This post is taken from the introduction of our latest social listening project "Stories of the Pandemic: The Experiences of Millenials and Generation Y Workers in Ireland."
In this collection, we highlight the experiences of ten "millennial" and “generation y” workers living in Ireland, aged 32 to 41 years old, who are now facing an imminent second economic recession at a crucial moment in their working lives. We asked participants specific questions concerning if and how their career trajectories were impacted by the previous financial crisis in 2008, and the ways that the public health emergency and the lockdown has affected them to date, both personally and professionally. We also asked participants to share their perspectives on how they feel the government has responded to the current crisis and the types of thinking that should be prioritised in the post-pandemic period. We specifically asked participants to share their thoughts on “austerity” as a potential policy option, as they have lived and worked throughout the last 12 years during which this approach underpinned the recovery strategy of the Irish government.
In the first “Stories of the Pandemic” collection, we explored the experiences of workers and job loss due to COVID-19. Several of the workers we spoke with for the first collection are at the beginning of their careers, aged early to mid-20s. Younger workers in Ireland have been “disproportionately affected” by the pandemic, and over half of workers aged 18-24 who were working before the lockdown are now claiming the national COVID-19 unemployment payment. For this second collection, we decided to specifically interview workers who are slightly older, somewhat more advanced in their careers, and who have prior experience working during a period of massive insecurity and uncertainty – or as one interviewee put it, a time of “doom and gloom” (Maeve, age 36, Dublin). Participants in the project spoke of the ways the 2008 financial crash and the abrupt collapse of the Celtic Tiger directly affected their lives and the lives of their partners and families. We explicitly asked participants to share how they navigated the last crisis and how it impacted their professional choices. We heard stories of workers who faced years of unemployment, others who delayed starting their own businesses, some who were forced to change careers, and others who chose to leave Ireland and live and work abroad. Some of the interviewees also expressed the on-going impact of the last crash, and how they were just starting to feel a degree of economic security and confidence before the current crisis. As one participant stated, “everyone has worked so hard the last 10 years trying to make ourselves into a better position […and] as soon as the words are out of your mouth this just happens. You can't find your feet almost, it is not fair.”(Kathleen, age 39, Wexford).
The impact of the economic climate on workers of this age group has been discussed in recent popular culture and debate. On 27 May 2020, The Washington Post released an article calling millennial workers in particular “the unluckiest generation in history”. While written about workers in the USA, the main message of the article reverberates here in Ireland. Since entering the workforce, this cohort of workers has experienced, and in all likelihood will continue to experience, a period of much slower economic growth compared with other generations in recent times. The economic shock of COVID-19 is on track to lead Ireland into the country’s “worst-ever recession”, with gross domestic product predicted to fall somewhere between 12% and 17% this year. This will undoubtedly result in workers facing lower earnings and lower overall wealth, as well as a potential delay for younger workers in meeting certain key life milestones such as buying a house and starting a family. In Ireland, these factors were already in play prior to COVID-19. It is important to perhaps ask to what extent the devastating and long-term consequences of the last crisis are related to “luck”, and to what extent they are related to the particular “choices” of the political establishment. Such choices promoted fiscal austerity, including decisions to severely reduce public spending while supporting widespread structural reforms intended to deregulate labour and privatise markets.
In Ireland, austerity was and remains a political choice that dominated much public decision-making since the last financial crisis. It intensified existing inequalities and increased poverty, disproportionately affecting low-income persons and other marginalised populations living in Irish society. All of the participants in this social listening project expressed an opinion that, moving forward, austerity should no longer be the cornerstone of political thinking and decision-making. According to one participant, “austerity is not the solution at all. I am very, very strongly opinionated about that,” (Irena, age 41, Limerick). Another articulated, “government policy should be anything but austerity. It has shown to be absolutely detrimental not only morally and ethically but emotionally and psychologically,” (Anne-Marie, age 40, Galway). And another participant noted: “I would genuinely hope…that because we have had 2008 and we've seen the extra damage that austerity does…we can avoid it. It is only an idea of fiscal conservatism wrapped up in your moral choices. Previously, there was a lot of this moral exceptionalism where austerity was viewed as the only way to correct the books. They left out the part of society where people still need to live and exist,” (Theodore, age 35, Cork).
There are certainly challenges ahead, and there is a genuine concern that policymakers will continue to instinctively focus solely on job activation and cutting spending to balance budgets in the recovery period post-COVID-19. If this continues, the human cost of these strategies will be overlooked. We should trust and value the voices of workers, such as those featured in this collection, who emphasise how such narrow tactics are not effective and should not happen again. Policy-thinking moving forward should prioritise quality of life and life chances, in particular for younger generations, with a core objective of sustaining their aspirations for a better future.
 See: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/young-people-disproportionately-affected-by-covid-19-related-job-losses-1.4243083
 As in the previous collection, the names of interviewees have been changed to protect anonymity.
 See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/gdpr-consent/?next_url=https%3a%2f%2fwww.washingtonpost.com%2fbusiness%2f2020%2f05%2f27%2fmillennial-recession-covid%2f
 Please note that this article has been heavily critiqued for leaving out how “generational differences” along the lines of (for example) gender, race and socio-economic status have compounding effects on economic problems faced by certain workers. Also critiqued was the limited definition used of “all history” as predominately since the start of the 20th century.
 This is according to research from the ESRI, as cited by: https://www.ft.com/content/7afbaf5a-222b-45a7-a907-0ae35f90965f
Dr. Amie Lajoie
Amie Lajoie is a senior researcher at the think-tank TASC, working on projects that investigate the ways public services and institutions can better serve the needs of marginalised persons and groups in Ireland.