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The challenge of making provision for returning retirees

The wider print and broadcast media response to the article published last Saturday highlighting the situation of an elderly couple who are facing the considerable challenge of finding a new place to rent at the end of this month has also thrown into relief two other topics that deserve further analysis.

The first is the tendency for the Irish media to facilitate personal testimonies where those involved can tell their story, to speak their truth as it were, by providing only the information that they wish to share and nothing more. The journalist is passively relaying what someone else has said. This journalistic practice does not involve probing in any way beyond the situation as presented by those directly involved in the story. The journalist is not in the role of the reader.

It’s been clear for a long time that it’s political suicide for any public representative to respond to any individual story in the media spotlight except to express concern and empathy. That electoral fear of being seen as cold or uncaring is now evidently part of the media landscape too. No uncomfortable or awkward questions will be asked that might take away from the consensus on how to respond to the described situation. No questions will be asked that might occur to the ordinary person.

In this case, what was the situation before 2011 when they moved to Ireland just as they reached retirement age, why did they always rent, was it by choice, if so what future did they envisage when they got to retirement age? Generations before mine were repeatedly told that rent was dead money and that at some point you should try to secure yourself a place of permanence. Whether that permanence came in the form of private home ownership or some form of public, social housing. If someone finds themselves in later life without that security, it’s not unreasonable to outline how that came about beyond saying “we’d always rented”. More generally, a media sphere that gets into such a habit of self-censoring itself to just not ask uncomfortable questions is ripe for abuse in the future.

Personal testimony is a long-standing practice in journalism. However, it is normally set alongside a broader factual article that looks at the larger context. This context will usually highlight where this story fits in terms of being typical or atypical of what’s happening in general. So, a personal story of addiction will be accompanied with a piece that notes the increase or decrease in addiction generally, the costs of addiction, increased success of a wider variety of treatment options etc.

That’s not what happens here, here the story stands alone.

The second aspect is that, as a society, we need to honestly consider what provision should be made, or is assumed will be made, for those who lived and worked outside the state for much or even all their working lives if they decide to move here in retirement. This movement will not necessarily be confined to those who had been born and raised here or even those with a more tenuous familial link to Ireland.

The time of the generations who emigrated and sent home much needed remittances and to whom Ireland owed so much is quickly passing if not almost entirely gone. This is a different generation that will be moving here.

As part of that debate, it should be considered what provision it is reasonable to expect that people would have made for themselves in their retirement. People who may have lived and worked in countries with lower taxes and a lower cost of living than here and who then decide to move to Ireland when they reach retirement. Is it the role of those people who never left to support them? Should someone be able to assume that if they move to a country in the middle of a property crash when rents have fallen due to excess availability that those rents will remain low? If they secure a lease in a good area and a recovery happens resulting in increased rents due to lessening availability, can they assume that others must pay to keep them in the area they have settled in? What leads people to make this assumption?

Ireland was never a country that most people thought that they could rely on the private rental sector for secure accommodation especially into their old age. That’s something previous generations of Irish emigrants were aware of. My parents’ generation had emigration on both sides: barring my dad none of his siblings returned home, on my mother’s side all her siblings who had emigrated did come home. None of them would have thought to come home without making some provision to have a home for themselves before doing so. It would never have occurred to them to simply move back, rent where they liked and then when that was no longer possible to wonder why wider society wasn’t sorting them out for a place to live. When did that expectation change and why? If people have changed expectations of what they are due how do they believe it is to be paid for and when did the rest of us agree to pay for it?

These are the messy, unpleasant challenges of the 21st century, the consequences of longer lives and greater personal life choices. They should be debated, options considered and tested and ultimately support sought at the ballot box. Of course, there’s not going to be any debate on such complicated matters if the media have already decided that there’s only one side, one perspective to any story.

None of this takes away from what is clearly a challenging, stressful, and distressing situation to be in, nor does it negate the fact that not enough housing is built to cater to all types of housing needs across the ages. I hope they can find a solution to the situation they are in. It’s just not clear what general measures can be brought in to prevent a similar situation arising again when we don’t know how it specifically came about in the first place.

Daniel K Sullivan grew up in Killorglin but currently lives in Dublin. He has been a margin of error candidate in several local and Seanad elections. He holds any number of apparently contradictory views, which he will happily bloviate on before enjoying a hearty breakfast at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. 

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