Emigrant trends: The brain drain continues

For many considering returning home, what they will be giving up will be carefully weighed and measured against what they can expect to enjoy in Ireland

The rapid recovery of the Irish economy is reflected in two statistics: the numbers employed now exceed two million for the first time since 2008, and net migration is again positive for the first time in eight years – as more people return than leave the country.

The CSO figures show that, in the year to last April, more non-nationals (58,200) moved to Ireland than Irish nationals (21,100). While the number of Irish nationals (31,800) emigrating still exceeded those returning.

Why do Irish people emigrate? For some it is a matter of necessity rather than of choice. The CSO figures, which showed that just one in ten emigrants were unemployed, suggest that emigration is increasingly less a matter of compelling economic necessity.

The decision to emigrate may well, as Finance Minister, Michael Noonan said some years ago, be a lifestyle choice; one used to gain experience abroad, but with an expectation of returning to Ireland in better times.


Nevertheless, the exodus represents a critical loss for Irish society and for the economy. In particular, it can be seen as a brain drain of some of Ireland’s best and brightest; those whose talents are nurtured and developed at home, but whose potential is more fully recognised and exploited outside this country. That said, many who have gained international experience, have later returned with enhanced reputations to make an invaluable contribution.

Indeed, one encouraging development is that not just fewer people with a third-level qualification have emigrated – a 20 per cent decline on 2015 to 32,000 – but that also, among immigrants arriving, an increasing number are equally well qualified.

A breakdown by age of those emigrating, shows an increase among 15-24 year olds; a group most affected by job insecurity, and by high levels of youth employment. The UK remains the most popular destination for emigrants, but given the continuing uncertainties that surrounding the Brexit negotiations, Britain’s appeal may well diminish.

Ireland’s unemployment rate, which peaked in 2012 at some 15 per cent and is now close to 8 per cent, has – until this year – had a limited impact in boosting the number of returning emigrants. The overall outlook for the domestic economy is clearly a major factor in influencing the decisions of emigrants on whether or not to return.

But as a recent Ipsos MRBI survey for The Irish Times indicated, that is one among other considerations. It found that most post-2008 emigrants were happier abroad than in Ireland, and were enjoying better wages, job opportunities and lifestyles.

For many, who may be considering returning home, what they will be giving up will be carefully weighed and measured against what they can expect to enjoy in Ireland. For emigrants in reaching a decision, that gap will have to narrow further before it becomes a compelling option.