Tuesday 22 January 2019

Unpaid internships, zero-hour contracts, low wages - Are Irish twenty-somethings cursed?

Are our twenty-somethings cursed? Unpaid internships, zero-hour contracts, low wages... Our reporter on the first generation set to be poorer than their parents

In limbo: Laura Duggan at her Celbridge home. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
In limbo: Laura Duggan at her Celbridge home. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Fine Gael's Simon Harris, who is opposed to a 50pc rise in the minimum wage
John Meagher

John Meagher

Laura Duggan is 27 years old and works for a web design agency. She has a good job that she enjoys and yet she feels stuck in limbo.

Raised in Galway, but resident in Celbridge, Co Kildare, she has little disposable income after paying her rent and bills and says she lives from pay cheque to pay cheque.

She has applied for bank loans on a number of occasions but has been declined every time. She has never been granted an overdraft to her account.

She has no pension and even though she lives as frugally as she can manage, it's a rare month when she can afford to save money.

"I can't imagine ever being in the position to buy a house," she says. "My parents didn't have high-paid jobs or anything like it and yet they were able to. I think a lot of people from my generation had better get used to renting for their entire lives - that's if they can afford the rents, which seem to be rising out of control."

Duggan says she sometimes feels as though people her age are cursed. From unpaid internships to the exploitation that sometimes happens on JobBridge and to zero-hour contracts and low-paid work for many of those who've stayed behind, and emigration for hundreds of thousands of others, she says it can feel as though this generation is suffering in ways older people just can't imagine.

Fine Gael's Simon Harris, who is opposed to a 50pc rise in the minimum wage
Fine Gael's Simon Harris, who is opposed to a 50pc rise in the minimum wage

"I don't think there's enough understanding from older generations about how tough it can be for young people today. It infuriates me when I hear us all being tarred as 'lazy' or 'free-loaders on the dole'. Well, I was unemployed for a while and it was no fun. I don't know anybody who chooses to be on the dole. And when older generations say they worked hard to achieve what they have, they conveniently forget that circumstances were very different then, with wages going much further and employment security as the norm."

On January 1, an increased minimum wage - €9.15 per hour - came into effect but many, including Laura Duggan, feel it's nowhere close to a living wage. Having worked in a fast food restaurant for three years in her early 20s, she is only too familiar with how hard it can be to subsist on such an amount. "The politicians who decide have never had to live on that sort of money - they haven't the faintest idea about how difficult it can be."

Last weekend, the youngest member of the Dáil, 29-year-old Fine Gael minister Simon Harris said his party was opposed to Labour's plans to increase the minimum wage by 50c per annum over five years if re-elected. Harris said such a move would strangle job creation.

"I read his comments and wasn't surprised in the least," says a 30-year-old engineer who had to rely on low-paid work to get by when the recession put paid to opportunities in his profession. "Very few politicians from Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil have shown that they truly have the interests of young people at heart - and it's young people, mostly, who have to manage on minimum wage."

Those days are behind him, and yet this employee feels disadvantaged. "Yes, I'm in a job that pays way beyond the sort of money I had to live on before. But the truth is, those wages don't go nearly far enough to have a decent quality of life once I've paid €1,000 a month for a small one-bedroom flat and the cost of running car - a necessity for the job. Friends of mine who emigrated and work in engineering abroad look at the sort of money being offered in Ireland and think, 'Nah, not good enough. I'll stay where I am.' The Government talk about bringing thousands home, but some will look at the wages and the cost of living and decide that they would be far better off where they are."

His views are echoed by another young Dublin-based professional, who works in financial services, having returned to Ireland last year after five years in Australia. "I worked hard over there and tried to save as best I could but pretty much all that money was sucked up coming home," she says. "That's something people who've never emigrated never take into account: it costs money to set up a new life abroad and it can cost even more to pack up, come home and begin again."

She also believes her salary comes nowhere close to reflecting the cost of living - and property. "I remember chatting to someone who works in this field and he was talking about the salary he was on at the end of the 1980s and that it was enough to be given a mortgage for a Victorian redbrick in Dublin 4: the house was about three times his salary. Well those houses today are probably at least 20 times the kind of salary I can expect to be paid when I'm 30. Not that I'm inspiring to live anywhere like that - being able to afford a bog-standard flat in Dublin feels like a tall order right now."

