As property values soar, Ireland's generations divide on returns

Many older people gained equity, while young people try to pay large mortgages.

Even as concerns about bad debt fueled Britain's worst financial crisis in 15 years last month, a bestselling Irish author warned in a new book that Ireland's skyrocketing property prices have left young adults mired in debt.

Across Ireland, the average price of a new house rose almost 400 percent between 1996 and 2006, creating inequality between an older generation who bought before the decade-long economic "Celtic Tiger" boom and young people starting to pay off a mortgage.

With a 16 percent rise in population in the past decade, Ireland is second only to Iceland in Europe in its proportion of residents under age 15.

"The lion's share of the €500 billion [$694 billion] in wealth is held by [those over 40] and ... the vast majority of the €161 billion debt figure is lumbered on the under-40s," writes David McWilliams in "The Generation Game," which dissects the social classes spawned by the Celtic Tiger. "The young are getting into huge debt, while the old are basking in unparalleled housing wealth."

This property inflation has outstripped wages, which have been held in check by a succession of national wage agreements. Since the late 1990s, public-sector pay increases have averaged about 4 percent annually.

But while the economic boom vaulted one of Europe's poorest countries into one of its wealthiest and most energetic, there's a debate about its costs to society – financially and otherwise.

Days after the book's Sept. 15 publication, Germany's ambassador to Ireland, Christian Pauls, commented in a public talk that "the question being posed in Ireland was whether the new prosperity had made Irish society a rougher, less caring one." Ireland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the comments as "inaccurate, misinformed, and inappropriate."

Boost or bane for social equality?

Christopher Whelan, a research professor at the Dublin-based Economic and Social Research Institute, cites a report he coauthored on the social impact of the Celtic Tiger, "Best Of Times? The Social Impact of the Celtic Tiger," which outlined a high level of satisfaction and social integration in suburban neighborhoods.

"Critics of the Celtic Tiger often claim that it has enriched the economy but weakened society," he says. "They say that wealth has come at the cost of wider social inequality, declining community life, too much emphasis on work and competition, a more selfish, materialist approach to life, and many other social ills. This gloomy view of the social consequences of Ireland's recent prosperity is not justified by our report."

But falling levels of volunteerism and charity suggest a society that is becoming stingier with its time and money. Ireland has long maintained high levels of charitable donations. In 1985, with excessive budget deficits, minimal growth, and 17 percent unemployment, Ireland donated more money per person to the fundraiser Live Aid than any other country.

"Irish people are giving more to charities now than prior to the economic boom, but it is less as a percentage of their disposable income," says James Carroll of Trinity College, who has researched whether Ireland's economic growth has influenced charitable giving. "These figures, as a measure of generosity, suggest that we have become less charitable." Volunteerism reached a low point as the economy was at its peak in the late 1990s.

Author McWilliams warns that the unparalleled wealth many are enjoying could disappear, at least in part, when the property boom ends. For many, wealth is only on paper – a result of the value of their property..

"It would seem that many people have borrowed more than they can afford, and these people are going to be in trouble in the future," says Morgan Kelly an economist at University College Dublin. "They'll be stuck in their homes for years with negative equity."

Loans five times customers' income

He says Ireland has no formalized credit-rating system. Professor Kelly points out that many institutions will lend customers five or six times their income. Furthermore, Irish bankruptcy laws are harsher than those in the US or Britain.

Minister of Finance Brian Cowen admitted in September that economic growth this year will fall short of the government's estimate of 4.5 percent. But he described this slowdown as an "impressively soft landing for an economy that has gone through one of the most dramatic shifts in performance in the history of the developed world."

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