For Many Young Irish, First Taste of Hard Times

Residents in the town of Limerick are grappling with the new economic reality. Members of the younger generation, who have never weathered a downturn, are especially affected. Video by Kevin Sullivan/The Washington Post, Edited by Francine Uenuma/
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

LIMERICK, Ireland -- Niall O'Donoghue grew up in a rich country. He got an architecture degree, a top-paying job with a pay raise every year and a bonus at Christmas.

O'Donoghue and his wife bought a house in the city and another in the country. They have two cars, two mortgages and two children under age 2. Then a month ago, O'Donoghue, 33, was laid off, jobless for the first time in his life, another well-dressed victim of one of the world's fastest and deepest economic reversals.

"It's a bit of a shock to the system, especially for my generation," O'Donoghue said one recent morning, waiting in the cold with dozens of other people in line outside the Limerick unemployment office. "I don't think things will ever be as good as they were in the last five, six or seven years. That's the bitter truth of it."

Young Irish people accustomed to economic boom times have suddenly found themselves living a bleak page out of Irish history. Many in their 20s and 30s -- a generation raised on the assumption of jobs and prosperity at home -- have had their expectations crushed by the global economic crisis.

On the gloomiest St. Patrick's Day in years, the national jobless rate stands at 10.4 percent, more than twice the rate at this time last year. More than 354,000 people signed up last month for unemployment benefits, an 87 percent increase over the previous year.

After 20 years of roaring growth during Ireland's "Celtic Tiger" economy, the government is bailing out teetering banks; the construction industry, which had driven the boom, is at a standstill. Property prices have crashed and stores and factories are closing.

Young professionals who bought houses -- and often second homes as far away as Spain and Bulgaria -- are stuck with mortgages worth more than the properties.

Well-educated young workers are losing jobs they assumed were safe, and finding it hard to adjust to problems they thought belonged to their parents and grandparents.

"This was the last thing I expected," said Joanne Martin, 24, who pulled up to the unemployment office in a sporty two-seater Mazda.

Martin said she graduated from college with degrees in bioengineering and biotechnology and interned with NASA in Florida. But she is still out of work after applying for at least 100 positions in at least 20 different companies. "I never thought it would be like this."

Older Irish people remember recessions of the past when the most reliable route to a job was to emigrate to Britain, the United States and beyond.

"It's part of our experience as a nation, successive generations have done that," Prime Minister Brian Cowen said in an interview in Limerick last week. "The fact that the recession is global means those gateways aren't available at the moment."

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