This generation is likely to be the first to be poorer than their parents - and it's a phenomenon that's not just confined to Ireland. Last year, Britain's Institute of Fiscal Studies reported that today's twenty-somethings would, on average, be poorer than their parents at every stage of their lives.

Michael Taft, an economist with the Unite trade union, insists that Ireland is "no country for young people" - a nod to WB Yeats's oft-quoted "no country for old men" line. "There's so much exploitation going on today," he says. "You have college graduates expected to work internships for free and JobBridge positions that purport to offer training on the job but do nothing of the sort. Then there are companies who have managed to take people off their staff and put them on contracts that offer no security whatsoever. And it's not just about money - what happens if they get sick?"

Taft notes that even with the significant pick-up in the economy, young people who are technically employed are choosing to emigrate. "They're on nine-month contracts and they've no security here, no pensions, poor salaries - they're taking their skills elsewhere."

Even when it comes to job creation, Taft says the young are especially disadvantaged. Unemployment during the recession affected the young most, he notes, but since the recovery the overall rise in employment has centred on the over 35s, with those between 24 and 35 actually seeing a decline in job opportunities. "It's not unusual to come out of a recession and employers to seek candidates with experience because they can afford to be choosy. But what happens to the younger person with no, or limited, experience?"

The economist insists that conditions like short-term contracts and unpaid internships serve to demoralise a generation who don't enjoy the security and remuneration their parents are likely to have had. "If I was to take a positive, I'd say there is a groundswell of support among the wider populace that people be properly paid for their work and be employed for regular hours. You certainly saw that last year with Dunnes Stores [which was picketed nationwide due to its zero-hours policies].

Rob Doyle (33), one of the acclaimed new breed of young Irish writers, returned home three years ago after a long hiatus abroad. He says he is dismayed by how polarised Ireland has become - between those who have and those who are young, and, quite often don't. He moved to Rosslare to live because he was priced out of Dublin - "unless you're well paid, or have familial support, rents there are simply too high," he says.

His first novel, Here Are the Young Men, explored how disconnected young men can feel from society at large and although it was set during the boom years, much of the alienation he writes of is relevant today. "Just look at the very high rate of suicide among young men today," he says. "It's a real cause for concern."

But some feel the outlook for Irish twenty-somethings isn't quite so bleak. Susan Hayes-Culleton, a 29-year-old entrepreneur who blogs as the Positive Economist, believes the sort of flexible, work-from-home arrangements prevalent in much contemporary employment has its advantages. "It certainly suits some people and today's college leavers enjoy far greater freedom on that front than those who were coming out of university 20 years ago. It's particularly beneficial for young parents.

"Furthermore, the spectrum of opportunities is immense. People are not rigidly stuck in one career like they used to be. There is a far greater acceptance that you can try numerous different fields. Employment has changed considerably."

She acknowledges that it can be hard for many young people to get on the property ladder or to afford the escalating rents in our cities, but says other generations had it tough too. "My parents' generation might have been able to afford to buy houses," she says, "but they were often saddled with interest rates in the teens which meant they had very little disposable income. And they didn't have the sort of career or travel opportunities that are there today."

But for Laura Duggan, it's difficult to be optimistic. "I worry about when I'm of retirement age. How will I manage on a state pension, if I've no pension of my own and no home to call my own?"

Despite her fears, she feels she is more fortunate than many of her peers. "I have a job, but I know so many others who are struggling on JobBridge or short-term contracts. I'm not in debt, I'm able to pay my bills.

And yet, I'm scared about the future, and what could be in store."

The challenged generation


the unemployment rate for people under 25 - the national rate is 9.7pc. The EU youth employment rate is around 10pc


the number of JobBridge interns who believed that the national internship programme was used for "free labour", according to a survey last year


the new national minimum wage which came into effect on January 1 - but still a long way off the €11.50 that's deemed by many to be a just living wage


the rate of Jobseeker's benefit for those under 25 (with no children). Up until 2014, people aged 21 to 24 received €144


the number of people aged 20 to 34 who emigrated between 2008 and 2013, roughly two thirds of the total who left


fewer twenty-somethings living in Ireland today than in 2009, according to data published last year.

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