Ireland’s long history of emigration during periods of hard times has entered a new chapter in the early 21st century as the euro zone economic crisis and government austerity cuts have prompted another huge wave of Irish leaving the emerald isle to seek work overseas.
The situation has become so grave that Irish youth organizations have called on the Dublin government to prevent what it calls a “staggering brain-drain.” According to Irish media, some 308,000 people (mostly youths) have left Ireland since 2009 (in a country with a population of only about 4.6 million). Of that 308,000 figure, 41 percent came from the 15-24 age segment.
Even more alarming, a survey by the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) revealed that more than half of the people between 18 and 24 have considered emigrating. "The implications of losing such large numbers of our youth population will remain to be seen,” warned NYCI.
Even among the older set – those between 35 and 54 – one-quarter have considered quitting Ireland. Government figures indicate that more than one-fourth of all Irish households has witnessed a close family member depart in the past two years. Most respondents to NYCI surveys cited jobs as the principal reason for wanting to leave the country. The vast majority of those surveyed (83 percent) blamed the government for its failure to relieve unemployment.
A Dublin youth services worker named Angela Hart told the Irish Times newspaper that virtually every client she sees talks of emigration. “If we have 20 young people a week coming in, they’re talking about emigration. I’m talking about people aged between 18 to 20,” she said.
“Even the younger kids are talking about it now, because it’s becoming the norm. That’s their future. That’s what they see. They’re saying that if they even do finish school, there’s nothing for them here. I would see a good few of them leave then. There’s nothing for them to do, even in their communities, only talk about emigration and then to actually do it.”
Unemployment, currently at 14.3 percent, is expected to edge down slightly to 14.1 percent by next year -- but part of that decline is explained by the huge number of people leaving the country. (The Center for Research on Globalization estimates that the true jobless rate in Ireland may be as high as 35 percent if one includes people who are defined as “under-employed.”)
For youths who remain in Ireland, life will likely remain bleak as they bear the brunt of hardship. The Irish Times reported that a recent survey on food poverty in Ireland revealed that young people between 18 and 30 are three times more likely to be at high risk of not having enough to eat than elderly people. Between 2007 and 2011 some youths saw their unemployment insurance reduced by as much as 46 percent.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Paris-based economic think-tank, has also advised the Irish government to tackle youth unemployment in order to prevent a complete breakdown of the economy. “Decisive labor-market reforms are … needed to address the prospect of persistent, high long-term unemployment, especially among young people, in particular by putting more resources into activation measures and better aligning skills with employers’ needs,” the OECD report stated.
Whereas the United Kingdom and United States typically received the lion’s share of emigrating Irish, the newer generation is going much farther afield or to the other countries. Niall Burgess of the Department of Foreign Affairs told Irish media that last year more than 25,800 Irish people received working holiday visas for Australia; 4,500 Irish-born citizens became permanent residents of Australia; and 645 were given student visas.
Owen Butler, a college student in Dublin, told the Irish Times: “I have a few [family members] that went to Australia. I’m going to college to do travel and tourism, but I’d rather not stay here. There’s probably not going to be any jobs [in that field] by the time I finish.” Significant numbers of Irish are also moving to Canada, New Zealand and parts of the EU, particularly Germany.
“Over 300,000 people have left the country over the last four years since the crisis, most of them young. We need to support them to make informed choices if they are going to places like Australia or Canada, or other parts of the world,” said NYCI assistant director James Doorley. “It shouldn’t be the case that once they leave the airports here in Ireland that they are forgotten about.”