Ciara Kenny

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

Emigration, return and their effects

Returned emigrants earn more than those who stayed in Ireland, but new research shows that older returnees are more susceptible to social isolation and alcoholism. The psychological and social impact of emigration should not be ignored, writes Alan Barrett (ESRI and TCD).

Thu, Jan 26, 2012, 04:10


Returned emigrants earn more than those who stayed in Ireland, but new research shows that older returnees are more susceptible to social isolation and alcoholism. The psychological and social impact of emigration should not be ignored, writes Alan Barrett (ESRI and TCD).

The re-emergence of emigration as a feature of Irish life has re-ignited a debate on the extent to which Irish people chose to move as opposed to being compelled to move. The idea that choice dominates compulsion seems to be based on the idea that emigration has desirable outcomes for individuals when compared to the option of staying put.

Over many years, economists and sociologists have undertaken research on the impacts of emigration on individuals. One of the goals of this research has been to provide evidence on this choice/compulsion debate. If the outcomes for individuals are good, this provides support for the choice view and the opposite holds if the outcomes are bad.

On Friday, I will present some new research results based on the experiences of earlier waves of Irish emigrants who are now aged over 50. But before talking about the new research, let me talk about some earlier research on migration which I undertook with colleagues. The earlier research contains some good news so I guess it is a good idea to start with it. The bad news can be found in the newer research but more about that below.

My colleagues and I first looked at the effects of emigration on Irish people using data collected in 1998. The data provided us with information on two groups of people who had graduated in 1992. One group had worked in Ireland since graduation but the other group had worked outside of Ireland for at least six months.

When we compared the earnings of the two groups, we found that the returned migrants earned more than the “stayers”. For men who said they had emigrated for job-related reasons, the wage advantage was as high as 15%. We did not find a wage advantage for people who said they emigrated “for reasons of adventure”.

We re-did this work using data from a much broader survey in 2006. This time we could look at all types of employees, not just graduates. Again, we found a wage advantage for those who had worked outside of Ireland. The advantage was typically about 7%.

That research seemed to show that foreign experience was valued in Ireland and so a period of emigration could be of value.

In our most recent research, we use data from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA). This is a survey of over 8,000 people aged 50 and above and living in Ireland.

Ireland’s older population (by which I mean 50 and over) are a very unusual group by international standards because about a quarter of them have lived outside of their country of birth for at least a year. And of that group, about a half lived away for 10 years or more. Given that we have a large population of returned migrants, we can compare them to people who never left to get a sense of some of the impacts of immigration.

This is an older group who experienced emigration before Skype and low-cost airlines. However, I think there is value in seeing if the older generation of Irish emigrants can tell us something about the possible experiences of the young generation.

In our research, we have tried to explore if there is evidence of emigration having placed greater psychological pressures on people. Homesickness, dislocation and similar difficulties are often written about but we wanted to see if there was evidence of their existence among the older emigrants who were now back in Ireland.

We used rates of alcohol dependence over peoples’ lives as an indicator of psychological pressure. Some clear patterns emerged. Men who had lived outside of Ireland typically had rates of alcohol dependence that were about twice those of men who had stayed in Ireland.

For women, the pattern was a bit more complicated. Women who had lived outside of Ireland for between one and ten years were more likely to have had an alcohol dependence compared to women who had stayed in Ireland. However, for women who had lived away for more than ten years, the rates of alcohol dependence were lower.

We interpret these results as saying that for many emigrants, life away brought challenges. However, for one group (the women who stayed away for longer), being away may have brought a lifestyle that was preferable to remaining in Ireland.

In addition to looking at the impact of emigration over their lives, we were also interested in exploring how the return part of their emigration and return impacted upon them. On this, the results were more consistent across groups. All groups of returned migrants are more socially isolated than the people who never lived outside of Ireland. We measure social isolation using a mix of questions on how close people are to family and friends and how well-integrated they are into their communities through membership of groups and societies.

Curiously, while we found the returned migrants to be more socially isolated, they did not report higher levels of loneliness. This finding got us to wonder if emigrants establish coping mechanisms but we need to discuss this in greater detail with our psychology colleagues.

The evidence gathered from earlier waves of Irish emigrants points to the positives and negatives of emigration. Hence, there are probably elements of both choice and compulsion in the current wave of emigration. From a labour market perspective, there seems to be advantages. However, psychological and social impacts should not be ignored or downplayed, by ministers or anyone else.

Alan Barrett and his colleague Irene Mosca will present  a paper titled “The Costs of Emigration to the Individual” at the UCD/UL Conference on Irish Economic Policy tomorrow at Croke Park. The presentation will be available on after the conference.