If you’re in your 30s, you might want to look away now. Ten years ago, your age bracket was the highest earning on average in Northern Ireland’s private sector, with average earnings more than one-fifth higher than the typical person aged over-60. Today, those in their 30s earn less than any other older working age-bracket. That’s a significant change in a 10-year period and is very much worth exploring.
In pounds and pence terms, the average employee in their 30s working full-time in Northern Ireland’s private sector now earns £25,000. This compares to £22,700 in 2008 which would be £28,500 in today’s money (i.e. adjusted for inflation). That means today’s thirty somethings earn £3,500 per annum (or 12 percent) less than their equivalents did a decade ago. They are not alone in being worse off, with those in their 20s, 40s and 50s also now earning less on average when adjusted for inflation – though to a lesser extent. The exception is the over 60s, where the average person in this bracket earns almost £1,900 more (+8 percent) today in real terms than 10 years ago.
So, what has been going on?
One thing to bear in mind is that those in their 30s were of course in their twenties 10 years ago. This means that they were potentially leaving college or university, or in the early stages of their career, whenever the global financial crisis and subsequent recession hit. This commenced an era of significant cost-cutting, hiring freezes, rising unemployment and many doors completely closing in terms of career opportunities. Arguably this was one of the worst times to have entered the UK workplace since World War II. The recession and subsequent ‘cost of living crisis’ encouraged an increasing number of economically inactive people who had skills, qualifications and experience to re-enter the labour market.
The exodus of young construction workers and professionals from Northern Ireland to places like the Middle East and Australia highlights the point. Global trade was also falling at its fastest rate since World War II and manufacturers locally were shedding jobs at a significant rate. This impacted more on the 20-somethings than any other age-bracket. Competition for work was fierce and youth unemployment in Northern Ireland peaked at 25 percent in Q3 2013. Prospects for young people in the Republic of Ireland and the Eurozone were even bleaker.
This lost decade has had a knock-on effect in the economy in many ways. Homeownership amongst 30-somethings in Northern Ireland fell in a 10-year period from almost 75 percent to 55 percent. So 30-somethings today are much more likely to be in private rented accommodation which means that they haven’t benefited from record low interest rates in the way they would have if they had mortgages and in the way those now in their 40s and 50s have. They also have to contend with paying off student tuition fees in a way that previous generations didn’t.
By contrast, many people who were in their 30s a decade ago perhaps benefited, relatively speaking, in some respects from the financial crisis. They were in many instances the least likely to be made redundant and also benefited from openings further up the corporate ladder created by more senior, more expensive people leaving through redundancy or early retirement. That’s part of the reason those in their 40s are now relatively better off than those currently in their 30s.
But it’s not all bad news for those now in their 30s. Whilst doors were closing to them a decade ago in areas such as construction and manufacturing, there were also doors opening in new and emerging industries and sectors. 10 years ago, the term cyber security was barely known in Northern Ireland, today Belfast has the highest concentration of cyber security jobs in Europe. The tourism sector has also boomed in recent years to become something barely recognisable from a decade ago, creating all kinds of opportunities in hospitality.
Some of the sectors that were very badly hit a decade ago have also had something of a renaissance in recent years, particularly manufacturing, but also a lesser degree construction. Indeed, manufacturing employment is now at a 16-year high and the issue the sector has is no longer a shortage of job opportunities, it’s a shortage of skills to fill the available posts.
The shift in generational wealth, which has impacted negatively on younger generations, has been recognised at a political level and parties have shifted their policies towards helping the under-40s. Going forward, the direction of travel is more taxation to pay for the NHS, social care, and our aging population. The question is who is going to pay? We’ve already seen measures like an introduction of higher rates of stamp duty on second homes – effectively a policy targeting the wealth of those aged 50 and above. One thing we are also likely to see is a watering down of benefits for the elderly such as the introduction of means testing for things like the winter fuel allowance.
Political manifestos will likely continue to adapt and change to deal with this generational divide as the years go on. When Stormont is back up and running, it will likely be on its agenda too.