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Ross Nolan, an Irish entrepreneur in his early 20s, had hoped to spend mid-May running an arts and music festival to mark the start of summer in the seaside town of Bray.

But coronavirus dashed his plans. A long lockdown to combat its spread forced him and many thousands of other young people to claim pandemic welfare payments from the government. “Everything for the summer is at a halt,” he said.

When Mr Nolan and his partners closed their café/vegan food store and a coffee stall nine weeks ago, they used their welfare money to pay suppliers. They have since reopened the coffee stall for takeaways, earning enough for partners to stop receiving welfare but not to reverse redundancies. “We had to unfortunately let go of three staff.” 

With heavy Covid-19 restrictions still in place, Mr Nolan’s return to work marks him out as one of the lucky few. This recession has taken a particularly heavy toll on a generation of young people who came of age as the country roared back to growth after the 2008 crash. 

The jobless rate for people under 25 surged to 52.8 per cent in April, a mammoth figure even when allowing for the fact that many in the age group are in full-time education. That compares with 12 per cent in February, when Ireland was in full employment with national joblessness at 4.8 per cent. Now the rate for all ages is a record 28.2 per cent. Data show 589,000 are on Covid welfare payments, and 427,400 workers are on government wage subsidies.

“Of people who had jobs, the biggest impact is in the 15-24 age category,” said Seamus Coffey, economist at University College Cork and former chairman of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, a statutory budget oversight body. “Generating the employment to claw back the losses will be difficult.” 

Although the latest Irish government forecasts suggest the national jobless rate could drop below 10 per cent next year, finance minister Paschal Donohoe has said the pandemic could leave potentially hundreds of thousands of people jobless in coming years. 

Line chart of Unemployment rate in Ireland (%) showing Young people in the line of fire

The hit to young workers was not unique to Ireland or even to an economic downturn but “there are reasons why in this case we expect it to be even more damaging to young people”, said Niall O’Higgins, senior researcher with the International Labour Organization in Geneva.

“First of all, it’s a much bigger crisis than the global financial crisis [of 2008]. The impact on GDP is much larger. Secondly, the areas where the employment impacts are being felt are areas where young people are particularly concentrated.” 

These include sectors such as accommodation, food services and retail. Young workers were all the more vulnerable because of the trend towards temporary, less secure jobs, Mr O’Higgins added.

Recent analysis by McKinsey, the consultancy, suggests workers throughout Europe aged 15-24 are almost twice as likely as those aged 25-54 to have jobs at risk: 41 per cent for the young; and 25 per cent otherwise.

For Ireland’s young, the downturn is all the more painful because jobs were plentiful in recent years. Because of rapid job creation in the post-crash recovery, many who were in their teens during the last crisis found work easily once they left school or college. 

“Everyone had jobs. There was no problem with people getting jobs,” said Cian Bonadio, a chef aged 23 who lost his job in a Dublin restaurant virtually overnight in the lockdown. “Most of my friends and colleagues are all out at the moment.”

Daniel Treanor, left, and Cian Bonadio in Bray
Daniel Treanor, left, and Cian Bonadio in Bray © Arthur Beesley

The impact of the lockdown is plain to see in Bray, whose landmark promenade is less than an hour from Dublin. Its seafront hotels are closed, shops and bars are boarded up and amusement arcades are silent.

On a morning walk by the stony beach, Mr Bonadio remained confident of getting back to work after the lockdown, but some employers would not survive, he said. “A lot will fail, [businesses] who are struggling with debts and smaller restaurants.”

His friend Daniel Treanor lost his job in construction. His plans for a working visit to Australia in the autumn are off. “I was in Australia two years ago. A few of us — me and my mates — were hoping to be going back but that’s definitely gone.”

After the 2008 crash many thousands of Ireland’s young jobless left for the US, Britain, Canada and Australia in pursuit of work, just as they did in the economic crises of the 1980s and 1950s.

“Historically [emigration] was the escape valve we’ve used before,” said Mr Coffey, the economist. “That’s not going to be available now. The construction workers in Ireland who are not in employment now, they’re depending on construction activity restarting in Ireland.”

The shutdown in the US has already led some newer emigrants to return. “I had a friend in Los Angeles and he came home about eight weeks ago,” said Mr Treanor. There was no work once the American economy shut. “So he had to get out of there.”

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