June 13, 2005
This weekend, I’m going to the 40th birthday party of an old friend, who works for a US multinational. A tribe will gather from all over the world. People are flying in from four continents and are using the party as the starting point for the their annual pilgrimage home.
Of the rest of the group who work, live and have families here, the majority emigrated and came home in dribs and drabs over the past few years. The ones who are still away now constitute the minority.
This type of nomadic gathering is uniquely Irish. It would not happen in any other country. This is the norm for the Leaving Cert class of 20-odd years ago.
Walk into any office and you will see them, the Leaving Cert classes of the mid-1980s, Ireland’s nomads, just back.
In the office, it is likely that returned emigrants are doing well, and they will ultimately make up a high proportion of the top brass. They have arrived home in their thousands over the past few years.
While most of the attention is directed at immigrants, the great overlooked story of Ireland is the returned emigrants, who tend to come home quietly and get on with it. They have been changed by their experiences abroad and they will change this place as a result.
They are the most cosmopolitan Irish generation ever – equally at home in Beacon Hill and on Hill 16 – and their experience is global.
In fact, they are the epitome of globalisation. Had it not been for globalisation, they could never have left this country in the first place, nor could they have returned. It was both their safety valve in the late 1980s and 1990s and it was the key that subsequently unlocked the door in the last five years.
They are the human face of economic figures which reveal that Ireland is the second most globalised country in the world. These people are modern, tolerant and open to change. They have had a huge influence in the economy but not yet on the politics of the country. We should not underestimate the role that their contacts, networks and friendships, particularly in the US, have played in driving foreign investment here.
If modernity can be described as the ability to change, take on board new impulses and ideas, blend them with the old and take change in your stride, then we can fairly describe Ireland as a very modern place. In fact, sometimes we fail to see that Ireland is a truly modern and cosmopolitan country.
Take these returned emigrants who have worked and lived abroad. They constitute 20 per cent of the workforce in their 30s and 40s.This is an extraordinary figure when you think that only one in 20 Americans even has a passport; one in five Irish workers has worked abroad, taking in different cultures, learning new tricks and thriving in an alien country.
I doubt that the corresponding figures for France and Germany are even close to 3 per cent, if that. This nomadic tribe plugs us into the global economy like no other and makes us ideally placed to take advantages of the opportunities that globalisation affords.
A fascinating paper by Alan Barrett of the Economic Social Research Institute (ESRI) reveals how qualified these returned nomads are.
Initially, they were likely to have been twice as educated as those who stayed put. This implies that Ireland was, up until recently, sending out an emigrant aristocracy who left Ireland not just because there was nothing here, but also because they wanted to get on, see new things and create a career for themselves that they could not have aspired to here.
Barrett finds that while there was a brain drain back then, they have come home even better educated than when they left, with much better experience.
As a result, men are getting paid more (15 per cent) and are being promoted faster than those who stayed at home. In another interesting finding, men who said they went for career purposes get paid 5 per cent more than those who left to see the world. So being driven pays, literally.
However, it is quite worrying to see that women who came home, even with all this extra experience, do not get paid more than those who stayed. So, emigration is good for the boys not the girls.
Although the estimates vary, about 150,000 returned emigrants have come back in the past ten years and, arguably, their cosmopolitan outlook has played a role in our acceptance of immigrants.
Maybe their experience allows us to see other immigrants through their own eyes and despite all the talk and some isolated examples of atrocious behaviour, in the main, immigrants have been absorbed with tolerance and magnanimity. We are now taking in more immigrants per capital than anywhere else in Europe.
If you doubt the assertion that we are tolerant, think about what is happening in other countries. French voters last week cited immigration as a serious problem, as did the Dutch, yet according to Eurostat, proportionately Ireland took in eight times more immigrants than France and seven times more than Holland last year without a whimper.
The 60 odd per cent who voted for the citizenship referendum this time last year did not vote for a closed door, but rather a system that works fairly.
Together with the returned diaspora, the immigrants are our best hope of keeping the growth thing ticking along.
In a world where smart people are the only scarce resource, the education profile of our immigrants is astonishing.
In another study by Barrett, it is revealed that, whereas 27 per cent of Irish people have third level qualifications, 57 per cent of our immigrants do. At the other end of the scale, while 32 per cent of us have only lower secondary qualifications (Junior Cert), only 15 per cent of the immigrants have just the Junior Cert equivalent. So the immigrants, like our emigrants in the early 1990s, are smart.
But unlike the Irish who went abroad and enriched their experience, enhancing the society they went to and our own when they came back, immigrants here are underemployed. They are working in jobs below their competence, so we have scientists working as bouncers and graduates making smoothies. This is costing both us and them.
Over the coming years, it would be a bright idea to look at our own returned emigrants and see whether their experience could be mirrored here with our immigrants. Ask anyone who employs immigrants and they will praise their work ethic, punctuality and overall attitude. If left to their own devices, they will build a great future here and, unlike our emigrant class of 1985 who went and came back, most of the immigrants are likely to stay.
The lesson of globalisation is that smart people are the prize for economies, so let’s value every one of them and remember that our modern, cosmopolitan country was made by lots of our bunch coming and going as they pleased. And when the old grainy photos of mullets and pixie boots are pulled out at someone’s 40th, remember today’s immigrants and remind yourself that our nomadic class of 1985 was only a generation ago.