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Why Are So Many Young People Leaving Ireland?

Why Are So Many Young People Leaving Ireland?

by David Fleming
Nov 13 2013, 3:45pm

Ireland has long been a country of emigrants. For around the past 300 years, the Irish have been leaving their homes to escape whatever it is they want to escape—mostly famine or economic depression, historically—in search of a better life elsewhere.

I recently became one of the Irish diaspora myself, leaving the country, along with many of my friends, because of the severe lack of jobs and very real prospect of the economy remaining in perpetual decline. It's presumably for those exact reasons that, from April of 2012 to April this year,a record high of 89,000 people left Ireland.

Not all of those people were born in Ireland, but the majority—just fewer than 51,000—were, with most of them packing off to destinations that have been popular with Irish emigrants since the 1800s: the UK, Australia, and America.

So while migration is certainly nothing new, is the increasing number of Irish emigrants something to worry about? Why are people so keen to leave what is ostensibly a first-world country, and could the mass emigration signal a full-blown crisis for the country?

"I do think it's a crisis—there has been a really significant increase in the number of people leaving Ireland," said Dr. Mary Gilmartin, a senior lecturer at NUI Maynooth in County Kildare. Mary has extensive knowledge on the topic of Irish emigration and was once an Irish emigrant herself, leaving the country in 1994 before returning in 2003.

"People are leaving not because they necessarily want to," she continued, "but [because] they feel that they have no choice. I think you see that particularly in the very big increase in the number of people going to Britain, because that’s a place where you don’t need any resources to go. That points to a crisis, because people are choosing the places of least resistance because they don’t necessarily have the resources to allow them to go to other parts of the world."

It's no surprise that a large number of the Irish citizens who choose to uproot are young, mostly in their 20s or 30s. In fact, a recent report, titled "Irish Emigration in an Age of Austerity," found that people in their 20s made up over 70 percent of Ireland's emigrants between 2006 and 2012.

An overwhelming amount of that number (62 percent) have third-level qualifications, which clearly isn't a good sign for the country at large; the "brain drain" is likely to have further negative effects on the country, with people being educated at home before moving abroad to practice their skills elsewhere.

The author of the report, Piaras Mac Éinrí, told me that the high levels of qualified people leaving Ireland could have a disastrous effect on the country's economy: "There is a disproportionate number of people who are better qualified than average leaving the country," he said. "There is clearly going to be a problem down the road if the country does recover in, say, five or ten years time."

Elaborating, he said, "There may well be a skills shortage in Ireland. There may also be a problem, as young people are the taxpayers who will [have to] pay the pensions of people my age. There is a strong sense with some of the younger people that we spoke to [for the report] that my generation has screwed them and the country, and has left them to pay the bills. Therefore, they’re saying, 'I'm out of here and why should I come back?'"

And, indeed, there aren't many financial motivations to draw them back home if they do decide to leave. The current unemployment rate is hovering somewhere around the 13 percent mark, but thatmore than doubles for under-25s to 28 percent.

Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore has called the state of affairs "unacceptable." But neither he, nor anyone else in the government, seems particularly keen to help matters.

One of the government's recent moves that has affected those looking for work was cutting grants for third-level education. This has meant that students in low-income families are forced to apply for low-skill jobs rather than gaining qualifications that help them clamber up the employment ladder. When it comes to masters degrees, financial support has been cut entirely.

You could, of course, ask the bank for a loan, but they aren't particularly enthralled at the idea of lending anyone any money at the moment, and it's getting harder to find part-time jobs to support yourself while you study. As a result, enrollment "has collapsed—it's on the floor," according to Piaras Mac Éinrí.

Other government policies include slashing budgets for community-led projects and business development, as well as initiating internship programs like Jobsbridge, which offers opportunities like learning how to stack shelves at Tesco or fit tires for Quikfit. That might sound vaguely positive, but the government pays an extra €50 (about $67) on top of unemployment benefits for anyone taking part in the scheme, giving the companies full-time workers they don't have to pay, meaning that there's no real point in employing anyone on a proper wage.

However, perhaps the most extreme measure was the government's decision to almost half unemployment payments for people under 26 last month to €100 (about $135) a week. That means "if [young people] go on Jobsbridge, they’ll be working 35 hours a week for 150 quid—that’s just shocking," said Joseph Loughnane, an Irish citizen who is determined to stay in his home country in spite of the current lack of opportunity.

Joseph is an organizing member of the "We're Not Leaving" campaign, a national movement that seeks to unite a broad spectrum of people within Irish society to fight against government policies that exacerbate the emigration crisis. Some of the actions they have taken so far include protests outside Dail Eireann (the Irish Parliament building) and, most recently, asking young people across Ireland to send their rejection letters to three senators in a bid to highlight the fact that there are no jobs, despite all the government spin to the contrary.