Irish youth out o' luck in downturn

An Irish flag being waved in the air


Kai Ryssdal: Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone. Here's your Irish news of the day. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney can add another line to his resume, right above winning this year's Super Bowl. President Obama named Rooney the new American ambassador to Ireland this morning. The announcement was part of a traditional St. Paddy's Day visit to the White House by the Irish prime minister.

Back in Ireland, though, there is less to be celebrating. The Irish economy, once known as the Celtic Tiger, is distinctly whimpering. And young people are scrambling to figure out how to survive. Youth Radio's Pendarvis Harshaw reports.

PENDARVIS HARSHAW: Rosie Ward is 26-years-old and has big dreams. But for now, she's stuck working in a tiny coffee shop in the town of Ardee, about an hour outside of Dublin. The shop used to sell pastries to busloads of tourists and a steady stream of construction workers. This year, business mostly comes from local customers.

ROSIE Ward: It's OK, it's a bit slow at the minute but hopefully things will pick up.

Ward eventually wants to find work as a bookkeeper, settle down with her boyfriend, and start a family. But she's finding it a little difficult to plant seeds on Ireland's unstable economic terrain. Ward's boyfriend is a plasterer, but construction projects are drying up.

Ward: He hasn't had work since the end of November, and so he's heading off to Germany next week for about three months working on a project over there.

Ward says this uncertainty, this need to travel overseas for work, is a new experience for many of her friends who grew up during Ireland's boom years. For most of their lives, foreign investment rolled into the Emerald Isle, creating jobs and expanding credit.

Cormack Lynch is a former investment banker who left Ireland in the 1980s, when career prospects were limited. When Lynch returned two decades later, he saw many Irish living beyond their means.

CORMACK Lynch: The government decided that all this extra wealth that was coming into Ireland that they would basically just have low taxes, and let the Irish population have that money themselves. So what you then had was rampant house-price inflation and very little investment in services. What has happened now is that Irish people have suddenly come to the point where they realize they can't borrow any more money.

With the Irish economy now in a rut, Lynch says there's only one piece of advice he'd give recent college graduates.

Lynch: If it was me, I'd leave Ireland. I'd be outta here for a couple years, tour the world. I think it's going to be very depressing.

In Dublin, there are plenty of young professionals who're having a hard time finding good employment. Twenty-seven-year-old lawyer Keira Shaughnessey says salaries at her firm have been cut 30 percent. She says she knows plenty of young lawyers who plan to leave the country.

KEIRA Shaughnessey: People are being forced to go abroad, and people are very well educated so they're not going to be willing to stay here and get handouts from the government.

Today, Ireland's unemployment rate is at ten percent, the same level as before the boom. Back in Ardee, waitress Rosie Ward is saving her money for a summer trip to Australia, where she'd also be looking for work until the Irish economy recovers.

Ward: Luckily my job is safe at the minute. But who's to say this time next year if we're still going to be here?

That's not something this generation thought they'd be asking themselves, after growing up during one of the most prosperous times Ireland has ever seen. For now, their lofty dreams have been put on hold.

In Ardee, Ireland, I'm Pendarvis Harshaw, for Marketplace.

RYSSDAL: That story was produced by Youth Radio with Ireland's Ardmore Sound.


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