn't have.

Snapchat is what we've embraced - and it doesn't leave a permanent mark."

'We spend too much time on our phones... there's no interaction'

Jade Gill, 17, Longford

Teenager Jade Gill at her home in Longford. Picture: Arthur Carron

'It's very hard to predict the future, but I'd really love to work in America after ­college. The prospect of travelling when I'm young is very appealing, and I know it mightn't be possible when I'm older and ­hopefully have children. I'd definitely like to settle down and have a family at some stage.

I'd consider myself to be an anxious person and there are times when I worry about the future. It all seems so uncertain - some of the things that other generations took for granted just aren't open to my generation.

I'm very aware of the recession, too. Dublin is booming and so is Athlone - which I'd go to quite a bit - but there isn't much sign of it in Longford. There haven't been many new shops, and if you need to buy something in particular, you might have to go to Dublin or Athlone. When you grow up in a recession, you're very aware of it, and I think everyone my age would have had some experience of it.

I spend a lot of time online and, to be ­honest, I think my generation spends too much time there - it's so easy to get lost in it. My ­father says to me that when we get the train to Dublin, everyone is engrossed in their phones, whereas when he was younger, you would find yourself chatting to the person sitting next to you. A lot of that interaction seems to be gone.

In many ways, though, I feel that I'm part of a fortunate generation. We take it for granted that we'll go to college and get a really good education, but that wasn't possible for some of my parents' generation, and definitely wasn't possible for most of their parents' generation."

Read more: David Coleman: It matters less what we say to teenagers, and more how we say it

Sex, drugs and birth control: a snapshot of  the post-millennials

The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) is behind the most comprehensive survey of Ireland’s Generation Z. For the past decade, its Growing Up In Ireland research team has quizzed 6,000 teens about everything from their views on sex to their thoughts on school and through to their consumption of alcohol and sense of body image. Its latest findings focus on 17 and 18-year-olds and there’s no better snapshot of what motivates — and frightens — Ireland’s post-millennials. So what can we learn?

1 They are the most educated generation ever

94pc of this cohort are either in school or third-level education. A further 4pc are either working or are in training while just 2pc are not in education, work or training.

2 They are not afraid of work

A third have part-time jobs (35pc females; 31pc males) and work, on average, nine hours per week during term-time, earning €72.

3 They are happy in school

94pc say they have a generally positive attitude towards teachers and school, although 24pc say they dislike “being at school”.

4 They are thought the fattest generation (at that age)

20pc are overweight while 8pc are obese. Females (31pc) are more likely than males (26pc) to be overweight.

5 Their chances of being overweight often depend on social class

4pc of those whose mother has a degree are overweight or obese, compared to 14pc whose mother left at Junior Cert or before.

6 They are happy with their lot

The vast majority say they are happy with their parents, although 10pc say they are “often/always” let down by a parent.

7 They are not immune to depression 

One in 10 report having been diagnosed with depression. Some 17pc say they have physically harmed themselves on purpose.

8 They are no strangers to alcohol

An overwhelming majority (89pc) admit to having consumed alcohol, with 40pc saying they drink “two to four” times per month.

9 They are not regular smokers

Just 8pc say they smoke daily, and 51pc have never tried cigarettes, while 69pc have never tried cannabis.

10 They are losing their virginity — but most haven’t had sex yet

Some 33pc report having had sex, and of those, males (45pc) were more sexually active than females (39pc).

11 They don’t feel pressure to have sex

Just 4pc say they feel “a lot” of pressure to have sex and 13pc say they have experienced “a little” pressure.

12 They practise safe sex

Four out of five (79pc) of those who have had sex say they or their partner always used contraception but a sizeable minority (11pc) report that they never use a condom.

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Life