Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

I’m happy to be part of generation emigration

It’s a shame that the discourse surrounding youth emigration is so negative, writes Sarah Keane in Brussels.

Sat, Dec 17, 2011, 06:00


It’s a shame that the discourse surrounding youth emigration is so negative, writes Sarah Keane in Brussels.

Sarah works for a renewable energy association in Brussels

It is probably a universal truth that listening to too much talk radio is not a good path for inner peace. Interviews with presidential candidates, politicians and commentators teach me things about previously unknown myself: firstly, I’m lost and secondly, I’ve been exported. Apparently, as a young Irish woman living in Brussels, far from my native Walkinstown, I was ‘exported’ as a part of the most recent ‘lost generation’ of emigrants.

It is time to stop listening, as I regularly get frustrated hearing the same rhetoric repeated; that Ireland is currently suffering through a phase of ‘forced emigration’, sending its sons and daughters off to a plight of exile, shipping them as ‘economic migrants’ as has happened many times in the history of our people, losing their talents and enthusiasm to foreign shores.

The moment has come to say that it’s a shame that the discourse surrounding youth emigration is negative, and implies that the whole process is something painful, and permanent. I, for one, am happy to be a part of generation emigration, and I believe there are a substantial percentage of fellow young Irish émigrés who would share my optimism about our situations in life, because I believe that this current phase of emigration is markedly different to that of our forbearers. Instead, I argue that much of the emigration taking place now is the youth of modern Ireland taking their turn to discover a world where mobility is feasible and movement is fluid, tapping into larger possibilities for youth mobility.

The boat leaves, but in this day and age, it can come back and forth. By creating a climate of fear for those on the verge of completing their education, building emigration up to be such a negative experience, we do a disservice to ourselves and our country, and are shunning the outwardly looking Ireland that we are supposedly trying to create. It is true that recession has most likely accelerated the decision making process for many, but it has not created this ‘new’ situation of young people seeking different horizons.

I will address the situation of young people, those who have finished higher education and seek to enter the working world, the so-called ‘lost generation’. This is the experience of emigration which I live every day. To discuss the long term unemployed with mortgages and families, or those unable to re-enter the labour market, is a whole other category, which must be considered differently.

For evidence to back up my claim, I draw upon my own story. In the last 5 years I have resided in 4 European countries: Ireland, France, UK and Belgium. Since the age of 20, I have left, and returned to Ireland several times. Shall I return again one day? Probably. I do feel that the work experience I have built up abroad would facilitate my re-insertion, giving me valuable skills, as has been the experience of a friend of mine who has just returned home, boosted by 18 months in Brussels into securing employment.

The question is, why move so much? Simply, because I want to, and it’s easier than it used to be. It is a cliché, but rings true: we live in a globalised world and a virtually border-less Europe.

Indeed, I am not that special in modern Ireland. Asking friends spread around the globe I come up with similar answers; some having left Ireland 5 years ago, others 5 weeks ago. Overwhelmingly, they don’t consider themselves ‘economic migrants’, and suppose they would have emigrated ‘for a while anyway’, during a boom, which was even the case for some. Have I surrounded myself with internationally minded people? Probably, but at the same time, there is very little in the lives of young educated people today, that doesn’t have some international element to it.

In times of boom and bust, there seems to be different ‘obvious’ reactions for young people entering the working world. When I finished studying in 2009, it was evident that the job market had changed and that I didn’t have many directly applicable skills, or any idea how to break into my desired career. These are the usual questions that a young ‘wannabe professional’ has to face, yet should that limbo period have occurred 2 years earlier, I would have been swept along with the wave of a ‘full employment Ireland’. No need to embrace the fundamental and sometimes difficult choices that have faced young people for generations, but merely to throw oneself into the abundant labour market.

It seems with the benefit of hindsight, that the seamless transition from ‘wannabe young professional’ to ‘young professional’ was a creation of an artificially prosperous economy. The promise of that prosperity was not characterised by longevity, and is not the situation faced by most young graduates in Ireland today. They do not have the same choices as the Celtic Tiger offered, but there are opportunities, different than those of the boom, but positive opportunities all the same. In many cases, they are found beyond this shore, which does not have to be treated as an inherently negative point, but as a learning experience in a world where few jobs are for life, as mobility applies to employment as well, and leaving does not mean never coming back.

I believe that the emigration of young people does not have to generate such a large air of doom. Creating an Ireland that facilitates the repatriation of young emigrants is an interesting discussion, and is where the emphasis should lie. Let us embrace that international mobility is normal, as travel is affordable, quicker, and communication across oceans is instantaneous. The experience of emigration for young Irish people today is not the same as with previous generations, and therefore, we do not have to fear it the same way it was once feared.

As I said before, I’m not lost. I’ll come back one day. And maybe I’ll leave again. For the moment though, I’m embracing being part of ‘Generation Emigration’.

Sarah currently works for a renewable energy association in Brussels. She first left Ireland to study 5 years ago, and most recently left again in March 2010.