Bleak media narrative ignores the positives of emigration
Many of us will return with knowledge of how to talk and work with different cultures, writes James Whelan
I would like to break a taboo and write about emigration without any emotion, despairing tone or exaggeration of statistics.
I moved to Eindhoven in The Netherlands for personal reasons last spring as an indirect result of the bad economy. I didn’t mind too much because I craved adventure and my boss in Dublin agreed to let me continue to work from abroad.
But within a few weeks of arriving, half the staff at my company, including myself, were let go and I was forced to look for work over here.
I work as a visual designer for web and print, and even in good times, Dublin isn’t exactly a hub. The jobs offered at the multinationals setting up HQs in Ireland are nearly all in sales, customer service and engineering.
I knew if I wanted to excel in my field, London, Paris or San Francisco would be better places to build experience. I would have eventually left to explore opportunities abroad even if the economy was booming, and there are many like me.
The notion that emigration is “off the charts” has been perpetuated by the media, domestic and foreign, looking for a sad face to the economic downturn. Emigration amounted to 89,000 people in the 12 months to last April. This seems like an extremely high figure until one compares it to the 47,000 recorded in 2007 at the height of the boom, and the 39,000 who left in 2006.
The Irish have always been wanderers, and although the economic crisis has given many new people an unfortunate reason to look for work abroad, we’re not facing a demographic crisis or a permanent drop in population like in years past. The Irish population has actually grown during the recession and the number of people under 14 years of age is above one million for the first time since 1987.
Immigration is currently reaching the same levels seen in 2004, with over 50,000 people returning or moving to Ireland in 2013. Also, with employment growing, the Economc and Social Research Institute has predicted a 14 per cent fall in emigration numbers in the 12 months to April this year.
It is, of course, upsetting that there are young Irish people being forced to look for work abroad because of the crimes of previous governments and institutions. However, the reporting of the current situation is incredibly important to how the public interprets its reality.
When a young Briton goes to Australia for a two-year working holiday the press refer to him or her as an “expat” or as being on a “gap year.” When a young Irish person does the same, they are called “emigrants” because of the emotional connotations.
But we’re not living in 1850, 1950 or even 1990. We’re living in 2013. Air travel is easy and connections to home are not broken by distance. Skype, Facebook and Twitter allow me to live in The Netherlands but retain a constant connection to home. Ireland is never far from my thoughts or future plans.
Few I know living abroad have plans to stay permanently. This benefits Ireland in the medium to long term because as the economy improves, these young people will slowly return and will bring with them new knowledge of how to communicate and do business with different cultures.
Rather than being ashamed of the fact that Irish people travel the world looking for opportunities, we should be proud they have the initiative to go.
I know many people are angry and parents across the country would like to see their kids return home, but none of us are leaving in chains or lamenting the old country’s woes from abroad. We’re going to Australia, Europe and America, getting new experience and trying new things.
We should spare a thought for the people for whom emigration isn’t a possibility. Working-class suburbs in Dublin, Limerick and Cork are filled with young men and women with no dreams or financial capacity to chase opportunity abroad. These people have been living at subsistence no matter how good the economy was, forgotten in good times as well as bad.
The economy will heal itself. It always does in the end. Our society, on the other hand, needs to include and support everyone. It will not magically repair because of new job announcements or higher wages.
When I walk the streets of Eindhoven I don’t see homeless people or drug addicts wandering about looking for change or cigarettes like I do in Dublin. I’ve never seen evidence that this society washes its hands of so many like ours does at home. It’s this Government’s responsibility to ensure the Ireland we will return to is a better place for everyone, not just those who were born with emotional and financial support.
This article appears in the Life pages of the print edition of The Irish Times today.