David Garrahy will one day return to live in Ireland, he says, “but I’m not entirely sure when and at what stage of my life”. The 34-year old from Doolin, County Clare, who has a degree in law and European studies and a Masters in international relations, works in Brussels for the European Youth Forum.
Mr Garrahy is part of an exodus of young, highly educated people from Ireland. Persuading them to return is becoming an increasingly critical political issue as the nation contemplates the economic and social cost of the loss of its future workforce.
“We are going to see serious skills shortages,” says Marie-Claire McAleer, senior research and policy officer at the National Youth Council of Ireland, which recently sponsored a conference to look at how to encourage young people back.
“We’re losing our revenue base, and this is coupled with an ageing population,” Ms McAleer says, describing the outflow as “potentially catastrophic”.
Indeed, the issue is so close to the top of the political agenda that Ireland recently named its first minister of state for the diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan.
A look at the official numbers shows why this is such a pressing matter. Although net emigration has fallen to 21,400 in the year to April 2014, down from 33,100 the year before, more than 228,000 Irish nationals left the country between 2009 and 2013, the majority of them young and educated. More than 132,000 of them – nearly 60 per cent – had university degrees.
“Ireland had invested significantly in their education and we’re losing them to other countries,” says Ms McAleer.
The population aged 20-24 fell by 13.2 per cent between 2006 and 2011, an outflow not seen even in the depths of the recession of the 1970s, when Ireland’s overall economic base was far smaller than it is today.
The population aged 25-29 fell by 3.2 per cent in those years. And while some of the drop is due to recent immigrants – largely from countries that had recently joined the EU – returning home as jobs dried up, more than half of it was down to young Irish nationals leaving home.
A 2013 survey by researchers at University College Cork, found that 75 per cent of those questioned believed emigration is having a negative effect. The study also underlined that emigration is most likely among the well-educated. While 47 per cent of Irish people aged 25-34 have a university qualification, the figure for recent Irish emigrants is 62 per cent.
The exodus is generally held to be a consequence of the financial crisis, which led to soaring unemployment with younger workers most affected. Data from the OECD show that Ireland’s total unemployment rate rose from 4.4 per cent in 2005 to 14.7 per cent in 2012, although it had fallen to 11.1 per cent by last month
But among those aged 15-24, the percentage in work nearly halved since 2005, going from 47.8 per cent of that group to 27.9 per cent in 2012.
The effects of mass emigration are not limited to the economy; social reverberations are being felt, too. The University College Cork study found that at least one household in four in rural areas of Ireland has been affected by emigration of at least one person since 2006.
Moreover, the researchers noted, emigration is high when compared with Ireland’s unemployment rate. Greece and Spain, with higher unemployment, have not seen departures on the scale of Ireland’s.
Ms McAleer says that there is anecdotal evidence that, for example, a dearth of young people means that sports clubs in rural areas cannot find enough participants. Moreover, emigration often means the dissolution of intergenerational households, with attendant grief for parents.
“Not everyone has the means to fly over to see their children in Australia,” Ms McAleer notes.
In some professions – construction, nursing and teaching in particular – there are also concerns that highly trained workers will find careers and living conditions so much better abroad that they may never return, even if the economy picks up…