From the Ice Bar to the Dole Age

Like most of my generation I grew up being sternly warned that money “doesn’t grow on trees” only to find that – surprise! It did. When you heard people going on about unemployment or the bad old days of the ‘80s they may as well have been talking about the Famine. The whole idea was that distant and irrelevant to us. Being just poor seemed so…old fashioned.
But now I’m looking at a bleak adulthood of belt tightening and it scares me. I was never inoculated against poverty. Even a small dose of it could kill me. I’m not hardy enough for recession. I’ve never had a “real” job and I’m pretty sure that ‘writer/hack living on his wits’ could be one of the first categories of boats to sink in the low tide of bad debts. We’re sort of more dispensable, economically speaking, than say, doctors or engineers.
And it’s starting already. This week my new bank politely declined to give me a credit card. The lady handling my application gave me a tight little smile as though I personally were responsible for the mortgage crisis. I’ve also been trying to budget: shiny toilet paper, walking instead of taxis, making sandwiches for lunch. I decided not to have blinds installed in my new apartment on the grounds that I was never likely to be naked or having sex in the kitchen. The horrors of recession are many.
Of course it doesn’t help that everyone over the age of 35 in Ireland is secretly delighted that there is a recession. Because it puts an end to the “madness” of house price rises and everyone thinking they were rich (when in fact the only ones who were really rich were the ones who could bear to part with their cash – i.e. the young). Also they love it because it teaches people like me, who fecklessly assumed that there’d always be plenty, that there was life before fake tans, Abercrombie and Fitch and the Dundrum Shopping Centre. My mother sent me an email this week, smugly noting that she wasn’t one bit worried because “we all got along just fine before frappucinos”, the whole implication being that a bit of penny pinching might be cleansing for the soul. “But I need my Frapuccino”, I wept. “With chocolate sprinkles”. And my soul doesn’t want improving penury. It wants a flat screen TV and 800 thread count sheets. And the thought that my apartment – the only thing I really own – is not some kind of diligent cash cow, working hard while I waste time chatting online, just kills me.
What makes this worse than the ‘80s is that there’s no place to escape to. You can’t just “take the boat” to somewhere like England or America and get drunk on the floor of an Irish bar until the storm passes, like in the old days. For one thing, it is their bloody fault we’re having a recession in the first place. And for another after so long in namby pampy office jobs and extended education, none of even know how to work in pubs or building sites any more. I’m writing this in New York and the bankers are practically throwing themselves out of windows over here. I’ve noticed that at the moment Americans actually prefer the word “Depression,” they’re settling in for the long haul. Also, I’ve checked and being poor here is nothing like ‘RENT’ or ‘Friends.’ You don’t get to live in a huge, brightly coloured loft directly opposite your best mate’s huge brightly coloured loft. It’s more like: rat infested basement studio in Brooklyn with six locks on the door. I started out with Great Expectations but I suspect now that I am now one interest rate rise away from wandering barefoot through Time Square singing “boy, boy for sale, going cheap, only seven guineas.”
If there is a silver lining to the dawn of this new dole age it’s that maybe it will now finally be acceptable not to work. The boom meant naturally lazy people like me had to get a job: there was no excuse. Now we can just give a little what-can-we-do? shrug and settle back for a life of benefits, daytime television and barely getting by. Just surviving will be enough. If anyone asks we can blame the recession, like they did in the 80s. And we can pretend to future generations that it was really hard, that standing in a queue until the government gave us money was something that we had to suffer so that they could have a better life.
But that sage, I-survived-the-Second-Great-Depression wisdom is a long time in the future. The present will be taken up slowly weaning myself off spur-of-the-moment holidays, glossy property supplements and organic, handcrafted everything. And I’m already getting the shakes and feeling scared. Hold me?

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~ by Donal Lynch on October 9, 2009.

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