A glimpse into Ireland's future


A rash of statistics in recent days has underlined how rapidly Ireland's labour force and demographic realities are changing as a result of our comparatively high economic growth.

Yesterday the Central Statistics Office projected that the State's population could increase by one quarter to five million by 2019 if these trends continue. These are positive and welcome changes, which will need ample public discussion if we are to prepare constructively for a a more populous country.

Some 50,000 people from the new European Union member-states have come here to work since they joined on May 1st this year, according to the latest figures registered, most of them young single workers. These figures bear out the widespread impression that people from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have readily found work in Ireland's thriving industrial, service and agricultural sectors. Ukrainians and Romanians have also come in their thousands, along with workers from elsewhere in the world. They have already added much to this society, opening its mind to much wider perspectives and cultural influences.

There was good news this week for many of those who have come here seeking asylum, when the Government announced new procedures by which an estimated 17,000 immigrants with Irish-born children may be allowed to make their homes here, find employment and become citizens. They have naturally been drawn to such a rapidly growing economy, in which the labour force has expanded by two-thirds over a decade. It is essential that more modern and streamlined legislation and administrative procedures are introduced to regulate such flows in future, now that citizenship rights have been clarified by the Supreme Court and the referendum on the subject.

Yesterday the CSO published labour force projections showing we will need an annual net flow of 30,000 immigrants over the period to 2036 if current rates of economic growth are to continue. We are still coming to terms with Ireland's transition from an emigrant to an immigrant society. Residency rights, family unity, trade union representation and the provision of extra accommodation and social housing are but some of the many patterns of life that will have to adapt to these new realities, which are predicated on continuing full employment levels.

The CSO projects radical changes in Ireland's demographic profile over these years. Those over 65 will grow from 430,000 now to 1.1 million in 2036, for example, comprising one fifth of the population rather than today's one tenth of it, and there will be three times more people aged over 80. The young population under 16 will grow from 750,000 to over one million. These are startling figures. They underline how important it will be to fund pension schemes, and caring, health and educational facilities to prepare for them, and to question existing prejudices about ageing. Some of this work has already started, but much more of it remains to be done.