Emigration can be lifeblood for the young, and the economy
Wishful thinking that tiny country can employ all of its young, educated, globalised generation
A new survey of Irish emigration experiences, released last week by University College Cork, revealed that close to two-thirds of emigrants over the past half decade had been college graduates, hence the “brain drain”.
‘Brain drain”. The “fabric” of Irish society “torn apart”. Emigration is once again in the news. A new survey of Irish emigration experiences, released last week by University College Cork, revealed that close to two-thirds of emigrants over the past half decade had been college graduates, hence the “brain drain”.
And families left at home, understandably, regret that a child or sibling, occasionally a partner, had gone abroad. Thus the rending of the social fabric.
But evidence in the report suggests that perhaps it is time to evaluate whether this is an overly solipsistic view when hundreds of millions of people globally move across great distances, within or outside their countries, every year.
Perhaps it is wishful thinking that a tiny country could offer employment to all its citizens. Or that a younger, educated, globalised generation would want to remain here for those jobs anyway, rather than travel abroad for at least some time.
The report presents a considerable and unvoiced contrast between the experience of emigrants against the views of those left behind. Those remaining in Ireland tend to see emigration as overwhelmingly negative. Emigrants, by and large, viewed it as a positive move that brought greater job opportunities, higher salaries and a better quality of life.
That very same “drain” during the emigration years of the 1980s and early 1990s had an overwhelmingly positive role for the growth economy of the latter 1990s and through most of Noughties, when, as the report also notes, half of all emigrants returned.
If those same graduates had remained at home they would not have gained the training, expertise, experience and broader world view that made them valuable employees with more personal opportunity. These returned emigrants played a major role in growing both Irish and multinational companies here to provide the massive job growth that occurred in those years.
There are also negatives to low emigration. A significant problem during the later part of the boom period for employers in both indigenous and multinational companies here was that graduates were no longer going abroad, and therefore lacked needed skills and abilities. It’s, in part, reflected in the thousands of unfilled IT jobs in this country.
I do fully understand the deeply emotional historical overhang from Famine-era emigration. My own great-great-grandmother left Co Clare during that period, looking for better opportunity in the US.
But the Cork report, even for those going abroad with few skills, demonstrates that the reality of emigration today is quite different.
First off, four out of 10 emigrants said they wanted to go abroad for adventure, new experiences, opportunity and to see the world. Of course, there are also hard cases, where people desperately do not want to have to emigrate, but 40 per cent saying they are going for positive personal experiences is light years away from the situation in the 1980s. Nearly half of the recently surveyed cohort were choosing to travel despite being in full-time employment here.
The rate of emigration from Ireland may also reflect two realities not shared by many other nations. First, because there is already a tradition of emigration, people are more likely to consider going abroad – there are Irish cultural and family connections internationally that make a move easier and often attractive.
Second, for many seeking a job change, there’s almost nowhere else to go except outside this island. According to a 2013 Gallup international survey, Ireland has one of the lowest rates of internal immigration (between regions inside the country). When people move, they are going abroad.
Compare that to about a quarter of Americans, Finns or New Zealanders moving internally over the previous five years outside their city or region.
I’m not arguing that emigration is always a pleasure. But for too long the national discussion here, by the media as well as politicians, tends to portray it in mournful, hand-wringing terms.
This is a truncated view that does not match the experience of a significant proportion of today’s emigrants. And it ignores emigration’s many positive factors for society as well as the economy.