Let’s not play the generation blame game



Resentment is a sneaky emotion – a corrosive “you’ve got what I don’t have and I blame you” feeling. I don’t like it when people foment that kind of attitude.  I especially don’t like it when I am on the receiving end.

But, hey, that’s the way things are when you are a member of the senior generation these days. How about the opening of Rory Hearne’s new book, Gaff :“There is a generational fissure growing in this country, it is generational inequality in housing. A generation is being locked out of one of the most basic of human needs – a home.”

Generation Y, that’s the cohort in their 20s, 30s and 40s, are hurting. Despite all their efforts through school, college and in the jobs market, they can’t get started on the housing ladder. Instead, they are being crucified by eye-watering rents, stuck in their parents’ homes or have left Ireland in favour of greener pastures.

That generational divide gets worse too, because not only are us baby boomers sitting on appreciating assets but homeless Generation Y are having to foot the soaring pensions bill for a growing number of retirees on top of exorbitant childcare bills, soaring energy costs and the way job security is being eroded in a fast-changing employment market. Fuel is added to the flames when the senior generation are labelled ’a pensions time-bomb’.

There is always a certain tension between generations where the upcoming one, with different values, is impatient to do things their way once the previous generation move out of the way. But dialogue about the divide is very selective, ignoring much of the picture and stirring the resentment pot.

The gratitude element is entirely missing in the discourse about generational divide, forgetting we homeowners helped to create Ireland’s flourishing economy, battled to liberalise its laws and, as our families grew up, gave them a far more privileged childhood than they ever had themselves. Perhaps that’s why Generation Y feel entitled, and expect to be handed everything rather than contributing to solutions.

Hearne’s book, sub-titled ‘why no one can get a house and what we can do about it’, is a timely one. Though there is a great deal more about what is wrong with the housing market than solutions. To be fair he doesn’t blame home-owning parents but rather the failure of Government policy for locking a generation out of the housing market. (Funny, a recent survey showed that 50% of house purchasers and 76% in Dublin were first-time buyers).

One of Hearne’s proposals is that we should have a constitutional right to housing. Really? The Constitution gives us the right to own property and the right to the inviolability of that property. It seems that only two nations, France and South Africa, have given a constitutional promise on housing. But looking around at shacks in townships on a recent visit to South Africa I can see that such a promise is an empty one without the policy and finance to carry it through.

Part of the housing challenge is one of affordability. Housing here is commoditised and is about profit. Our first home in Dublin only cost us 5000 Punts back in the ‘70s but then, as now, it was a struggle. Parents helped, I had to take in lodgers and get freelance work to help make ends meet and that was after years living in grotty bedsits. And I mean truly grotty: one friend remembers how he killed two rats before he got out of bed in Rathmines (or should that be Ratmines). Now. the average house price in Dublin is €481,250 and property prices are rising at about €100 a day.

The dialogue bemoaning the burden pensioners pose is very one dimensional (what’s meant to happen to us oldies? Should we be disposed of ?). It ignores the fact that the birth rate has halved so there will be fewer workers in future to support pensions. It doesn’t consider how people differ widely in the way that that they age, whether or not they want to continue working, ageist employment practices and so on. The current plan to allow people to continue working to 70, if they want to, is at least a bit nuanced.

We all need to be part of the debate and solutions to housing and pensions without dividing the generations and making us oldies feel that we should apologise for ourselves.

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