As soon as 22-year-old Cáit Fitzgerald finishes her studies, she intends to “get out” of her native Ireland. “I can’t afford anything here,” she says. “There’s not much hope for people our age.”
Ireland’s long history of emigration has seen an estimated 10mn people leave since 1800. While in the past many were forced out by famines and economic crises, young people in recent years have been drawn to jobs abroad or the freedoms of living in more open societies.
But now, the tone is changing again from pull to push. Rather than the lure of foreign opportunities, young people complain that the soaring cost of living — and in particular housing — is pricing them out of their own country.
“I don’t know anyone planning on staying,” said Fitzgerald, who wants to move to Australia after she graduates. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
According to a new poll commissioned by the National Youth Council of Ireland, seven out of 10 Irish people aged 18-24 are contemplating moving abroad in search of a better quality of life. A similar poll in 2012 found just 51 per cent were contemplating emigrating, the NYCI said.
Student Cáit Fitzgerald wants to move to Australia after she graduates. ‘I don’t know anyone planning on staying,’ she says © Jude Webber/FT
“Ireland has such a long history of emigration, but what is happening now is different, it’s a different type of crisis,” said Mary Gilmartin, professor of geography at Maynooth University and an expert on contemporary migration.
“Whether or not young people do actually end up leaving, “the intention [to emigrate] is certainly the highest I’ve seen,” she added.
Official data does not yet confirm an exodus. The number of Irish people emigrating rose 21 per cent in the year to April 2022, but that is slightly below the pre-Covid level, according to the Central Statistics Office. It does not break the figures down by age.
Ireland had big waves of emigration in the 1950s, the 1970s and after the financial crash of 2008. Destinations included the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Dubai. All were driven by a lack of jobs or economic crisis. Today, Ireland is far richer, has a massive tax windfall from the tech companies that have become the backbone of its economy, and a record 2.55mn people have jobs. Youth unemployment is the lowest in the EU.
But not all are in jobs of sufficient quality to join what Leo Varadkar, the deputy prime minister who will become prime minister in December, calls Ireland’s “homeowning democracy”.
Student Rachel Richards works in a restaurant to pay the €700 per month to rent a room in a shared house © Jude Webber/FT
“My parents bought their first house when they were 26,” said Rachel Richards, a 24-year-old student who works in a restaurant to pay the €700 per month to rent a room in a shared house and €5,000 a year for college.
“I’m stuck here for two years [to finish my psychology course]. After that, I’ll be gone. There’ll be no chance I can buy a house. It’s just insane.”
Property prices have now surpassed the peak of the Celtic Tiger boom in April 2007, the Central Statistics Office confirmed last week, with the median price of a home in the 12 months to July nearly €300,000. Ireland is also the EU’s most expensive country, with housing costs as much as 84 per cent higher than the bloc’s average between 2010 and 2020, EU data show.
The asking prices for three bedroom, semi-detached houses has risen sharply nationwide — as much as 45 per cent in County Roscommon in central Ireland in the second quarter compared with the same period last year, according to a report by stockbrokers Davy for MyHome.ie, a property site.
Rents are also rising across the country — new rent charges are up 9 per cent in the first quarter compared with the previous year — driven by a housing supply crunch.
“I don’t see myself staying here, housing prices are just too much,” said Ben Murray, 19, who has recently left school. “I was working in a coffee shop over the summer, but I wasn’t making nearly enough to even rent.”
Nathan Mannion, head of exhibitions and programmes at Ireland’s emigration museum, Epic, said the only historical precedent for the situation today took place in 1700s Ulster, when “land leases were auctioned to the highest bidder and a huge number of people left”.
But some young people remain trapped.
In working class or rural areas, “our young people wouldn’t even see emigration as a possibility,” said Dannielle McKenna, project manager of the Rialto Youth Project.
“The cost of living is pushing them further into poverty,” she said. “A whole generation of young people is being failed.”
Barra Roantree, an economist at independent think-tank the Economic and Social Research Institute, said the crisis for young people “all links back to the housing situation”.
And while employment overall bounced back after the financial crisis, by the time the Covid-19 pandemic struck, employment rates for people in their 20s and early 30s — despite outperforming other EU nations — had still not fully recovered and their real earnings were no better than people born in the 1960s and 1970s.
“We’ve [already] had a lost decade for younger adults,” he said.
Paul Gordon, NYCI director of policy and advocacy, called for the Irish government to provide support “so that young people can remain in this country” when it publishes its 2023 Budget on September 27.
For some, the decision has already been made. After 12 years in a house-share, 30-year-old Ian Connelly is planning to move with his partner to France next year, despite just having opened a coffee shop in Dublin, which he will run remotely.
“For €700 a month, I can rent a two-bedroom apartment in Toulouse,” he said. “That’s enough for me.”