Ciara Kenny

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

Emigration may have yet to peak

Many in employment would consider leaving for a better job abroad, writes Dr Irial Glynn of UCC

Thu, Mar 21, 2013, 09:00


Irial Glynn

Bertie Ahern noted in his resignation speech in April 2008 that he was proud as taoiseach to have “delivered a modern economy with sustainable growth in employment and brought an end to the days of forced emigration”.

That same month, unemployment hovered slightly above 5 per cent and the number of immigrants entering the country in the previous 12 months had been double the number of emigrants leaving. Fast forward almost five years and the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high and annual emigration easily outweighs annual immigration.

A lot of the discussion on current emigration has been couched in historical references, with some newspapers noting that emigration is “at famine levels”. It is worth asking, therefore, whether what is happening today is a repetition of previous emigration trends or whether there is something unique about it.

Extensive emigration

There are two important distinctions between the size of emigration today and in the past. First, almost half of the people leaving the country are foreign – something that did not happen previously because Ireland did not have as diverse a population as it has today. Second, sizeable immigration is taking place at the same time as extensive emigration is occurring.

Although 46,500 Irish people left the State between April 2011 and April 2012, for instance, 20,600 returned.

Current Irish emigration, despite a significant rise since 2008, has not yet reached the heights of the 1950s and 1980s – especially when you consider the increased size of the Irish population today. We are still at a relatively early stage, however, and it is important to keep in mind that notwithstanding the apparent economic problems of the early and mid-1980s, it was only later in that decade that emigration really peaked.

The same could happen this time: if people see no potential for improvement, they may leave, particularly if the UK economy starts to recover at a markedly quicker rate than our own.

As was the case with previous decades of marked emigration, it is clear that the economic environment is a significant push factor today. The unemployment rate has more than trebled to more than 14 per cent since early 2008 and the annual emigration of Irish people has increased by over 350 per cent in the same time period.

Many are clearly not leaving to “enjoy themselves” or as part of a “lifestyle choice” – as has been suggested on occasion by politicians in government – but because of the economic downturn.

High unemployment levels, however, are not the only reason people depart. Underemployment, involving people working in part-time jobs who would prefer to be in full-time employment, as well as job dissatisfaction and limited opportunities for promotion among those in full-time jobs, can also lead to increased emigration.

This was reflected in a survey we carried out – as part of the UCC Emigre project – on more than 500 people at the Working Abroad Expos in Dublin and Cork two weeks ago, where almost half of the people questioned were working full-time.

Many of these were thinking about emigrating because of frustration with their career prospects here and the “depressed atmosphere” in Ireland – reflecting a comment from one of the emigrants featured in the Generation Emigration series in this paper this week. This has many similarities to what occurred previously.

Despite the UK still being the number one destination of choice, emigrants are moving to a much more diverse range of locations today. Canada, Australia and even the Middle East are all popular, demonstrating once again Irish emigrants’ tendency to head to English-speaking countries or places where English is the language of business.

‘Commuter migration’

Something else that is different about the present is the increase of so-called “commuter migration”, which has seen many people take up jobs abroad while their families still reside in Ireland. This form of employment is made possible by cheaper and more abundant air travel, as well as an increasingly global labour market.

Many of the people we questioned in our ongoing online Irish emigrant survey have said that they would like to come back to Ireland in the future, but were unsure whether this would be possible.

As the former NUI Maynooth sociologist Liam Ryan once wrote: “Emigration is a mirror in which the Irish nation can always see its true face.”

If Ireland’s economic circumstances improve, we will probably see a notable reduction in emigration and an increase in those returning. But if the economy continues to stagnate, then we could see further upsurges in emigration rates in the near future.

Dr Irial Glynn is a postdoctoral researcher at UCC specialising in migration history. To take part in the UCC Emigre survey, click here. For more about the UCC research and other recent emigration trends, read Ciara Kenny’s analysis from last weekend.