Will life be better or worse for this generation?

Posted on November 10, 2017 by Tom Healy

Tom Healy, Director NERI
Tom Healy, Director NERI

A simple question but a hard one to answer. First, how do we measure notions of ‘better’, ‘worse’, ‘good’ … ? Second, which countries, generations and points in time do we compare? Third, how do we know what the future will hold for anyone or most people? However, just because it is a hard question should not deter us from considering various aspects of it. the fact that the question is being asked more than heretofore suggests that a serious matter of what might be termed ‘inter-generational equity’ has come to the fore. In other words, is a new generation of citizens and workers likely to emerge with a raw deal compared to their seniors?

Two pitfalls must be circumvented:

  • Subjectivism
  • Objectivism

Subjectivism is the condition of lazy, generalising, sweeping, opinion-trending and setting evaluation. This leads us to think, feel and know that the next generation is or will be worse off than previous ones (or the complete opposite as the case may be).

Objectivism is the condition of lazy, generalising, sweeping, opinion-trending and setting evaluation. This leads to conclude with near certitude because, on some ‘objective’ measure of life expectancy, educational attainment, real personal income per capita, etc. people are better off today than in the past and that this must also apply to ‘millennials’ (that is, persons reaching adulthood in the early 21st century).

Both conditions are two sides of the coin because they conform to a simplistic story of change and serves a particular interest or point of view. Hence, it is common for many to point to the perceived unfairness of older generations having relatively better pension entitlements (at least some of them) compared to recent entrants to the workforce who have much inferior pension arrangements, if any at all. Likewise, it is common to hear the view that young people took a disproportionate hit in terms of access to affordable accommodation, employment and starting salary compared to those coming of adult age 15 or 25 or 45 years ago as the case may be. On the other side, the view is forwarded that millennials have little idea of the hardship, poverty, struggles of previous generations. Poverty in 2017 is not of the same quality as poverty in the 1950s or in the 1930s. Yes, bad nutrition is widespread in places and among more people than one would realise (ask teachers or GPs). 

However, we are ill-equipped to compare life in 2017 with life in 1967 or 1917. The context, cultural antecedents, assumptions, options and meaning of any given condition is radically different but not so different that we can make some comparisons based, for example, on life expectancy, morbidity, access to drinking water and sanitation, calorie intake as well as the old reliable statistics of unemployment, joblessness, homelessness and illness.

So, what is the balance of evidence? It depends on what we are looking at and how broad a sweep of the evidence we are in a position to examine. The following is clear, at least:

  1. People, on average, live longer than was the case a few decades ago – even as recently as 15 years ago.
  2. People, on average, have a better diet and enjoy better stands of health care, diagnosis and follow-up than was the case in the past (notwithstanding the huge problems, short-comings and underlying unfairness of the two-tier ‘for-the-some’ health service in the Republic of Ireland).
  3. People, on average, have better qualifications and level of schooling completion than was the case before (most young people now undertake some form of further or higher education, whereas, in the 1960s most people did not even reach Leaving Certificate level or its equivalent never mind higher education).

At the same time, the following is evident:

  1. People, on average, face enormous and greater stress in making ends meet compared to a standard of life we legitimately expect – this holds true especially in the area of accommodation.
  2. People, on average, spend a lot more time commuting to work (partly because of under-investment in public transport and partly because of the mess which is the Irish housing crisis).
  3. People, on average, are much less sure of what sort of an income or job they will have in 10 or 30 years time (and this also applies to what sort of retirement income they might have).

And wider political and institutional factors matter

Aside from strictly economic and social conditions, there are wider matters to consider such as people’s awareness and sense of insecurity in the face of very real global threats – whether these relate to terrorism, wars or climate change. Fifty years ago, concerns were somewhat different. People living in Northern Ireland were about to undergo decades of acute and painful civil conflict.  People had a very real concern about the possibility of nuclear holocaust involving, at the time, two super powers. The latter concern has changed in detail but has not gone away.  Those claiming that capitalism could deliver never-ending prosperity and stability as well as democracy and fairness have been proven wrong not least since 2008. Those claiming that socialism would replace capitalism and would see the end of tyranny, poverty and injustice have been proven wrong, also. Those claiming a ‘third way’ in various forms of ‘social democracy’ or enlightened capitalism with a human face have failed to deliver and are in meltdown, politically. The shrill voices of racism, xenophobia and far-right politics menace on the world scene in ways not even dreamt of a generation ago.

The global, political theatre and our local little political theatres in Ireland matter to the well-being of people.

Discussions of inter-generational equity have a particular relevance for trade unions. The workplace is a central ground for the creation and sustenance of economic inequality. A widening gap in regards to pay, including lifetime pay which encompasses retirement income is a huge challenge. The principle of equal pay for work of equal value has taken a severe knocking in the recent recession and fiscal crisis in Ireland (though the principle has never been implemented in practice). Moreover, the radical changes in the labour market, technology and enterprises pose a huge challenge for trade unions, everywhere, to not only hold to current levels of union density but to reclaim ground typically lost in most countries since the mid 20th century. The strength and relevance of trade unions also matters greatly to young workers and those about to enter the workforce. The delusion of choice, freedom and cost competitiveness spawned by the Ryanair type business ethic is proving to a significant long-term contributor to lower standards in the workplace not to mention appalling customer treatment.

Are members of the present young adult generation worse off than their parents or grandparents? It very much depends on how we weigh up and value the various components of what is the larger picture. A recent visit to an exhibition of various medical instruments including saws and knives left me in no doubt that I would rather have been born after the introduction of anaesthetics than before. Opium and whiskey are no substitutes for a general anaesthetic but people are free to differ on this point!

Returning to the economic evidence, there seems to be little to suggest that millennials are worse off in absolute terms compared to their parents or grandparents. That said, there is considerable evidence that they are and are likely to be relatively worse off by virtue of the enormous crisis in access to affordable accommodation as well as access to other social goods such as continuity of income across the whole lifespan. However, care is needed in drawing general conclusions in the absence of comprehensive data on all aspects of economic well-being. It is not all down to ‘objective’ facts but to perceptions and feelings of injustice and social stress. These perceptions are, themselves, objective facts.

I conclude with one observation – in 1955 a very junior ranking civil servant bought a modest dwelling five miles from Dublin city centre and lived there for over 40 years in a one-earner family household.  For sure, this could not happen in 2017 for many low-income civil servants unless they won the national lottery or were in receipt of an extremely large family inheritance.



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