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Ireland’s 'brain drain' an indictment of emigrants view of their own country

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A large crowd attended a working abroad expo in Dublin last week.
A large crowd attended a working abroad expo in Dublin last week.  

There has been a good deal of head scratching here over the past week since that report by a University College Cork (UCC) research group on emigration was published.

It showed that almost half  (47 percent) of the emigrants now leaving Ireland had full time jobs here.  And that a high proportion (62 percent) of emigrants aged 25 to 34 had third level (college) degrees.

This prompted headlines here about a “brain drain” and puzzlement among news commentators about why people with jobs would decide to leave.   It seemed to be a pretty damning indictment of the state of Ireland and a telling revelation of the real attitude of Irish people to their own country and its future.  

There’s no need to repeat in this column all of the detail of the report by the UCC Emigre Project.  There’s a good summary on our sister website Irish Central, and if you want to read the full report you can find it easily on line by searching for UCC  Emigre Project and clicking on report.

Let us just say here that this report on emigration (the title is “Emigration in an Age of Austerity”) goes far beyond other surveys in recent years.   It has real credibility and offers data that provides a lot of food for thought.

The researchers approached the project on three levels.  They used household surveys covering 2,500 homes across Ireland, they compiled data from an online survey of 1,500 emigrants already abroad, and they interviewed 500 would-be emigrants at jobs fairs being run in Dublin and Cork by foreign companies offering jobs abroad.  In addition to that, 60 detailed interviews were done via Skype and Viber with emigrants who had already left.

This is a substantial amount of research, and the report based on it is an important insight into contemporary emigration from Ireland and the diverse reasons it is happening.   It is a scientific study, not the anecdotal kind of commentary that is usual when dealing with emigration.  The report is well worth reading and provides a lot of food for thought.

What it does not provide, however, are complete answers about the fundamental reasons that people here are leaving.  This is not a criticism of the report, rather an indication of the complexity of the reasons people here have for deciding to go.

Readers with long memories will remember the notorious remark made back in the 1980s by the then Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minster) Brian Lenihan Senior who said  “we can’t all live on a small island.” Lenihan seemed to be suggesting that Ireland, partly due to our big Catholic families, would never be able to provide jobs for all its children.

Following an outcry at the time he moderated this to suggest that a lot of young Irish just wanted to see the world.   That caused almost as much grief, although there was probably a good deal of truth in both of Lenihan’s theories, not that many people here were brave enough to say so openly.

Scroll down 30 years and early last year we found our present minister for finance, Michael Noonan, making the same mistake when he referred to emigration by young Irish people as “a free lifestyle choice.”

Needless to say he was eaten for breakfast by the nationally correct here, even though he pointed out that the world had changed, with cheap travel, Skype and so on.

The interesting thing about the new UCC report is that it gives some backing to what both Lenihan and Noonan were saying.

Yes, we had high unemployment in the 1980s, and yes, we have high unemployment now, but this report suggests that many people here do leave to experience life elsewhere, even if they have a job.  They are what Noonan called “lifestyle” emigrants, leaving because they want to, not because they have to.

On a superficial level, the UCC report shows that currently 47 percent of emigrants are in that category; they told researchers they wanted  to travel and experience life and work elsewhere.

But that’s only half the story.   They also said that they were influenced by the lack of job security and job satisfaction here, with more contract work, poor pay levels and not much hope of rapid promotion and pay increases.

Many of them are people with professional qualifications that give them good prospects in other countries, in areas like finance, health and information technology.

So yes, they do have jobs, but they feel they can do better elsewhere.

The other side of the coin is the 53 percent who don’t have a full time job here when they leave. But even among this group, what is happening is more complex than that figure suggests.

First off, around 13 percent had part-time jobs but left anyway.  Another group, around 15 percent, were former students, many of whom had just graduated and may not have spent much time looking for work here.  The rest, around 23 percent, were unemployed, including those who had been out of work for some time.

Of course unemployment and the lack of jobs here is a big part of the emigration story, especially in the construction sector.  There are a lot of people who just can’t find a job here, whatever category they are in.

But construction is the worst, and the report says that 17 percent of those emigrating are from that category, the blocklayers, plasterers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers, and so on.

But when you put it all together you begin to understand that there is a lot more to our emigration story than is initially apparent.

For a start, the long-term unemployed, those who have been on welfare here for several years or more, perhaps since the crash started in 2007/’08 or even before that, are not a significant part of the story.

They are far more likely to stay here on welfare than to emigrate because they are low-skilled or don’t have the initiative or competence to move to another country.   (This is not peculiar to Ireland, of course.)

On the other hand, looking at the overall picture in the report, you also see that there is no easy answer to the question of why people who have full time jobs here are emigrating?

The answers in the report suggest that people in general have a very jaundiced view of our future. Reading between the lines you can sense this.

You want to know why people who have jobs are leaving Ireland?  Let me be a bit more specific than the report can be.

One of the fundamental reasons is the depressed atmosphere in Ireland.  Since we lost our economic sovereignty and entered the bailout program there seems little reason to stay, especially if you are highly qualified and just starting out on your career.  

Why stay? The reality is that we’re going to be paying for the economic mess for years, with high taxes, poor state services and living standards under pressure all the time.
Most companies here are just hanging in there, hoping for a recovery.  They can’t afford pay levels like they could during the boom.

Even those who are doing okay use the collapse as a reason to keep pay levels low.  Everyone is expected to work harder and longer, to stay with it until the job is done even if there is no extra money.

Among state workers, despite having a level of protection that the private sector workers don’t enjoy, pay is under pressure as extras and premiums are cut out of the system.

So we are now threatened by a teacher strike. And more teachers and nurses and other qualified state workers are leaving.

At the other end, taxes have increased, the government has raided pension funds, there are extra charges like property tax, and water charges are on the way.   Health insurance has skyrocketed, as have energy bills and utility bills.  Everything seems to be as expensive as ever, even though we were told prices would come down now that the boom is over.

The government claims that our income tax levels are comparable to those in other European countries.  The nominal rates are.  But the reality is that the extra charges that are applied to income put us up there as one of the highest taxed countries with one of the poorest levels of state services.

Our core welfare rates are high for the unemployed, the disabled, old age pensions and so on.  But for younger working singles or families there is very little in terms of support for things like child care.  And the taxes and charges burden is relentless.

These are the people who are struggling (and many failing) to pay mortgages, who are leading a very pared back lifestyle and still can’t make ends meet.

These are the people who have jobs and who turn up in surveys showing that so many families here have maybe €50 or €100 left over every month when all the essential bills have been paid.  You won’t do much partying on that.

There is another factor in all this.  That is the growing realization that Ireland is not a fair society, that there are so many people here who have escaped the austerity program and have huge salaries, often paid by the state.

The huge pensions being enjoyed by those who were key players in the disastrous boom and bust that brought the country to its knees is another sore point.  Some people can party on.

The gulf between the leaders of Irish society on huge salaries and/or pensions (and sometimes it’s both!) and the ordinary people who they praise for accepting austerity is not just enormous, it’s obscene.

And it’s not just the leaders. It’s the golden circle of legal, financial and senior civil servants who are still doing fine while everyone else struggles to survive.

Faced with all of this, is it really surprising that new graduates or people who have full time jobs are deciding to leave?

When the realization sinks in that nothing is going to change any time soon and tax hikes and cutbacks are not going to ease off for years, the question is not why would you leave, but why would you stay?

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