Embedded abroad: How the Irish emigrant is settling

‘Generation Emigration’ is buying homes, starting families – and feeling happier than they did in Ireland

The Generation Emigration Survey was conducted by Ipsos MRBI on behalf of The Irish Times. Irish nationals who had emigrated since 2008 were interviewed by phone from May 20th to June 2nd.


Sarah’s story
“I’ll come home in a couple of weeks if I don’t like it,” Sarah Flynn told her father as she boarded a plane to Vancouver with a one-way ticket. That was in September 2009. Having lost her financial services job in Dublin at the age of 24, Flynn was living at home with her mother in Rathfarnham in Co Dublin. As the recession bit, she was looking for an escape; going to Canada, where her parents had lived in the 1980s, seemed worth a try.

Almost seven years later, having battled intense homesickness along the way, Flynn is now settled on Vancouver Island with her Canadian husband of two years and their one-year-old daughter Willow. The couple have a mortgage on a house in Nanaimo, have made good friends, and she is happy in her job, having retrained as a therapist.

“I thought if I liked it and found work I’d stay perhaps a year or two,” Flynn says. “But the years seem to have ticked by . . . Life is really fantastic here. We are surrounded by mountains, beaches and lakes, and I see so many opportunities for Willow that I didn’t have growing up. For now, we have no plans to move to Ireland.”

Her story is typical of tens of thousands of this “generation emigration” who have left Ireland since 2008. They may have intended to go just for a few years, to ride out the recession abroad before economic circumstances improved and they would move home again. But as the results of a new survey of post-2008 emigrants conducted by Ipsos/MRBI for The Irish Times (published in full on Irishtimes.com today) show, those plans have changed for many of them.

Quality of life
A significant proportion still look to Ireland with a hope of eventually returning. However, in the meantime they are becoming increasingly embedded abroad in the places they are coming to call home. As roots are put down, they report much higher levels of happiness than the group of emigrants interviewed for a previous Irish Times survey in 2012.

Perhaps one of the most striking statistics highlighting their intentions to stay abroad, at least in the medium-term, is the level of property ownership: one in five of the emigrants surveyed have bought a home since leaving Ireland. The longer they have spent away, the more likely this is, with the figure rising to 27 per cent among those who left between 2008 and 2012.

The “early leavers” (those who emigrated between 2008 and 2012) are also rooting themselves in other ways; 22 per cent have got married and 16 per cent have had children. Life goes on for them, no matter where they are.

They are also much happier overall. When we surveyed emigrants back in 2012, 22 per cent said they were “less happy” than they had been in Ireland. This year that figure overall has dropped to just 6 per cent. Seven in 10 say they are happier now abroad, rising to eight in 10 among the Irish in Canada.

Australia and New Zealand came out top for quality of life, with almost nine in every 10 people surveyed there saying their quality of life is better down under than it would be in Ireland. And it seems to get better over time: the longer people spend abroad, the more likely they are to think their quality of life is better now.

Happy workers
They are also happier at work. Of those surveyed who had been working before they left Ireland, 84 per cent said the job they had now was better, while 9 per cent said it was about the same. Perhaps unsurprisingly, older emigrants who were further along in their careers tended to be happier at work, with nine in ten of the over-35s group saying their job was better than the one they had in Ireland, compared with just seven in 10 of the under-25s. The US had the largest percentage of happy workers.

Just 2 per cent said they were unemployed now, compared with 14 per cent who were unemployed before leaving Ireland, and 13 per cent who came straight from school or college.

This job satisfaction is one of the biggest contributing factors to emigrant happiness and their decision to stay abroad, according to Cathy Murphy, executive director of the Irish Canadian Immigration Centre in Toronto (www.irishcdn.org).

“People who emigrate often judge themselves very harshly, unless they are doing it for the adventure,” Murphy says. “So if they get a good job and feel their careers are moving better here than they were back home, there is definitely a sense of pride.

