The Celtic Tiger Roars at Work

Human Resources

Queen’s IRC Facilitator Lucinda Bray is a management development consultant based in Dublin, Ireland. In the following piece, she discusses the chaos in work and organizational life being wrought by dramatic, prosperity-related change in her adopted country.

Ireland has been dubbed Europe’s ‘miracle economy’ with good reason. In the past 10 years, the GNP has nearly doubled, with annual growth rates reaching seven percent and higher. Unemployment has dropped from 15 percent to four percent. In the dark days of the early 1980s, the inflation rate was running at 20 percent, and interest rates were astronomical. Today, inflation is below three percent and interest rates remain at an all-time low. And from being a country of emigrants, Ireland has seen its population increase by 12 percent since 1995.

Overnight, Ireland has been transformed from a stagnant, agricultural economy to a booming high-tech powerhouse. The only comparable examples of such rapid change are the ‘Tiger’ economies of Asia. There is no Western equivalent of the tumultuous changes that have taken place here, and thus no culturally similar example to follow, no road map, no guidelines, no historical references. As a result, we were taken by surprise when we started to feel the Tiger’s effects – particularly on our work lives.

In fact, Ireland’s Celtic Tiger is a perfect illustration of the “limits to growth” systems archetype, so elegantly explained by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline. According to this maxim, any change process set up to create growth also creates inadvertent secondary effects which eventually slow down the success. That is precisely what has happened here.

The growth cycle started with the upswing in the IT sector, creating thousands of new jobs Irish emigrants returned to fill, thus further fueling the consumer economy, all of which coincided with a period of record low interest rates.

But limiting effects became obvious very quickly. After decades of neglect, the Irish infrastructure was still in the 1940s. Roads, rail connections, public transportation, and telecommunication systems were all far behind the rest of Europe. There was very little new housing, and nothing in the way of apartments or condominiums. Education and health were in slightly better shape, but there was no organized system of daycare, since few women worked outside the home.

The result has been chaotic and frequently frustrating for those of us who live and work here. The sudden demand for housing has pushed real estate prices up at the rate of 15 percent per year (Dublin is now one of Europe’s most expensive cities). In order to find affordable housing, people must move farther and farther out of Dublin and commute to their jobs. Suddenly the roads and railways are jammed, and country towns such as Navan and Arklow are becoming sprawling bedroom communities.

Social norms have also been affected: house prices are so high that it now takes two generous salaries to support a mortgage. This means that women must think twice before starting a family, even assuming they can find affordable daycare.

And overnight, Ireland has become a multicultural society as immigrants arrive to take up the slack in the service sector. (This morning I heard a radio announcement in Polish).

The effect of all of this on organizational culture has been profound. Contrary to popular belief, Ireland has always had a strong work ethic, but the workplace atmosphere was laid back and very sociable. Lunch breaks were an hour and half, and everybody stopped work promptly at 5:30. Overnight, Ireland has joined the global economy, with its 24/7 imperative and instant communication technology blurring the boundaries between work and private time. Occupational stress has increased at all levels: a recent survey carried out by the Royal College of Surgeons for the Irish Management Institute found that senior managers have a lower quality of life than terminally ill patients. (Irish Times, March 2, 2006)

Occupational stress is further exacerbated by increased commuting time. Because of poor public transport, most people rely on their cars to get to work. For those working in Dublin this can mean leaving home at 6 am to beat the rush, and spending at least two hours in congested traffic every day. Added to this is the additional burden for parents, when daycare costs on average 500 euros ($680) per week, paid for with after-tax euros.

Not surprisingly, “work/life balance” is a hot topic, and organizations are being encouraged to create flexible working policies. Attitudes, however, die hard. A recent study by Dr. Margaret Fine-Davis of Trinity College Dublin found that “there are more negative perceptions towards people who participate in family-friendly programmes. Both men and women who work part-time or job-share are seen as less serious about their careers.” Despite this, other surveys have found that a significant percentage of Irish employees would prefer a lower salary if it meant a shorter work week.

Meanwhile, the government is building new roads and railways as fast as it can. The Dublin skyline is silhouetted with construction cranes, as entire sections of derelict industrial land are turned into high-rise housing. Primary schools are expanding to take in the children of new immigrants, who are learning English for the first time. Child care is moving up the political agenda: in the last budget, the Minister opted to give women 1,000 euros ($1,370) per child under six (which avoided discriminating against full-time mothers, but failed to solve the affordable day care problem). To paraphrase the Irish Rail slogan, “A long way to go, but we’re getting there!”

What will Ireland look like 10 years from now? By then, we hope that the Celtic Tiger and its consequences will have come into better balance, especially in the work world. Nobody would ever want to go back to the grim conditions of the late 1980s, but many are starting to query the price of prosperity and to look for ways of bringing back some of the social, easy-going quality of life for which Ireland is (was?) famous.

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