Port Hedland in the Pilbara mining region of Western Australia is a godforsaken place. Beside the pool tables in the local bar there are mug-shots pasted, like in an American Western, of locals who are barred from the pub for fighting. They are mainly Aboriginals but there are fair few who look like they wouldn’t be out of place here and the surnames suggest this is where they came from way back.
Today, the next wave of Irish — the new emigrants — work in the open cast mines of the Pilbara, driving the enormous diggers that gouge out the iron ore. The ore is then sent to the Chinese port of Ningbo, where it is smelted into steel for China’s once-booming export industry.
The Irish lads working there now are but a small part of the enormous Irish community in Australia. If you find yourself, as I did two years ago, on Bondi Beach, you hear the accent of the Irish exodus. The beach area and Bondi Junction a little further inland were full of young Irish workers. The stories were typical: young professionals, who had been working in Ireland and had been laid off in the boom, were starting over in Australia. They worked in the waterfront bars and cafes of Bondi, getting back on their feet in the hope of rebuilding careers Down Under. Since then the numbers have swelled.
It’s obviously not just Australia: London, Toronto and New York are full of our brothers, cousins, sons and daughters.
With all this renewed talk of turning corners, the IMF telling us that we are fabulous, Mario Draghi stating that we are a model of compliance, we should not forget that on the streets it doesn’t feel like that. Some 76,000 people left this country last year, that’s 1,460 a week or just over 208 people a day. The drain has continued apace this year as the real economy — the one we all work and live in — continues to scrape along the bottom.
Recently, I spoke to the younger brother of a friend and he told me that many of his mates in Dublin were single, not for the want of trying. Initially this puzzled me.
Now I know why. It is because the complexion of emigration has changed dramatically in the recent past. These days you are much more likely to see young women at the airport. At the beginning, the recession was what we could call a “mancession” as the numbers of men laid off on the sites spiked sharply.
Today, we are seeing the feminisation of the downturn. As the recession has broadened, particularly into retail, the number of women on the dole has skyrocketed. Many thousands are heading off.
According to the CSO: “The number of women emigrating increased by 51.8pc in 2011 from 2010, the number of men emigrating fell by 4.4pc in the same period.”
And the women are leaving at younger and younger ages. For example, take the midlands of Ireland, the heartland of the country that has been badly hit by the collapse in house prices and house building.
The number of women between the ages of 20 and 24 fell by 8.7pc between 2010 and 2011. While this is a startling figure, it doesn’t compare to the fall in the young female population of Dublin.
The fall in the population of young people in Dublin is quite shocking. Overall, between 2010 and 2011, the population between 20 and 24 in Dublin has fallen by 11.9pc but the disappearance of young women is startling. The young female population in Dublin fell by 15.1pc last year.
In absolute numbers, the amount of young women in Dublin between the ages of 20-24 fell from 42,000 to 35,400.
Obviously, changes in the birth rate 20-odd years ago have had an impact on this figure, but emigration is playing a huge part.
These trends have enormous implications for the nature of the city in the years ahead. If young Irish women continue to leave in such huge numbers, the country will find itself with a slew of Irish bachelors like we had in the 1960s.
What if they had stayed? What would the country look like and what would the headline economic numbers look like?
Clearly these people — women and men — headed abroad because of unemployment and the collapse in demand in the local economy which provides the lion’s share of our jobs.
When you consider what the rate of unemployment would be if they had stayed while the local economy remained paralysed, it is easy to see that the bullish statements from the Government this week ring hollow.
For example, the unemployment rate for young women aged between 15 and 24 right now is 22.8pc. Had their friends not headed to the likes of Bondi Junction in the past year, this unemployment rate figure would be 35pc. This is at Great Depression levels.
For young men, the figures are more worrying because the level of unemployment among young men in the 15 to 24-year age group is so high already.
Today, the rate of unemployment for young men is 36.8pc. This figure would leap to 45.4pc had the 15,000 young lads in this group not emigrated and stayed out of work here last year.
For the older age group, between 25 and 44, female unemployment would go from 11pc to 14pc had there been no emigration. For men in the same age cohort, the rate of unemployment would go up from 18pc now to 20.3pc.
This is what is happening on the ground in Ireland: people are leaving in droves.
But the gradual arrival of a slowdown in the global economy may cut off the traditional exit route from a stricken Ireland.
When this happens, it will take more than an IMF-inspired ‘think-in’ to come up with ideas for real change to get us out of this mess.