“I know a lot of Irish people under the age of 35 who are on fire here, with fantastic jobs in the financial sector, and are about to buy a house. That brings tremendous happiness. They feel successful. If there is upward mobility and they see potential to continue that journey, then of course that feeds into their desire to stay.”

There is strong evidence of this career progression in our survey: half of the participants have been promoted since moving abroad. Although the women polled are more likely to have received a qualification or further training, men reported higher levels of promotion. Some things stay the same, no matter where you are in the world.

Eimear Beattie, a teacher from Co Tipperary who emigrated with her family to Perth five years ago and now runs the Irish Families in Perth group, believes higher wages in Australia have a lot to do with career satisfaction among Irish workers living there.

“For example, teachers who have 10 years teaching experience in Ireland receive €44,996, while in Australia you can earn $100,000 (about €67,000) after 10 years, which also includes your years worked in Ireland,” Beattie says. “Even though the cost of living is high in Perth, the difference that extra money makes in terms of lifestyle is immense.”

Higher wages also mean higher savings: almost nine in 10 of the emigrants in this survey said they have put money into a savings account abroad, up from seven in 10 when we asked the same question in 2012.

Becoming citizens
There is evidence that, post-2008, emigrants are becoming officially more permanent where they live. One in 10 respondents living outside Europe now have citizenship of the country where they live, while four in 10 have permanent residency. These figures are highest in Australia, where 62 per cent have either citizenship or permanent residency.

Cathy Murphy says she expects more Irish to become Canadian citizens too in the coming years.

“We are just starting to get questions about citizenship,” she says. “The people who came in the middle of the recession, say around 2012, are just becoming eligible now. It takes four to six years. Citizenship gives you a lot of privileges, so it is a great thing to have.”

Even as they put down roots overseas, the Irish still tend to stick together, especially in faraway places. More than half of those surveyed overall emigrated with someone they knew, a figure which rises to about three-quarters for the Irish in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Seven in 10 respondents in these countries said their social circle now was mostly Irish. They gravitate towards each other romantically as well, with six in 10 in a relationship with another Irish person.

But the longer they stay abroad, the more integrated they become in their love lives. “Early leavers” who emigrated between 2008 and 2012 were twice as likely (at 20 per cent) to have partner born in the country they emigrated to than respondents who left in the past three years, and were also more likely to have a partner born in another country.

Respondents living in mainland European countries were most likely to have integrated with non-Irish people, with just 16 per cent saying their friends were “mostly Irish”. But for those living in English-speaking countries, their social circles remain predominantly Irish, no matter how long they have been away.

Marion O’Hagan works with Irish emigrants young and old at the Irish Australian Support and Resource Bureau in Melbourne. She says this has always been – and is likely to remain – the norm.

“Everyone comes out here thinking they want to live the Australian life,” she says. “When they are here a while, they realise that culturally they need their own, so they start getting involved with the GAA or with Irish dancing or their local Irish club or social group. This makes a massive difference. Everyone understands them, understands their humour, where they are from.”

They will always be Irish
As O’Hagan describes it: “They realise they are Irish and will always be Irish, and they can be Irish in Australia as much as they can be anywhere else. It is just a matter of connecting with the Irish community and making Irish friends. The seniors we work with are the exact same.”

The survey results show faraway emigrants are more likely to participate in Irish community activities and sports “because of the isolation, because of the distance”, O’Hagan believes. Those living closer to Ireland can visit more regularly and might not feel as strong a need to connect to their Irishness away from home.

The Irish in the US, where there are long-established Irish clubs, groups and centres, had the highest participation in Irish activities at 57 per cent, followed by 52 per cent in Australia and New Zealand. Residents of mainland European countries had the lowest at 16 per cent, followed by the UK at 36 per cent.

Younger people overall were more likely to be involved in the Irish community, with 55 per cent of the under-25s saying they are part of a group or club, compared with just 36 per cent of the over-35s.

