In earlier periods of Irish emigration, return was unlikely. The money emigrants sent back was needed, and return was sometimes seen as a sign of failure.
In the last big outward wave in the 1980s, roughly a half million people left Ireland. In the following decades, as the economy took off and unemployment fell to just above 4 per cent – about as low as it can get – about half of that generation chose to return. That is a good benchmark of how many will come back, even in optimal circumstances.
How likely is that today's generation of emigrants will do likewise? The 2016 Irish Times Generation Emigration Survey – based on interviews by Ipsos MRBI with 350 Irish-born people who left between 2008 and 2015 – offers valuable insights. In the first place, a majority, especially of those who feel they were "forced" or obliged to leave, do not believe that the Irish economy has improved sufficiently to make it worth the risk of coming back.
A mix of factors is at work here. For one in five, Irish tax rates compare unfavourably with other systems. This contrasts with the results of an earlier UCC survey, which I worked on, in which tax issues did not feature strongly. It suggests, too, that considerable numbers have attained a degree of prosperity in their host countries and that disposable income figures importantly in their future planning. So, too, do career prospects and quality of life.
Interestingly, up to 21 per cent of respondents see themselves as likely to come back within three years and a further 42 per cent “at some stage in the future”.
However, those most likely to say this include emigrants in Australia and New Zealand, many of whom are only there on short-term visas. Data from the UCC 2013 project suggests that, while 40 per cent of migrants would like to return, only about half of that number said it was likely that they would come back. The Irish Times data suggests that people are now somewhat more optimistic.
For people who would consider coming back, family is the major draw, and this factor is more relevant for those at the greatest distance. Smaller numbers were concerned with such issues as homesickness, raising a family of their own or improvements in the Irish economy.
As far as obstacles to return were concerned, migrants in the Irish Times survey identify “settling back into the Irish way of life” as a principal challenge. In itself this is a significant finding and suggests that today’s emigrants realise that returning is not simply a matter of “slotting back in”.
Return migrants are not the same people who left and, in a period of rapid change, the society to which they return is not the same one they left.
A significant minority in the survey say nothing could convince them to return, but with an intriguing gender difference – 42 per cent of men compared with only 19 per cent of women. Moreover, almost half of over-35s do not think they would return.
This is hardly surprising – we know from other evidence that people’s personal, familial, social and working lives are by then usually embedded in the society they live in, especially if there are school-going children.
Most of those surveyed do not know about Government efforts to attract emigrants home and consider that not enough is being done.
Even when emigrants do return, we know from other research that, in the case of rural emigrants, it is rarely to the place of origin. Any serious efforts to attract emigrants home will need to combine targeted return policies with specific measures to promote rural revival if the continuing depopulation of rural Ireland is to be halted.
Piaras Mac Éinrí is a geographer at University College Cork. This article forms part of the coverage of the Generation Emigration Survey 2016, a major poll conducted by Ipsos MRBI on behalf of The Irish Times between May 20th and June 2nd.