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Most first-year college students came into the world during Bertie Ahern’s first year as taoiseach. They were born with The Spice Girls and Oasis playing in the background and Titanic and The Full Monty on the big screen. The Good Friday Agreement was signed and Ireland was moving into the era of the Celtic Tiger.

The teen years of Bertie’s Babies were marked by the biggest global economic crisis since the 1930s, as well as an ongoing revolution in technology that continues to change how we communicate and interact.

The once dominant Catholic Church has little influence on most of their lives, and those with an interest cheered almost unanimously at the results of last year’s marriage equality referendum.

In many ways, this age group have never had as many opportunities. Those in third level represent about 60 per cent of their age group (it was just 20 per cent in 1980), and up to 10 per cent more will take part in further education and training.

The world of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat allows them to connect instantaneously. Where once a “community” was defined by your street or village, it can now refer to other who share your interests – no matter where they live in the world.

Still, these young people will also inherit enormous global political challenges: climate change, migration crises, issues of food and energy security, terrorism, balancing technology advances with the needs of security and privacy.

The biggest challenge of all, though, will be bridging the gap between those who feel that they are part of this brave new world and those who feel excluded.

Youth unemployment continues to run at twice the average national rate, and a significant minority of Bertie’s Babies will not go on to college or have training opportunities.

They will be particularly distrustful of the establishment pillars responsible for the economic crisis, which hit their families and communities hardest: politicians, bankers, big business.

Social media revolution

Karl Marx famously said that the revolution will come when the instruments of production are in the hands of the proletariat. With social media, that has happened.

News no longer follows the hierarchical structure handed down from the establishment via the likes of RTÉ and The Irish Times; indeed, these media are often distrusted by those who feel excluded. Facts do not matter; it is how the story is presented.

Witness the many young people who took part in the water charges protests in recent years. Seven of those arrested in connection with the Joan Burton Jobstown incident were between 14 and 18. It is highly unlikely that any of them were especially concerned about, or would be immediately affected by, water charges. But such protests represent an opportunity for a generation to kick back and voice frustration.

I have always been proud of the fact that Ireland, unlike much of Europe, has not experienced the rise of a serious anti-immigrant political movement since the crash. However, as a local councillor I increasingly hear a backlash, especially among young people who feel excluded, who cannot get an offer of social housing or who are denied services because, they believe, “the foreigners can come here and get everything”.

Educational divide

This, of course, is not unique to Ireland. In the Brexit vote, the biggest divides were not in geography or class but in education. The Leave vote was 30 percentage points higher among those with only GCSEs compared with those with a degree. Only 18 per cent of those with no formal education voted Remain, compared with 81 per cent currently in full-time education.

In the US, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has relied on emotions rather than statistics. The rise of the far right and far left across Europe highlights alienation from the system. A Politico survey of young European leaders this past summer overwhelmingly identified youth unemployment as the greatest challenge facing Europe’s young people.

Those who entered college this year will soon assume leadership positions in society. Those who don’t start college, or who leave school early, will be significantly more likely to be unemployed and to feel more excluded from the possibilities of a globalised Ireland.

Bridging that widening gap will be the biggest political challenge for Bertie’s Babies in the decades to come.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – Kristian Dye