Cathy Murphy says a well-established older generation of Irish laid the groundwork for this generation in popular Irish destinations such as Canada.

“The GAA has got a real boost from this injection of new arrivals,” she says, “I would credit the existing infrastructure in the grassroots Irish community, and the young people who came were smart enough to get involved with that.

“The first question we ask when people come in is, do you play sport? It is an ice breaker and such a great way to meet people.”

Distance from loved ones
The great distance from Ireland might be ameliorated somewhat by all this socialising with other Irish people and participation in Irish activities abroad, but it is by no means erased. “Distance from loved ones” was cited as the greatest challenge faced by 31 per cent of emigrants polled, with the figure higher for women than men.

“Distance is a big problem,” O’Hagan agrees. “You cannot be spontaneous. You cannot ring your sister, your mother, your best friend and go for a coffee. You might have plenty of money, live in a nice home, have a good job. But it takes time to make good friends, to make a new home. Home is where people understand you.”

The further the respondent was from Ireland, the more likely they were to cite distance as a big problem for them: 42 per cent of people in Australia and 36 per cent in Canada said it was the biggest challenge they have faced since moving abroad, compared with just 25 per cent in the UK.

The good news for homesick emigrants is that the heartache seems to ease over time, with those who were abroad longer less likely to cite distance as their main difficulty with living overseas.

Still, this, along with the responses to some of the earlier questions about happiness, may suggest that those who experience the most homesickness and unhappiness may have already given up on their emigrant adventure and moved back to Ireland.

Emigration is now a choice
So who is still leaving? Ireland has always had high emigration rates, even in the heyday of the Celtic Tiger. And though the Irish economy has been on the up and unemployment has fallen, people are still emigrating. The difference now is that emigration is more voluntary.

Of the 350 people interviewed for this survey, 33 emigrated in 2015. Strikingly, just two of them (6 per cent) said they felt “forced” to emigrate. This compares with 41 per cent of those who felt they had no choice but to go in 2010.

There is further evidence of this shift away from forced migration in the figures for unemployment: emigrants who left in the early years of the recession were twice as likely to be unemployed before departure than those who left in the past three years. Just 3 per cent of respondents who emigrated in 2015 were unemployed before leaving, compared with 21 per cent of those who left in 2010.

“That comes up less and less now,” says Cathy Murphy in Canada. “I know there are still communities in Ireland that are still really struggling, but that isn’t the thing people talk about first anymore when they come here. Thank God.”

She thinks people who were in desperate circumstances at home in Ireland, because of job loss or debt, would have already left by now if they had the opportunity and means to do so.

“If we are getting that sort of desperation at all, it is coming from people in their mid to late 30s with families, the ones who might have tried all their options at home,” she says.

“Generally, we are seeing a lot more young people arriving. When we opened our doors in 2012, we were mostly dealing with people over the age of about 24, graduates of university or trades programmes who already had a few years of work experience, who were more ready to work.

“We are now seeing so many more kids coming over now who are just finished their Leaving Cert and are treating it as a gap year.”

So if voluntary migration is growing, if emigrants’ roots are growing deeper overseas, and if their happiness is increasing, will they ever come back? We’ll focus on what our respondents told us about their plans to return or stay abroad as the Generation Emigration survey coverage continues on Monday.

How the Generation Emigration survey was conducted

For this Irish Times Generation Emigration Survey, Ipsos MRBI interviewed Irish nationals who had emigrated since 2008 and had left as an emigrant and not for extended travel. The research was conducted by phone from 20th May to 2nd June.

Accurately sampling the population of Irish emigrants is problematic, as no reliable measure of the emigrant population exists. The Central Statistics Office provides estimates of the number of Irish nationals emigrating each year but offers limited demographic information and none on destination countries.

Therefore, for this survey a “purposive sampling” approach was used. Emigrants were identified by interviewers through existing networks of personal contacts, and rules were applied to avoid any clustering effect.

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.  

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