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    Are we being too optimistic?

    By Noreen Bowden | March 2, 2011

    A recent edition of the Economist published an interesting graphic showing inward and outward migration based on both historic data and on forecasts from the Economic and Social Research Institute.

    The graph, however, shows that the ESRI is predicting a strong downturn in outward migration starting this year, and a similarly significant upsurge in immigration. This is curious – there was much media panic over the forecast that a net total of 100,000 people would leave Ireland between April 2010 and April 2012. At the time I didn’t understand the hullabaloo, as outward migration was already running at about 65,000 a year. But this graph is  a pretty vivid demonstration that the ESRI’s forecasts are likely to be too optimistic, as there’s no apparent change in economic circumstances on the horizon likely to be strong enough to drive such a reversal.

    Another note on that Economist article: it takes a fairly balanced view on emigration overall, with some emotive talk of how emigration is “a trauma formed by economic wounds inflicted decades ago that still runs deep in the collective memory”, while also noting the more positive aspects of emigration that have not gone unnoticed by policy-makers:

    Still, many argue that a population willing to move to where the jobs are is exactly what a country in Ireland’s predicament needs. Historically, labour mobility has helped to keep a lid on unemployment. And there have been other benefits: the diaspora, particularly in the United States, has proved a useful asset for Ireland, politically as well as economically. Moreover, a move abroad today is hardly the one-way ticket it was for many in the 19th century. When Ireland started to boom in the 1990s many émigrés returned home, bringing with them much-needed skills and capital.

    While any rational assessment of the impact of emigration on Irish society would have to point out the diaspora’s positive economic benefits,  I believe the last two sentences of that paragraph are too optimistic. They echo many statements made by politicians and comfortable business executives in recent months, as well as the hopes in the heart  of many young people who are going away. But it’s a line that is being fed to us by a political class that doesn’t want to face up the enormity of the fact that for many of this generation, emigration will be a one-way trip. We will need Celtic-Tiger-job growth to drive Celtic-Tiger-style return rates, and that doesn’t seem likely right now – if ever. (Not to mention the fact that I don’t believe anyone has crunched the numbers and actually determined how many of those who left in the 1980s and 1990s ever returned. We know it’s significant, but with 800,000 Irish-born citizens abroad, it’s safe to say many of them remain overseas.)

    Plus, the last boom was both a tech boom and building boom, which offered opportunities for both those with high-tech skills and tradespeople.  Another building boom in the next decade or two seems highly unlikely. And even if a new tech boom starts, today’s emigrants who might like to return will be competing for jobs with the highly skilled, multilingual workers of Europe in ways they didn’t have to in the pre-accession days of the early Celtic Tiger. It’s highly likely that any future inward migration will be comprised of a broad range of nationalities, as it was during the last years of the Celtic Tiger, and returning Irish emigrants will have no monopoly on future opportunities.

    I would like to think that those individuals who are most highly motivated to return will do so, but it’s unrealistic to believe that it will be an easy task to lure this generation of emigrants back after several years of a severe economic downturn. There’s really no evidence to suggest that emigration won’t be a one-way trip for most of our young people, and we should stop pretending otherwise and start dealing with reality.

    Read the article on the Economist website: Ireland’s crash: After the race

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