Avocado toast and the millennial blame game

22 May 2017

Image: zjuzjaka/Shutterstock

Expecting millennials to pick up the tab for problems caused by previous generations is immoral and pointless. We are all in this together, writes John Kennedy.

Every generation labours under a conceit that it had it tougher than the generations that follow it.

This is certainly true in Ireland, where, psychologically, we never really recovered from the Great Famine of 165 years ago and the lack of confidence that the drip-drip effect of emigration had on people’s self-esteem.

As a Generation Xer, my peers labour under a certain notion that we have survived numerous recessions, the dot-com bust, the birth of the peace process, the death of Kurt Cobain (and now Chris Cornell); that we are old enough to carry the scars, and young enough to do something with the wisdom.

That depends on what you do with your time.

My generation were lucky enough, however, to see a surge in employment in the 1990s that allowed us to build careers at home, have disposable income, rent easily, enjoy our 20s and travel for leisure rather than take the emigration ticket – that is, until the 2008 financial meltdown warped reality forever.

As the great recession blighted dreams, there was a genuine sense of betrayal among then 20 and 30-somethings (now 30 and 40-somethings) who bought their first homes and were suddenly fighting redundancy and negative equity, aggrieved against a cosy elite of an older generation cosseted by property and fine pension pots.

My generation felt: ‘We built it and they destroyed it.’ A sense of ladders being pulled up inside round towers by civil servants took hold, while civilians outside had to brave the marauding Troika Vikings, as sheepish ministers retired slyly on sumptuous pensions.

X, Y and stirring the avocado latte pot

I had forgotten all about this blame game until I came across the comments made last week by Australian millionaire property tycoon Tim Gurner, who told Australia’s 60 Minutes: “When I was buying my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for 19 bucks and four coffees at $4 each.”

He was giving advice for young people buying their first home and probably meant well, but it came across as a hypocritical hammering of so-called millennial spending habits.

Gurner – a millionaire at 35 – didn’t realise it, but he created a pop culture moment in an era defined by hipster beards, kale and craft beer. In a way, it was a seminal moment.

It wasn’t so much Gurner’s culinary estimation of Generation Y that left a bad taste in people’s mouths – it was the unfairness of it.

First off, we need to realise that Gurner grew up and is based in Australia, a country that has not known recession for decades. He hails from Melbourne – an avowed hipster haven – where a good economy with plenty of well-paying jobs allows for people to sate their eclectic tastes for food and fashion. And, of course, in the backlash, he has been accused of being helped to get onto the property ladder through a $34,000 gift from his grandfather, which he denies.

Last week, as I sat down with the founders of a new start-up in Dublin, both in their early 20s, they themselves brought Gurner’s comment up. “I don’t know what he’s talking about but it has had a huge effect,” one of them piped up, bemused by it all.

Like I said, Gurner’s perspective is forged in Australia, a country in rude economic health.

I appraised the two entrepreneurs before me and asked them about their memories growing up. They recognised the sentiment when I talked of worried families sitting around dinner tables discussing redundancy, negative equity and the potential loss of the family home.

We are forgetting what these people saw at impressionable young ages almost a decade ago, as Ireland plunged into its worst economic crisis for decades. And now we are asking them to build their lives and contribute to society. But it has to be a fair society that they are in on. That should be the deal.

It is clear to me that millennials, as we call them, mostly young people in their 20s on the first rungs of their careers, are being unfairly maligned.

Dublin’s present tech boom – with offices that resemble playgrounds and food fairs – are still a far cry from the reality in the rest of the country and across the private sector.

And city living is getting more and more expensive.

New data from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform published in the Irish Independent suggests that it was a tale of two countries over the last decade. While hundreds of thousands of job losses in the private sector following the recession saw unemployment soar to 15pc, just 55 of the country’s 37,146 civil servants have lost their jobs since the end of the boom years.

A fighting chance in the game of life

Think about it. If you are in your 20s in Ireland, the US, the UK or certain European countries, you are earning less than your counterparts did 10 or 15 years ago. A lot less.

If you are living in Dublin, London, San Francisco, or virtually any city or big town, then getting a place to rent is next to impossible.

And forget about getting on the property ladder in Ireland unless you can magically pull together €50,000 for a deposit.

For most college-goers in the 1990s, education was free. Now, finding student digs is next to impossible, we are crippling stretched families with abundant college registration fees, and we are talking about saddling college students with loans well into their 30s or 40s.

What kind of a life will we be asking them to live? Because, I can tell you now with certainty, that is no life.

Instead of embarking on a generation blame game, the ultimate question is: what kind of a community do we want to be and what expectations can we give people to hope for when they set their feet on the first rungs of career and property ladders?

“They call us snowflakes,” one of my entrepreneurs jeered. “Most of my friends don’t actually work in multinationals and some are also trying to start companies. We do not earn those kind of wages you read about.”

They laughed when I told them ‘entrepreneur’ used to be a dirty word and that institutionally, in government circles, there is still a paranoid distrust of founders, as can be seen by the dilapidated capital gains tax and share ownership regime.

Instead, they felt strongly that starting a company should be seen as a kind of right of passage. They are not wrong.

It gets harder to start up a business as you get older. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it is just more complicated.

It is easier to start a business in your 20s, fail and learn from it because, by the time the 30s roll around, you may have a family, a mortgage and other responsibilities. By your 40s, your kids may be in school or college, the bills are mounting up and you may still have that mortgage. Failure is not an option and you can see why fewer people feel entrepreneurial and become risk-averse as they get older.

Rather than splitting up into different categories, we need to start thinking as one community and consider what real expectations of life can be for future generations.

We need to take the frictions out of gaining an education, finding work and starting a business.

Instead of pointing the finger, dismissing younger generations for the temerity of, well, being young, and fooling yourself into believing you had it harder, it would be wiser to show empathy and put yourself in their shoes.

Saddling the young with problems caused by the generations that came before them is not an option – it is a lazy get-out clause.

It is not just about the dignity of a job and a roof over your head, a place to call home, the ability to save for a rainy day; people need to live, taste life and adventure, too.

After all, who do you think will be paying for society’s upkeep when you retire?

Tim Gurner, you can have your avocado toast and eat it.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years