As Europe’s attention focuses on Ireland, the latest British Council Next Generation research reveals the hopes and fears of young people on both sides of the border. The findings show high levels of optimism about the future, tempered by some concerns about the impact of Brexit and more about education and employment.

Lives Entwined

Today’s headlines are dominated by the UK’s planned departure from the EU, which, given the complexities of border issues, is continuing to tax the minds of policymakers across the UK, Ireland, and Europe

This is a significant year for the island of Ireland. Last year marked 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and 10 years since the financial crash that took a heavy toll on the Irish and UK economies. Today’s headlines are dominated by the UK’s planned departure from the EU, which, given the complexities of border issues, is continuing to tax the minds of policymakers across the UK, Ireland, and Europe.

In this context the British Council selected Ireland and Northern Ireland as the focus for its latest Next Generation research. This research engages with young people in countries undergoing major social or political changes, and looks at how this is impacting on their lives, their sense of self and of their country, and their hopes – and concerns – for the future. Building on the notion of ‘Lives Entwined’, that our previous series of essays from across the islands had started, it was decided to look at young people in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, knowing that the changes wrought by whatever Brexit settlement is decided will impact both north and south of the border.

A ‘Snowflake’ Generation?

Looking into the research itself, it seems that young people on both sides of the border have a lot in common with their peers globally, sharing views we have uncovered with other Next Generation research. Many are dissatisfied with the education they received, with particular criticism for systems that prioritised the passing of exams over real learning and critical thinking. One idea, which was raised in focus groups, was to have more stress on life skills and independent living, such as how to manage personal finances.  

When it comes to the world after education, this proves a real test for young people across the island. There were worries about lack of jobs (77 % saying this was a concern to a great or some extent); job security (79 %) and low pay (81 %). This was most profound in Northern Ireland, where, 90 % of young people expressed concern about lack of jobs. In both countries, young people talked about the need to go elsewhere to find opportunities for work, but were aware of the damage to their countries if too many talented people leave and don’t return. In addition, while many are thinking of seeking work outside the island of Ireland, only half of young people surveyed felt their education had prepared them to live and work abroad.

It should also be noted that concerns over employment, or poor job security and low pay even when in a job, has effects beyond the purely economic. Many research participants who were struggling to find work (or had done so in the past) explained that they frequently felt demoralised, depressed, apprehensive, angry, and embarrassed by not being able to secure regular employment. The report notes the potential for a mental health crisis across Ireland and Northern Ireland, and that their concerns about job insecurity, the high costs of housing, and the pressures wrought by social media should be acknowledged and addressed, rather than dismissing them as the anxieties of a ‘snowflake’ generation.

The snowflake sobriquet is often applied in the case of those who take an interest in social justice, and our research shows that is certainly the case with young people in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Many stated that discrimination and prejudice within their own country was an issue – 66 % of respondents in Northern Ireland felt this way – with young people from Northern Ireland also living with the legacy of ‘the Troubles’ and continued inter-community tensions. Looking beyond the island, survey respondents noted global terrorism, poverty, and climate change as major concerns, although focus group discussions suggested that some young people felt they had little capacity to influence the outcome of these issues and that their feelings would not be taken seriously by decision makers.

This attitude perhaps contributes to the fact that trust in political institutions is worryingly low among this age group. 36 % of the Northern Ireland group stated that they had no trust at all in the Northern Ireland Assembly; we can guess that the political deadlock of more than two years has not helped. The figure was lower for their counterparts in Ireland, yet 17 % there stated they had absolutely no trust in politicians in the Dáil. Yet despite the lack of trust, the cynicism about politics in general (“All I see is a small number of people who look and sound alike, who don’t seem to do anything at all and are paid more than I’ll ever make”) and the lack of interest in voting, the focus groups showed that they were engaged in social movements, citing concerns like the ‘Repeal the 8th’ pro-choice movement in Ireland and issues such as LGBT rights as areas where they are involved.

Social media has been a facilitator for this sort of action, with more than 60 % of respondents feeling that it was a good way of learning about social and political issues. Despite the concern about ‘fake news’ and echo chambers, the Next Generation research shows that young people are well aware of these dangers and believed that it was important to scrutinise the sources of information they receive.

Around half of the respondents were somewhat or greatly concerned about Brexit (although around half were unconcerned or unsure)

Looking ahead, Brexit is an immediate concern, around half of the respondents were somewhat or greatly concerned about it (although around half were unconcerned or unsure). While a number of focus group participants stated they either felt uninformed or that they had lost interest in the discussions, others suggested a wide range of particular areas of concern, including impact on border communities, access to valuable funding streams, and increased political instability.

Despite the myriad challenges the young people feel they are facing, when asked about their lives, 86 % state they feel very optimistic or optimistic. This matches the outlook of their peers worldwide – similar results were noted in Next Generation studies from South Africa to Colombia. Explanations vary – the natural optimism of youth, or perhaps by being optimistic they are willing themselves a better future, or that they feel the pressure to be upbeat and hopeful for what comes next.

As for the reasons for their outlook: across the board, they felt had better access to educational opportunities and improved health outcomes when compared to previous generations. This, they note, is balanced by feeling worse off when it comes to housing and greater insecurity overall. As one focus group participant stated: “I definitely think that we have much greater opportunities than our parents, but we have much more pressure. I think the rewards are also bigger, but so is the competition.”

In the end, why all of this is important is best phrased by Next Generation advisory group members Tara Grace Connolly and Harry McCann note in the foreword to the research: “We would like policymakers…to understand the needs and concerns of the young people who call this island home. We would like them to take stock of the recommendations that emanate from this research…ensuring our generation is not cut out of dialogue around the Brexit negotiations, which will have significant impact on our futures. Importantly, we ask them to listen to us…the way to create strong and positively impactful policy is to engage with young people directly…”.