03 Purpose & Success

Purpose & Success


This final chapter looks at the pressures perhaps felt most acutely and frequently for young people in the Republic of Ireland: to find purpose in a chaotic world, where self-esteem may be measured in test points or pixels.

One young interviewee says, “We’ve inherited from our parents’ generation this drive to earn money and accomplish things through material possessions. And we’ve inherited the whole [mindset] from the [Celtic] Tiger [years], where if you want something, you just get it. It’s self-entitlement.” This young man—along with many of his peers—senses that achieving such goals may be difficult, and the satisfaction of attaining them may be elusive.

In addition to traditional and national standards of success, today’s digital world of curated social media profiles and cyber bullying magnifies Irish young people’s sense that they don’t measure up. “Acceptance and self-worth is a game that everyone seems to be playing,” one young man says. One girl says her peers are mostly concerned about “trying to fit in” on social media, which usually means having “the right size, shape or clothes.” Both young people and youth workers in this study consistently point to a felt need to cultivate an online image.

The following sections identify the micro and macro concerns of young people in the Republic of Ireland, as well as how they might change as youths mature into adults.



Barna’s survey presented Irish youth with a broad list of circumstances—political, spiritual, financial, social, sexual and so on—that young people previously raised in the in-person interviews. Their strongest concerns are closely connected with a pursuit of success and stability, as evidenced in preoccupations with money, test scores and job security. Indecent behaviors and topics like pornography, STDs, drug use and alcoholism rank on the low end of the list of things youth are worried about, alongside a fear of going to hell. Worries ranked in the middle are an interesting mix of national and relational concerns, from terrorism to unwanted pregnancy.

Do You Worry About...
January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


When it comes to what worries young people, there are very few distinctions based on faith groups, with one stark exception: Non-Catholic Christians (20%) are more likely than Catholics (8%) or other religious groups to indicate that they are worried about their own pornography addiction. This may represent not rates of use, but the presence of a sense of guilt.



Secondary school in Ireland has its own set of priorities and pressures, particularly surrounding national tests for Junior Certificates and Leaving Certificates, which can determine an individual’s university admission and set the course for their further study and potential work opportunities. Unsurprisingly, this causes teenagers in secondary school to worry most about their scores; tests are in the top three stressors for more than twothirds of teens (67%). One young woman points out that many lose perspective of their own value, and it becomes tempting to “measure your life by your leaver’s points.”

Peer relationships and future concerns drive other secondary school worries. When asked an open-ended question about their worries, secondary school students primarily cited concerns about social relationships within their peer network. In particular, the fear of being judged or mocked looms large.

Churchgoing Christians often feel misunderstood by their peers and isolated in secondary school; even in a region with a rich Christian legacy, religious practice can feel like a dark secret. One interviewee faces this anxiety in her religious school: “Obviously you have prayers and assembly every morning. To be honest, most people would talk through them. It makes me nervous: when I bow my head people stare at me, and that worries me a bit.” Another young man says, “I know a lot of teenagers who put genuine effort into hiding the fact that they are Christian.” One girl remembers the isolation of turning down opportunities to go drinking with underage classmates: “You get judged by that. They’re like, ‘It’s because she’s a Christian. She’s probably going to church.’” Many churchgoing Christians hide their faith at school to avoid bullying or to meet a perceived expectation of universalism. Still, other Christians find school invigorating to their faith: “Same way as a footballer finds it natural to be on a field, it’s just natural to represent God.”

Most Stressful Concern by Age
January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


Exposure to a spectrum of ideas in secondary school presents new mental demands—some positive, some negative. For example, students in secondary school begin to feel burdened for society and social justice, including homelessness, sexism, racism, extremism, the environment and local crime. They also become more attuned to the role of Christianity in society, whether that means awareness of how media mishandles spirituality or an internal dissonance with the teachings of the Church. One young man shared his apprehension about wrestling with required religion coursework during secondary school: “I think in first year we were reading a religion book on what atheists [are] and what materialists [are]. It opened new doors for people. And I think that was one of the reasons why there’s more people who don’t believe in God, and they don’t even know people that do.”



The world opens up as students leave secondary school, bringing different worries to the forefront. Not having enough money jumps to a first-place concern in early adulthood. Crime and international politics also rise in importance.
The latter—perhaps particularly during early 2017, when the surveys were conducted—baffled and alarmed many young adults and worried more than one about, “The divide between all the politics, Trump and Brexit and stuff. There’s a whole new landscape of politics being formed, and we don’t really know what’s going on.”

The context of independent or city living may also influence primary concerns: While teenagers are more likely to live in a rural area (30% of 14–18-year-olds, 21% of 19–25-year-olds), young adults are more likely to live in an urban area (28% of 14–18-year-olds, 35% of 19–25-year-olds).

Qualitative interviews made it clear that broader society and life’s purpose become pressing issues after secondary school. Young people worry about their generation’s preparedness to face challenges. They cite a desire for material and social success, which can feel elusive in Ireland’s current academic and professional environment, one with more young people and less money, that remains attractive to foreign students. “Nowadays, there’s just more competition for everything,” one young adult says. “And everything’s more expensive.”


An Anxious Age

What keeps Irish youth up at night? When presented with a list of circumstances or problems they might be concerned about, teens and young adults from the Republic of Ireland confirm that the worries on their minds are broad, though sometimes focused internally or externally. Here’s a look at some of the themes that emerge when youth are asked how far these anxieties extend–to their own lives, their social circle or the world at-large.

Even the freedoms of the university social experience unnerve some students. One young man says, “I feel that a lot of college students are chained slaves to the feeling of going out and getting with girls and look[ing] cool in front of other guys.” While some young Christian adults may encounter a fresh and welcoming peer group and a context that seemingly invites self-expression, many also sense hostility from non-religious students and professors. One university student said, “If you’re a Catholic, you’re somehow related to child abusers and oppressors [among] the Christian Brothers. You come under attack for how charities are run; you come under attack for being an oppressor.”

Young adult Christians say they feel a lack of support from youth and adult ministries. Barna’s data shows that during this transitional life period, and in the years leading up to it, the real-world counsel of genuine believers is crucial.



Professional and Academic Concerns

The anxieties that Irish young people are most intimate with in their own lives relate to academic and career achievements (or lack thereof). They also hope to see their relatives and peers find success.

Professional and Academic Concerns

Lifestyle Concerns

When Irish teens and young adults are troubled by the specific impact of harmful behaviors, it’s more often directed toward their family and friends than themselves.

Lifestyle Concerns

Global and National Concerns

Systemic and political issues are big-picture stressors for a majority of young Irish people, though respondents seem to worry less about how these might affect themselves or their community.

Global and National Concerns

Love Life Concerns

Irish youth aren’t too preoccupied with potential relational or sexual dilemmas–though, of course, they’d prefer to keep dating their significant other.

Love Life Concerns
Each icon = 10 percent. Rows do not add up to 100 percent as respondents were able to select more than one answer.
January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland. The list of potential worries included in Barna’s questionnaire was based on concerns previously raised by Irish youth in in-person interviews.

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