What happened on Friday was truly odd. In the same breath, the Irish electorate triumphantly extended equality to same-sex couples, and resoundingly denied it to young people. The result sent an unequivocal message: adults under the age of 35 are not held in equal esteem to those above that age. No matter how exceptional, competent or popular the individual, the idea of a person younger than 35 even presenting themselves to the electorate as a candidate for the highest office of State is apparently so preposterous as to require constitutional prohibition. To paraphrase three-quarters of the electorate: “It’s not just that we won’t vote for you. We won’t even let you run”. Granted, the mere representation of marginalised groups in political office does not necessarily translate to improved conditions – but their unqualified exclusion is symbolic of broader structural problems.
The insidious ageism of Irish society is so deeply entrenched that the irony of the referendum result has received little comment. Tens of thousands of those inspired to vote Yes to one amendment by the impressively uplifting “Yes Equality” campaign apparently saw no contradiction in rejecting the other. The admirable and selfless treks made home by many young Irish emigrés, under the banner #hometovote, generated much approving chatter. Few questioned why so many were gone in the first place.
Young people are, by every measure, a marginalised group in Irish society. Unemployment rates remain more than twice as high for those under 25 (21.1 per cent for March 2015) than for other age groups (8.7 per cent for the same period). Entering the workforce at a time of severe economic crisis not of their making, this highly educated generation is finding itself squeezed by a dearth of opportunities.