Irish Millennials and the Politics of Paradox

ElectionBy David Kitching, Director of Social & Political Research at AudienceNet

International commentary on political disengagement in recent years has increasingly come to focus on the so-called “millennial” generation, i.e. those born between 1980 and 2000. The term is often used in a pejorative sense and it comes replete with generalisations and stereotypes of a cohort that is lazy, entitled and apathetic. The narrative is one of adulthood delayed, as higher proportions live with their parents or in shared accommodation while home ownership, stable employment and starting a family become increasingly out of reach.

It is with a view to better understanding millennials’ aspirations and values that the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and the Center for American Progress launched the “Millennial Dialogue”. They commissioned AudienceNet to survey millennials in twenty-two countries across four continents. The project comprised nationally representative samples of 1,000 16-35 year olds in each country (1,500 in the US) followed by longitudinal online qualitative research. It is the most widespread and in-depth survey of its kind, and the Irish round was completed just before the 2016 General Election.

Internationally, the more nuanced picture drawn in this research undermined many of the clichés circulated about millennials. Amid the perception of entitlement, there emerged a vast chasm between expectation and reality. Growing up in an age of optimism and relative plenty, to many millennials, their parents’ standard of living appeared reasonably attainable. But international trends saw the erosion of the funding base for public services and credit masked the reduction of the wage-to-GDP ratio. Personal debt expanded from funding housing and other major purchases to tuition fees and even consumption.

Ireland represents something of an extreme version of this international dynamic. While Irish Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers did not experience the prosperity of their international counterparts, Irish millennials are very much a product of the Celtic Tiger era, both economically and attitudinally. A higher proportion aspire to own or run their own business than any other career option suggested, showing a strong entrepreneurial spirit. At the same time, millennials in Ireland and abroad appear to have a paradoxical relationship with the state. They are in favour of ample public provision but do not wish to bear the tax burden required for this. Essentially, the perception prevails that the social contract was broken by someone else and the responsibility to fix it lies elsewhere.

Still, 80% of Irish millennials are generally optimistic about the future. They imagine Ireland in twenty years time will be more technologically advanced, inclusive, diverse and socially liberal. Yet the severance of the economic and social relationship with the state is mirrored in political and administrative terms. Millennials do not foresee a strong role for politics in realising social progress; nor do they see engagement with party politics as an effective means of solving persistent problems.

Ireland is no different from international counterparts in this regard, and the preference for single-issue campaigning has resulted in a hollowing out of party politics, as per the late Peter Mair’s analysis. Even when parties have taken a lead on specific issues, it can be difficult for them to take ownership of their success. While the Labour Party pushed Marriage Equality on to the Programme for Government, respondents were more likely to credit “all the main parties” or the Yes Equality campaign group with its passage into law, as evidenced by that party’s evisceration at the polls.

In short, millennials do not trust established parties, and show a stronger attraction to independents and smaller parties, precisely because they are not attracted to holding office. As such, the national surge in independent candidates seems unlikely to crystallise into a new party structure as millennials age. Yet it raises a major conundrum for millennials. In Ireland, the most prominent issues from a list of priorities for politicians to pursue included housing, health and employment. Water provision and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution emerged unprompted as further priorities. After the Marriage Equality referendum, many feel emboldened to mobilise around these issues too. However, with no direct link to the legislative process it is difficult to see how such campaigns could have any potency or efficacy.

The Millennial Dialogue project utilises highly connected research methods for this most connected of generations and draws an empirical link between Ireland and millennials around the world. In comparative terms, Irish millennials are a sum of their parts. While they share many of the characteristics of other millennials, they do so in the context of an Ireland that has seen rapid social, economic and political change as they came of age. This is not an apathetic generation but one has faced into numerous challenges with pragmatism and drive. It remains to be seen whether this pragmatic outlook will eventually lead to engagement with politics as currently conceived or if the aftermath of this most recent general election will be further atomisation.

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