When, in the midst of the 1992 US presidential election campaign, political strategist James Carville told staff of the Bill Clinton campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid”, he was telling them that, contrary to popular belief, politics is not as complicated as we sometimes like to make it out to be. Carville identified that citizens vote primarily on a few key, typically economically-related issues that affect their daily lives in very tangible ways. Understanding this and recognising what these issues are is how hearts and minds are won, the theory goes.
The palpable frustration of young people in modern Ireland, and their subsequent lunge towards a more anti-establishment, new-age brand of politics, has many commentators, academics, politicians and others confused; why is this the first group of young people that is no longer willing to vote en masse for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael? Most analysis on the issue, too much of it written by authors’ whose genuine claim to youth and being subjected to the trials and tribulations of being a young person in Ireland have long expired, refuses to recognise the obviousness of why Ireland’s future generations feel so aggrieved. “It’s the lack of opportunity, stupid”.
Most recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI polling features the voting intentions of 18-24 year olds and 25-34 year olds for any eventual general election. Support for Sinn Féin stands at 35% and 43% among each respective age group, while support for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael among young people has fallen to an all-time low. The answer to why such an emphatic political shift is occurring before us – no previous government has been led by a party other than Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael – is in reality more psychological than political and can be arrived at by merely placing oneself in the shoes of a young person and observing the travesty that is unravelling before you.
For the first time in the history of the State a generation will fail to reach the economic levels and standards of living compared to the generation before them, according to recent data provided by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI). A culmination of wage levels plateauing, escalating costs of housing and a ticking pension time bomb have left young people in a precarious economic position, constantly unsure of what the future holds for them, unable to plan ahead to any meaningful extent. It has left many who would like to settle down and have a family unable to do so, in the first instance.
Uncertainty, now ripe among young people, can be one of the most anxiety-provoking concepts to deal with. When certainty is questioned, composure and surety of actions are abandoned. In fact, studies show that you are calmer when anticipating pain as opposed to anticipating uncertainty. Pain is certain. Uncertainty is, well, uncertain. Young people no longer have the certainty of owning a home, they, largely as a consequence of the global economy, no longer have the certainty of holding a guaranteed, well-paid job and they do not have the certainty of growing older with a high quality of life.
Most people are familiar with the concept of a grandiose lifestyle one may achieve in the USA, through drive and perseverance, colloquially referred to as the American Dream. The construct is predicated on the basis of a ‘you reap what you sow’ mentality or the meritocratic principle – if you work hard, you will reap the rewards allowing you to rise all the way to the top – the mansion, the nice car, the abundant savings and more. There is a sort of comforting certainty about the promise of the American Dream which sees individuals instructed that, you can be sure that if you work hard enough you will be rewarded. To what extent this sort of ideal meritocracy actually manifests itself in the United States is up for debate.
What is less commonly understood, however, is that a similar sort of concept of an ‘Irish Dream‘ existed in Ireland for generations, though perhaps of a slightly less glamorous variety. If you work hard you will be in a position to purchase your own house, afford a decent standard of living including plentiful trips to the pub and go on nice holidays now and then, this Irish social contract entailed. Successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments benefited from its existence, particularly during the various economic periods over the past 100 years when the Irish Dream flourished most greatly.
Unfortunately, this Irish Dream is becoming more and more of an actual dream, a fairy-tale, and seldom a glimmer of reality, and young people are increasingly recognising this lack of opportunity. We are going to college, we are working hard, and yet we still seem incapable of enjoying the fruits of society that were enjoyed by our parents and grandparents. We had previously believed that periods of forced migration were a thing of the past. Fundamentally, the subliminal social contract between the political establishment and Irish young people has crumbled and young people are insistent on holding those who have been in power since the foundation of the State accountable.
On the other hand, Sinn Féin, People Before Profit and a slew of other left-wing populist parties have emerged stronger than ever as a result of the deterioration of opportunity among Ireland’s youth. Promises of a rebuild and restoration of the Irish Dream form the core of such parties’ appeal. The longer the government delays enacting genuine reforms in the areas of housing, health and more, the more politically advantageous it will prove for these opposition parties. If we can draw a correlation, as it seems we can, between the existence of opportunities for young people to succeed and flourish in Ireland and the political success of the parties that have governed Ireland for the last one hundred years, as things stand the electoral prospects of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael seem set to continue to stagnate and the likelihood of them continuing to constantly exchange the balance of power between them as has always been the case could be become a dream.