Michael Clifford and Diarmuid Doyle have offered a welcome perspective on the phenomenon known as David McWilliams in the Sunday Tribune (November 12/06). While it is widely recognised that society is undergoing profound changes arising from economic growth and youthful demographics it is imperative to be precise about the nature and extent of those changes, lest we confuse the social interests of a relative minority with that of everyone else.
The provocative Mr. McWilliams, in defending the focus of his new RTE series, In Search of the The Pope’s Children, stated on Questions & Answers (November 6/06) that the issues of poverty and low incomes was the subject of another story. Yes, indeed, and what a story.
Young people, that demographic group born after Pope John Paul’s visit to Ireland, suffer some of the worst wage exploitation in the economy. The latest National Employment Survey from 2003 provides considerable evidence of this.
In that year, the Council of Europe’s Threshold of Decency was just under €10 per hour. This threshold is set at 60% of net average income. One can imagine living standards on that level – the shared cost of an average Dublin apartment, alone, would take up over a third of that threshold. However, for most young people the situation is far worse.
The average wage for young people aged 15 to 25 years was €10.44 per hour (in the private sector where the overwhelming majority of young people work, the figure was slightly lower at €10). But there is always a potential that averages hide huge disparities.
Fortunately the survey includes the median wage. The median wage is that level at which 50% of employees earn less and 50% earn more. The median wage for young people was a lowly €9.30 per hour. Therefore, 50% of the youth workforce made below this amount – a level which is substantially below the Decency Threshold.
Young people in full-time work fared little better: half earned less than €10.05. But the real victims were part-timers: half of all young part-time workers earned less than €7.14 – nearly €3 per hour less than the Decency Threshold.
Some have argued that the situation isn’t so bad since many of these young employees live in decent earning households. There is some truth to this – some. But given that the majority of households earn less than the national average this argument can only go so far. The most appropriate response to this is that those young workers better stay at home – they wouldn’t have an economic hope on their own.
Mr McWilliams is right – it is another story. A very big story. As the National Employment Survey shows, most of the Pope’s children are in low-pay, earning below both the Threshold of Decency and the EU Low-pay Threshold. Taking a cue from the Sunday Tribune, might I suggest this story be entitled, ‘The Pope’s Other Children’. It deserves to be a best-seller, too.