– Dan O’Neill writes about the youth response to austerity in Ireland and the role of trade unions in this movement.

This piece was originally posted on the Young Workers Network here.

There’s Never Been So Many Young People

Since the economic crisis began there have been strong youth movements taking action across the globe.

From the barrios of Venezuela to the favelas of Brazil; the squares of Egypt to the streets of Quebec and Chile; young people have been demanding that their voices are listened to against a wave of conservative opposition.

According to the UN, 2.8 billion people across the developing world are under the age of 24.

In the Middle East and North Africa, it’s estimated that over 65% of the population are under the age of 24.

Here in Ireland, young people make up about 40% of the population making our population one of the youngest amongst the EU 15.

Young People are Under Attack

Yet at the same time, young people are under attack. A vocal minority with wealth and power  are determined to continue austerity in an effort to protect themselves from the worst features of economic collapse by burdening citizens who had very little to do with the bad decisions of the past with the weight of the financial meltdown.

Youth services in communities up and down the country have seen funding cut and money has never been tighter in NGOs that sought to reach out to young people in the past.

Things aren’t much better when it comes to employment.

30.8% of people under the age of 25 in Ireland are unable to get a job.

Those young people lucky enough to find work are over 4 times more likely to end up in precarious employment.

47% of jobs held by young people are part time.

Just ask anyone you know who works in the services sector about the conditions they’re working in and they’ll tell you about the lack of hours they’re getting and the pressure they’re under to make ends meet on a weekly basis.

Others in education, face sinking into debt with costs rising and others trying to set themselves up for the first time are facing rising rental costs.

“Unions have to address the fact that the nature of the workplaces young people find themselves in is different from those of the past.”

“Unions have to address the fact that the nature of the workplaces young people find themselves in is different from those of the past.”

Slow to Create an Alternative Narrative

Unlike their peers overseas however, Irish young people have been slow to create a narrative that connects them in a battle for an alternative solution to our common problems. Even those politically engaged feel let down by the political parties they campaigned for in the 2011 general election.

I don’t believe in the story of apathetic youth however. If we create a space for young people to engage with the political debate, I’m certain things can change.

Trade Unions

Trade unions are by far one of the largest movements in the country. 35% of workers are members of trade unions. Much more people are members of a trade union than all of the political parties put together.

And yet most media outlets paint a picture of unions as niche organisations, selfishly pushing their own “vested interests”.

They treat unions as if they are full of bearded dinosaurs, with no right to engage in public debate rather than the nurses, educators, community workers, waste management workers, hotel & restaurant workers, cleaners, drivers, food production workers and shop workers that provide the vital services we all use on a daily basis.

Unions Must Learn From the Young

If unions are to avoid being painted like this (although granted this is often difficult with a media that sometimes won’t even recognise unions in their own offices), they need to learn from the innovative ideas of the young and create the space to begin the narrative that is so badly needed.

Unions have to address the fact that the nature of the workplaces young people find themselves in is different from those of the past. They need to realise that whether or not we like it, the “job for life” is dying, work is more insecure and workers might have to jump from job to job far more regularly than they’d like to.

If  unions aren’t going to be painted as sectional interests, they must attempt to reach out to the vast amount of unemployed people in our society. They must build links with young people in education and unite people, young and old in battles that address their common interests.

Unions can and must act as a platform for a new generation of social activists to vent the anger of a population being ground down by failed austerity politics.

The Times They are a Changin’

Initiatives like The Young Workers’ Network and 1913 Unfinished Business are a modest start in this process. Over the last number of weeks, young people from diverse background have been meeting around the country to get a new movement up and running.  It’s up to anyone who believes that things can be better to get involved and make sure that these initiatives don’t fail.

To find out more, come along to the next Young Workers’ Network Event.

Dan O’ Neill (@activedan) is a human rights activist, a SIPTU member and is involved in the Young Workers’ Network.