As millennials approach middle age, they face the second recession of their generation

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Dr Amie Lajoie says millennials hope the policy of Ireland’s new government will be anything but austerity, to avoid further damaging an already bruised generation.

AS A RESEARCHER, my role is usually quite clear: ask questions, listen and analyse. However, for a recent project I carried out as part of my job at TASC (the Think Tank for Action on Social Change), these lines became somewhat blurry.

For the first time in my career, I personally met the criteria of my research; I could have just as easily been the person answering the questions instead of asking them. 

For this project, we interviewed older millennials and generation Y adults, to understand how they are coping with the lockdown and the pandemic emergency. This generation – my generation – born between 1979 and 1988, now aged 32 – 41, is now facing an imminent second financial crisis during their working lives, and have been forced over the past 10 years to make decisions based on economic issues that simply have not affected other generations in the same way. One of my participants, Kathleen* told me:

People of our age who are not young but we’re not old, 39 years of age, we’ve had it so rough in our careers. It’s just crass that this is the second recession, it is so unfair.

In TASC’s “Stories of the Pandemic” series, we have set out to learn about not only what workers in Ireland are facing at the moment, but how they feel about the sudden changes and the uncertainties ahead. In the first collection we interviewed people who had lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Many of these people were younger workers at the beginning of their careers, and who were, undoubtedly, hit hardest by the job losses as a result of the lockdown. For this second collection, we decided to interview workers who are slightly older, somewhat more advanced in their careers, and who had prior experience of working during a period of massive insecurity – or as one interviewee, 36-year-old Maeve put it, a time of “doom and gloom”.  

A double recession

This generation, often sweepingly referred to as “millennials”, is now unique in that it is looking at the prospect of living through its second potential major recession during a relatively short working life span.

It is also necessary to note that this and any generational analysis is not all-encompassing, nor should it be viewed in a vacuum that ignores pervasive class-based inequalities that exist within this group – a point that the participants themselves frequently acknowledged throughout their conversations.  

Importantly, this study comes at a time when political parties are now sitting down with the next programme for government, with some commentators concerned that it could cause further generational divisions and leave younger people behind in a country that has a history of implementing targeted policies that actively “encouraged” them to emigrate. 

The gig economy

From our study, it is clear that the ramifications of these past policies have had a lasting impact on many in this generation of adults. Participants in the project spoke of the many ways the 2008 financial crash, and the resulting years of austerity that followed it, directly affected their lives and the lives of their partners and families.

These are 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 had to leave Ireland and live and work abroad. 

As I spoke with the participants, it was impossible not to reflect on my own experiences, as they were so closely related to the stories I was hearing. In particular, the continuous situation of precarity in work, and the “flexibility” required by workers in order to make ends meet.

My own working life has been a litany of short-term and temporary contracts. As Irena, age 41, stated:

I am honestly not used to the idea of having stability or something permanent. So I don’t even know what that is like to be very honest, to feel secure in my job.

I could also deeply relate to the participants’ accounts of their experiences of mobility. Originally from New Hampshire USA, I lived in six different cities (in four countries) over a five-year period before moving to Galway at the end of 2013. 

Another resounding theme of the interviews was the way work-based decisions affected other important personal choices. Participants spoke of how uncertainties in their working lives meant delays in reaching certain life milestones – things perhaps that previous generations would have taken for granted – like buying a house or even starting a family.

This overlap, a constant over the past ten years, has now been further exacerbated in the current crisis. As one participant, 35-year-old Theodore says, “My fiancée and I had just actually looked into buying a house, but then this [Covid-19] started to loom… [and now]the house hunt has been shelved.

We were supposed to get married in Italy in September and that’s gone. We’ll figure it out”. And according to Kathleen (age 39), “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.”

What next for millennials?

As we focus on the next five years, the big question is whether this generation is going to have to face another period of austerity, another period of feeling disenfranchised and of potentially having to look for opportunities elsewhere – something that may also be much harder to do in a post-Covid-19 world. 

This is perhaps where there is the greatest consensus for this generation of workers who have already been through the mill. They are unanimous that there simply cannot be a return to austerity. As Anne-Marie (age 40), now a teacher after years of changing careers, says:

Government policy should be anything but austerity. It has shown to be absolutely detrimental not only morally and ethically but emotionally and psychologically.

Cathal (age 32) agrees and thinks that we have to get away from, as he puts it:

You have this old Irish mentality: ‘you are lucky to have a job’, and honestly I can’t deal with that kind of carry on. I just think I couldn’t live here and listen to that shit…if you have a job it means you’re working hard and nobody’s giving you a job out of charity.

As the new coalition government gets down to work this week, the eyes of this generation – which is arguably carrying the needs of older generations and will do so for decades to come – is on them. The experiences and perspectives of all workers in Ireland should be at the forefront, and particularly those who have worked very hard for relatively little gain in comparison to previous generations in modern Irish history. 

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The messages of the “millennials” featured in this study are clear – we cannot return to policy strategies that focus solely on job numbers over job quality and cutting public spending. We cannot return to austerity, in any guise. If such narrow thinking persists – and there is good reason to believe that it will – the human cost of these strategies will exacerbate social and economic divides that are already festering.

Policy-thinking moving forward has to prioritise the quality of life and life chances, in particular for younger generations. It is not acceptable that many have had to put their dreams on hold just to balance the books.

*Names were changed in the collection to help protect anonymity.  

Dr Amie Lajoie is a senior researcher at the TASC think-tank. For more information, please see TASC’s Stories of the Pandemic: The experiences of Millennial and Generation Y workers in Ireland found here.

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