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Ireland forces young people to delay life's milestones


Enda Kenny

Enda Kenny

Enda Kenny

Are you under 35? Single, childless, still a junior in your job, carless, renting, just about making ends meet at the end of every month?

Don't wince at that description if it rings true! You are not pathetic - you are a member of one of the country's biggest and most under-served clubs.

Forget the squeezed middle. Modern Ireland's most put-upon demographic is the squeezed millennial.

Statistics show the average age at which we achieve key milestones - like getting a job, buying a car, owning a home, marrying and having our first babies - is creeping steadily up.

The expense and difficulty of reaching these goals in Ireland is forcing 20 and 30-somethings to put their lives on hold.

Parents and older onlookers say they envy the freedom, the room to enjoy our younger years in city centre apartments close to clubs and pubs without the burden of mortgages and babies.

But the unfortunate truth is that this freedom is the result of cost and circumstance. Not the romantic rejection of bourgeois constraints that they like to think of it as.

The very first step to achieving anything is getting a decent job. The media portrays under 35s as the Mark Zuckerberg generation, making fortunes developing software whilst wearing jeans and playing table tennis with one hand. Glittering tales of one Irish start-up after another raising millions don't help either (as a business journalist I am guiltily confessing here. We rarely report on the hundreds more which fall apart and leave their young founders penniless).

But jobs are actually pretty difficult to find for millennials (also known as Generation Y, or anyone who came of age around the turn of the millennium). The nation's unemployment rate recently hit a six-year low of 9.4pc with 28,100 fewer people now in the dole queue compared with this time last year. But there has been little change in the level of youth unemployment. The number of under 25-year-olds out of work was down just 0.1pc to 20.6pc in the year to the end of September.

The figure has remained stagnant for the past six months.

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When the hunt for work is tight, young people flock to cities. Perhaps that is why new data from the Central Statistics Office shows that population growth in Dublin is running two and a half times faster than previously thought, with 32,000 more people now living in the capital compared with 2014. This profound and unnoticed rise in population, coupled with the absence of new building, has had a horrible effect on millenials' chances of ever buying a home.

I won't go into too much dull detail about the state of the housing market in the country's capital, the trends beginning to creep into cities like Cork and Galway too. You will have heard the sorry tale of rocketing rents, eye-watering house price rises and punitive new mortgage lending rules too many times before.

But suffice to say, first-time buyers have been getting steadily older since the property crash kicked in. By 2010 the average first-time buyer had hit 30 (according to the ESRI). By early last year that had increased to 33 (Bank of Ireland) and by this year it has moved up to 35 (Savills).

The image of the first-time buyer as a young, fresh-faced newly-wed couple is dead and gone; at the current rate of increase the average Irish first-time buyer will turn the grand old age of 40 by 2020. Then there is the tricky question of babies. While Ireland still has an impressively high birth rate compared to the rest of Europe, the age at which we are having children is not as favourable. Ireland's first-time mothers are older than the European average, figures released by Eurostat earlier this year showed. While the majority of first-time births in the EU (51.2pc) were to women in their 20s, in Ireland, 52.7pc of first births were to women in their 30s. We also have a higher-than-average proportion of women in their 40s giving birth for the first time (3.4pc versus the EU average of 2.8pc) - a group that is more at risk of complications in pregnancy and childbirth. One thing is for sure: anyone planning a career in fertility treatment can look forward to a healthy flow of business for decades to come.

Car ownership among different age brackets is more difficult to gauge and not really measured by any organisation, so for that I am relying on anecdotal evidence. Among my well-educated group of millennial peers who by now all have reasonable-sounding jobs, more don't own a car than do. When asked why, they say cost.

Maybe that is why we are just 20th in the EU in terms of car ownership per capita, despite the fact that the only alternative is a limited and expensive public transport system.

Yet another factor that is pushing millennials into cities, where we have taken to bicycles in droves. The hoards of sodden 20-somethings pedalling furiously around Dublin buses at rush hour are definitely not doing it for their health.

So on Budget Day this Tuesday, spare a thought for the squeezed millennials. And think about how the things that hurt them hurt you too. Forcing young people to postpone the achievements that make society flourish - secure employment, a stable place to live, marriage and family - has negative consequences for everyone. They are the building blocks of tomorrow's Ireland.

Enda Kenny's promised cut to the top rate of income tax won't do us millennials much good, since a lot of us do not earn much above the marginal rate.

We need money spent on things like better career guidance, the introduction of a well-run national apprenticeship scheme, enhanced employment law controls.

Job creation policies that entice more companies out of Dublin. Better and cheaper public transport - perhaps an end to the non-means tested scheme that grants elderly people free travel on trains and buses, regardless of their wealth, would release some money to improve the system overall.

Rent controls, savings products to help first-time buyers save for a deposit. Better state-funded childcare programmes for the early years when money is tightest.

Things that would let squeezed millennials breathe out just a little bit.

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