Forced to leave Ireland, forced to stay away
Three young people who have emigrated talk about their experiences here and abroad
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan concluded his budget speech last week with the words “a new road for a new Ireland”, but for young people listening it offered little hope that that road would lead them anywhere but out of Ireland.
The 8 per cent fall in the numbers leaving the country last year has been heralded as a turning point after a decade of consecutive increases in emigration. But among 15- to 24-year-olds, the generation most affected by economically driven migration, the decrease was much less pronounced, at less than 4 per cent. More than 33,000 people in that age group left in 2013.
Against a backdrop of brighter economic forecasts and promises in the budget of an “end to austerity”, we ask three young people who felt they had no choice but to emigrate whether the rising tide has had an impact on their generation.
THE RETURNED EMIGRANT AND YOUTH ACTIVIST: ‘Until conditions improve for young people, the numbers leaving are not going to fall’
“The positivity is localised in the media and in wealthy communities in Dublin. For everyone else, especially young people, work conditions are precarious: they are low paid or unemployed and thinking about emigrating,” says Seamus Farrell, a 23-year-old psychology student and youth activist from Blanchardstown, in northwest Dublin.
“Unemployment and emigration are still high, yet the cost of living is going up and up. Housing costs are massive; for young people trying to rent it is almost impossible to find a place in Dublin. Third-level registration fees have gone up again this year, to €3,000. Mental-health services and community supports, which are supposed to help people who are struggling, have been cut back and not replaced or reinstated. There are so many people out there who feel trapped.”
Farrell spent six months looking for work after graduating with a degree in psychology from NUI Maynooth in 2012. But he was competing against hundreds of applicants even for low-paid service-industry positions; he moved to Chicago after he was offered a research position.
“I had to support myself and couldn’t afford to work for nothing, which seemed to be the only option. I didn’t really want to leave Ireland, but I didn’t feel I had a choice.”
When his year-long visa was up, in January, Farrell looked forward to returning to Ireland despite discouraging job prospects. The We’re Not Leaving campaign was mobilising young people to fight back against the root causes of high youth emigration, and he joined as soon as he got home.
“The budget didn’t seem to help anyone who needed it. The headline changes were tax reductions for the highest income bracket, which has no impact on the low-paid, or small reductions to the USC which are cancelled out by water charges,” he says.
“The overall reaction among young people was: this won’t help any of us. We wanted to see real initiatives to help with the cost of housing, and there was nothing. We hoped to see an increase in the dole for under-26s, which was cut to just €100 last year, but that didn’t happen either.”
Since coming back from Chicago Farrell has volunteered as a youth worker in Blanchardstown and worked as an English teacher in Donegal, and he recently returned to college, at UCD, to do a master’s. He’s determined to make a life in Ireland but says there are few incentives for young people to stay.
“So many people have left already that you would think that, by now, emigration among young people would have begun to slow, that it wouldn’t be still talked about as much as it is,” he says. “But the reasons so many are emigrating have not been tackled, and until the conditions at home improve for young people, the numbers leaving are not going to fall as dramatically as they need to.”
He hears a lot about people who’ve come back from abroad recently only to find little has changed.
“They are latching on to that hope they have read about. But sometimes they are only home for three or four months and they are gone again, because there’s nothing for them here. They realise how high the rents are and how hard it is to get around because of cuts to transport services. If they are lucky enough to find a job they are likely to be earning less, with poorer conditions. Why would they accept a diminished quality of life when they could be living in the likes of London with a reasonable standard of living?
“We are losing a generation of young people, who are so important for a country economically and socially. The question is, does the Government actually want young people to come back? It’s not evident from their policy.”
THE FORCED EMIGRANT: ‘I’d go back tomorrow if I was offered a job that could sustain me’
After finishing a master’s degree in media at NUI Galway earlier this year, Rachel Masterson, who is 25, spent the summer on a fruitless job hunt.
“I was looking for any work I could get, from Bewley’s on Shop Street in Galway to TV3. I would have taken anything. But the only work on offer seemed to be part-time,” she says.
Having had previous experience of a JobBridge internship after a short period on the dole in 2012 – “it was awful working long hours for nothing; it was soul destroying” – she was determined not to take up another JobBridge or unpaid role.
She found an ad on Jobs.ie for a writing intern with a travel company in Germany, and she flew to Dortmund in September. “It’s still only an internship, but it is paid, and the cost of living here is so much cheaper. In Galway I was paying €330 a month for a tiny box room, with bills on top of that. Here my rent is €240, all inclusive. Weighing it up, it was a no-brainer.”
She has been offered a new contract, beginning in January, and a pay rise.
“It’s a great company to work for. But I miss home a lot. It has been hard. I don’t speak German, though the company is providing free classes,” she says.
“Leaving wasn’t a choice for me. I feel I was forced to go. I’d go back tomorrow if I was offered a job that could sustain me. There have been no incentives given to young people to stay or to return from abroad. With the water charges coming in I would be almost afraid to go back, because the quality of life would be so much lower than what I have here.”
THE RELUCTANT EMIGRANT: ‘We’re doing this because it’s our only chance at furthering our careers’
“I get very upset when I hear that narrative about emigration being all about adventure for young people,” says Ethan O’Brien, a 23-year-old who moved to London in August after finishing a master’s in energy management and finance in Edinburgh.
“I hear it all the time when I’m at home in Cork, people saying, ‘Ah, sure, you’re just gone for a good time and you can come back in a few years, it’ll be grand.’ For most of us it’s not like that. We’re doing this because it’s our only chance at furthering our careers.
“I wouldn’t class myself as a forced emigrant, because I would probably have been able to find something in Ireland with my business background, but I wanted to pursue a career in the energy sector, and to do that I had to move abroad.
“London is a great place to live, and I am getting great experience, but I would never settle here or raise kids here, because I love where I’m from and want to move back to Ireland. I’d like to be able to do that in the next five years.”
This article appears in Weekend Review today.