The weekday emigrants
Significant numbers of people now work abroad, away from their families, often for lifestyle reasons
Cheaper airfares have allowed for an increase in cross-border commuting from one European country to another in recent years, but it was the advent of the recession in 2008 which led to the most significant rise of this kind of migration out of Ireland, as families in particular have opted for one member to commute long-distance to work abroad rather than uprooting the whole family and emigrating together.
A surprising result of University College Cork’s extensive study last year on the impact of emigration on Irish society revealed that households in commuter-belt areas, where homeowners are more likely to be in negative equity and have young children, had low levels of emigration. Just 11 per cent had seen a family member emigrate since 2006, compared with a national average of 17 per cent.
The report’s authors concluded that it was in these areas that “commuter migrants” were most likely to be found, that is, where one member of the household is working outside the country and travelling back and forth regularly.
“If they could, these people might have upped sticks and emigrated as a family unit to London or Paris or Australia, but because they are saddled with burdensome mortgages, family emigration might not be an option,” explains David Ralph of UCC’s Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century. He is currently carrying out a separate research study to explore the phenomenon of “Euro-commuting” in further detail.
In 27 of the 30 couples Ralph has interviewed so far, the woman remains here in Ireland, usually with children, while the man travels to work in another EU country, usually in one of the major cities such as London, Paris, Brussels or Amsterdam. All are relatively well-paid professionals, working in sectors such as finance, academia, media, engineering, law and medicine.
“Few, if any commuters work in the social and construction sectors,” Ralph explains. “Many of these positions simply do not pay enough to cover the costs of a commuter arrangement, with two domestic residences, weekly or bi-weekly air travel, and so on.”
Commuters can be roughly divided into three groups depending on their motivations, Ralph believes. The smallest cohort are those who see it as a lifestyle choice. “They enjoy toing and froing between Ireland and another culture, meeting new people, learning new job skills. Their decision is not economically driven,” he says. “They enjoy the independence from their partner.”
Another small group choose to commute in an effort to advance their careers. “They may have hit a glass ceiling in the workplace in Ireland, perhaps related to the recession where promotional opportunities have been reduced. They see it as a temporary arrangement, a way of climbing up the ladder, gaining experience and a certain level of seniority which will allow them to return to Ireland and secure a better post here in the future.”
But by far the largest group are the financially-motivated “livelihood commuters”, who have become either unemployed or underemployed since the recession hit. They don’t consider their decision to be voluntary, but are compelled to seek a better remunerated position abroad so they can keep up their mortgage repayments and other financial commitments such as health insurance and education for their children.
One striking feature Ralph found was shared by this group was the fear of falling out of the Irish middle class, a status they had become accustomed to before the recession.
“They were all white-collar professionals, living in relatively affluent suburbs mainly around the cities,” Ralph explains. “Maintaining a middle-class lifestyle was important to them. They weren’t prepared to downgrade to a less-prestigious neighbourhood or cancel their overseas holiday. Taking work overseas allowed them to maintain the lifestyle they had become accustomed to pre-crisis.”
Whatever their motivations for leaving, most commuters Ralph interviewed cited similar benefits to the arrangement, such as career advancement, an expanded network of professional contacts, new friends and greaterindependence.
The same drawbacks were also shared by many in the group – loneliness by both partners, miscommunication, fatigue from travel, and a sense of missing out on family life.
“The person living abroad tried to keep routines on weeknights, going to the gym or doing laundry, but some spoke about loneliness and the dangers of drinking too much when alone in a foreign city without family or friends,” Ralph says. Fear of infidelity was also a concern.
Some children had developed behavioural difficulties while the parent was absent, while others became clingy when they were home. It often took young children a few hours, or sometimes days, to adjust to having them around.
“Generally, the separation caused huge family strife. The partner left behind often felt burdened by the responsibility of looking after the household and children alone. The partner away spoke about how upsetting it was to be separated from their children during the week, where they had to watch them grow up over Skype. Some tried to hep out with homework over Skype or read bedtime stories, but they said it wasn’t the same as being there.”
But despite the challenges, many of the men Ralph interviewed said they would prefer to be living away from their families and be able to support them financially rather than remaining unemployed or underemployed in Ireland. They are proud of the initiative they have taken to support their partner and children, safeguarding their class identity and their position as the primary breadwinner for the family.
The majority are actively seeking opportunities to return to Ireland, but this is conditional on securing a similarly paid job here that would make it financially feasible.
“Most hope that the Irish economy will recover its former buoyancy, and they will be able to find suitable job positions back home as soon as possible,” Ralph says. “Yet hope is one thing, reality another. Most have no faith in this actually happening anytime soon; they are preparing to put up with commuting overseas for the long-haul.”
Working abroad: How to live a commuting life
When a couple decides one partner is to be absent for significant periods of time for work, the most important thing is that both are accepting of the situation, psychotherapist and chair of the Family Therapy Association of Ireland Trish Murphy advises. “They must both believe that the arrangement is for the greater good of their relationship, or their family. If one person is unsure, it won’t work.”
They should make a plan for how they are are going to maintain their relationship and their family life while one of them is away. “Relationships require attention and time, especially at a distance. Can you schedule a nightly phone or Skype chat? Can you put a circle around you both as a couple as opposed to the whole family, where you have time to talk just the two of you? This is very important for when the person is home from abroad that you have time alone.”
“Intimacy is very important – don’t feel like you have to protect the other person from your sadness. It is something we all do when someone is living away, because we don’t want to worry them. But couples need to agree to be open. This will keep them connected even when things aren’t going smoothly.”
Fear of infidelity is very common, she says. “The possibility of affairs is often the unmentionable issue, but it needs to be discussed, even if you are afraid. Staying quiet leads to suspicion, anxiety and ultimately distrust, which is so destructive, and often totally unfounded.”
Sometimes the person left at home can feel like a martyr, that they are doing all the hard work with the children while the other persion is away living the high life, Murphy says. “It is easy to be resentful, and that resentment can boil over. Martyrdom will will bring them a lot of attention and sympathy but it is very destructive for a relationship. For children too, having a parent who is a martyr is very difficult.”
Murphy advises couples to set aside time every few months to review. “We get used to every situation, as human beings, but that does not mean you should necessarily keep doing it. Review the situation properly after six months. Are you both happy? Do you both still think it is the right thing to do? Are there other options? Plenty of couples live apart like this for many years and it works well for them, but it is definitely difficult and won’t be the right thing for every relationship.”