Saturday, February 20, 2010

Disaggregating Brain Drain

Population decline. Net out-migration. Low rates of educational attainment. Brain drain. The numbers don't live up to the publicity. Out of Ireland:

The economy has the highest number of graduates in the 25-34 population in the EU-27, with the exception of Cyprus. That proportion (and its average quality) may depreciate somewhat if recovery does not take hold and emigration accelerates. But so far the outflow through emigration has been hyped while ignoring the mix. First, net inward migration has turned negative mainly because immigration (people coming to Ireland) has collapsed rather than due to a surge in emigration (people leaving). Second, a high proportion of those who have left are low-skilled and worked in construction where employment has more than halved. Construction, by its very nature, is a highly labour-intensive and low-productivity industry. Workers tend to be mobile, and emigration from this sector will not particularly dilute the quality of human capital in Ireland. Moreover, the nascent recovery of the international-traded sectors will keep many of our graduates at home. Longer-term, investment in education must remain the salient priority.

The part I put in boldface cuts to the chase. The recent Irish exodus has been much exaggerated. People are leaving the country. However, well-educated talent is still a relative economic strength in Ireland.

Obviously, this is a complex issue. We’ve heard very little of ‘brain drain’ with this upsurge of emigration, because the model of “brain circulation” has largely displaced the concept of permanent loss in migration thinking. We know from the boom that networks of well-educated Irish people can be an asset for our economy, no matter where they live, and many of them may eventually return if there is a return to substantial growth.

In terms of economic costs, emigration’s toll may not be all that harsh. Obviously, in the short term, emigration is a tried-and-true safety valve; sending off surplus labour will save social welfare money, and relieving the pressure on the unemployment rate will certainly make our economic performance look better on paper. And each unemployed person who leaves is one fewer potentially angry voter when it comes to election time.

But involuntary emigration carries very high potential human costs, and any analysis that does not take those into account is not looking at the full picture. Davy might call it ”hype”, but the concern over rising emigration rates reflects Ireland’s long experience with a phenomenon many of us thought was gone forever.

I'll try to add something to the discussion. What qualifies as "involuntary emigration"? You might want to stay but don't feel you can. That isn't an economic refugee. I would look at the traditionally stuck populations, who are usually native and a few rungs down on the socio-economic ladder.

Galway is full of the young and geographically mobile. It has been for more than a decade. Look at the native working class there. Are they emigrating in surprising numbers?

1 comment:

Noreen Bowden said...

Hi Jim,

You ask a good question, but it's a hard one to answer, as we really don't have those statistics. (We get only annual statistics and I'm not aware of any source that gives any current, specific data for individual cities or social classes.)

Our use in Ireland of the term "involuntary emigration" may be somewhat unusual. We use it to refer to emigration in the context of high unemployment, and I think these days the term is not confined to those without education (Our youth unemployment is over 30%; 90% of the Irish graduating class of nurses was expected to emigrate last year).

I just posted on about three emigrants who wrote in the Irish Times about their experience of emigration - they express the idea of involuntary emigration far better than I could.

Our past experience is that when emigration gets bad, it lasts for years and we lose large numbers of young people. It happened in the 1950s and the 1980s, and we thought those days were over. So while the current emigration numbers are not historic highs, we are probably looking into a sustained period of emigration. I can see why the Davy analyst used the word "hype" about those figures (though keep in mind they were for the year ending April 2009, so they cover several months before the economy went into freefall), but if you look at Ireland's historic emigration patterns, it's pretty easy to see where we're heading.