Covid effects apparent in CSO population estimate for 2021

Current slowdown in migration flows could have a longer-term influence on behaviour

A wood engraving published in Harper’s Weekly in September 1874 illustrates emigrants leaving Cobh (then called Queenstown) for New York.

A wood engraving published in Harper’s Weekly in September 1874 illustrates emigrants leaving Cobh (then called Queenstown) for New York.

 

In 1936, world-famous Irish statistician Roy Geary, a future director of the Central Statistics Office, published population forecasts for Ireland for the following 80 years to 2016. Seeing that far ahead would always be a challenge, even without the second World War.

Amazingly, his forecast for 1996 proved exactly right, although this was a bit of a fluke. In hindsight, many of his assumptions proved to be way out, but the effect of different wrong assumptions cancelled each other out.

Geary had assumed zero net migration. In fact, most of the period to 1996 was marked by huge emigration, then large-scale net inward migration from 1996 to the present. However, offsetting errors in Geary’s forecasts for births and for life expectancy enabled him to accurately predict Ireland’s 1996 population. But his forecast for 2016 proved way too low.

After every census, the CSO produces a fresh set of population forecasts, incorporating a range of assumptions about births, deaths and migration. The latest set, issued in 2018, cover the period to 2051. These are essential tools for planning for future needs for healthcare, housing, pensions and schools, as the size and age profile of the population changes.

Like Geary’s forecasts, their accuracy depends on how realistic the assumptions prove to be. Trends in fertility rates and in mortality have been easiest to predict, while migration patterns are the trickiest to get right. Net migration is the outcome of a complex set of push and pull factors, here and abroad.

CSO estimate

This week’s population estimates from the CSO showed Ireland’s population over five million for the first time in 170 years. While it is much too early to assess the CSO’s medium-term population forecasts, it is interesting to compare the CSO’s predicted figures for 2021 with the actual outturn.

Two things stand out: the number in their 30s and 40s is somewhat higher than forecast in 2018, due to higher-than-expected immigration; and there are significantly fewer 80- to 85-year-olds than expected.

The latter difference almost certainly reflects excess deaths due to Covid.

The pandemic has also affected migration flows in both directions over the past year. About 30,000 Irish people living abroad came home, slightly more than in previous years. A similar number of people of other nationalities left in the other direction, also up on previous years.

Another big change has been a dramatic reduction of 16,000 in immigration in 2021 from other non-European countries such as India and Brazil. Because the rest of the world is so far behind Europe and the United States in vaccinating its population, there are likely to be continuing major obstacles to immigration from these countries over the coming year.

It’s uncertain how Covid will affect future migration behaviour, and for how long.

Up to a fifth of middle-aged Irish-born people recorded in the 2016 census had lived abroad for at least a year. This reflects a pattern that has grown up over decades where young Irish people emigrate to experience life in another country and another culture, before returning as homing pigeons.

However, Covid-related travel restrictions have seen a major change in the patten of migration over the past year. There was net immigration of nearly 10,000 people from Canada, Australia and the US, mainly Irish people returning home.

Outflow halted

In previous years, returning emigrants from these countries were replaced by a new group heading off, resulting in little net movement overall. But over the past year, that outflow halted. With Australia and New Zealand largely closed to incomers as they try to keep Covid out, Irish temporary migration Down Under is unlikely to restart over the coming year.

Knowing that most Irish people out there are not currently able to freely travel home and return, nor to receive family visits, is another deterrent to would-be temporary emigrants. Will future wanderlust become more focused on Europe, where free movement makes travel easy?

While a one-year interruption to the traditional patterns of migration might not have permanent effects, the longer the disruption goes on the more likely that it will change future migration flows.

The post-2008 economic slump put the brakes on very large-scale immigration from new EU member states. When the Irish economy recovered, immigration on this scale was not repeated.

Networks of family and friends have a big influence on where migration flows go. The longer migration remains muted due to Covid, the weaker those influences become. So it’s possible that the slowdown in migration flows we see now could have a longer-term influence on migration behaviour, both inward and out.

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