Launched at a conference in UCC this September, Irish Emigration in an Age of Austerity is the first major study of contemporary emigration from the Republic of Ireland. Citing CSO statistics, the report’s authors – Piaras Mac Éinrí, Irial Glynn, Thomas Kelly – show that between 2006 and 2013, upwards of 213,000 people have left the country. In 2005, the final year before the economic downturn that hit the Eurozone sharply and the Republic of Ireland ever more so, the gross emigration figure from the country was then 13,000. Put in context, for the year-ending March 2013, the figure was 51,000 – a 400 per cent increase seven years on.

But Irish Emigration tries to go beyond these headline figures and paint instead the first statistically representative picture of the complexity of present-day Irish emigration. Using a sophisticated sampling methodology of household surveying and online questionnaires, the report looks to examine not just the bald numbers involved in the outflow, but also the regional impact of emigration (urban, peri-urban, rural), as well as the socio-economic, occupational, and gender background of those leaving.

The findings of the report are often startling. For instance, of those who have left in recent years, at the time of departure, 47 per cent were in full-time employment, a further 13 per cent were in part-time employment, while 23 per cent were unemployed.

Meanwhile, at the regional level, emigration is most keenly felt in rural areas; some 27 per cent of households had experienced the direct emigration of at least one family member since 2006. In other regions – affluent suburban and ex-urban areas with older populations; high-density urban areas with high-employment, high-educational levels and a younger population; high-density urban areas with low-employment, low-educational levels and a younger population – the corresponding figure was 15-17 per cent across these households.

An outlier of sorts to this general pattern emerges, however, in areas with a high proportion of highly education people, aged 35-44, with young families and who are mostly mortgaged homeowners (usually the newer commuter towns and suburbs ringing Dublin, Cork, and Galway cities). Here, emigration is least keenly felt, with as few as 11 per cent of households experiencing the emigration of a family member.

But the report offers a caveat. While these areas record lower than the national average emigration levels, what such householders may have in mind when surveyed is, as the report’s authors call it,  “conventional emigration” [report’s emphasis]. That is, where someone emigrates from the country on a more or less full-time, permanent basis. This 11 per cent figure, then, would not take into account more unconventional types of emigration – circular, temporary, seasonal, overseas company transfers, secondments.

As to why these highly educated households with young children in many of Ireland’s newer commuter towns and suburbs experience below-average rates of conventional emigration, the Irish Emigration authors offer the following explanation:

“It is likely, however, that these are the kinds of areas from which ‘commuter migrants’ are likeliest to be found, that is, where one household member is working outside the country and returning home on a more or less regular basis. . . . One might have expected people from classic commuter areas to be leaving, given the negative equity many face. Due to the burden of mortgage service costs, however, and because the Irish system does not allow a householder to give back the keys and walk away from the debt, emigration becomes complicated, especially if mortgage holders have young children.”

Euro-commuting

My research at the Institute for Social Sciences in the 21st Century (ISS21) at UCC investigates one such instance of where “emigration becomes complicated”, examining the experiences of Irish-based “commuter migrants” to other European cities. I categorize their cross-border movements as “Euro-commuting”, that is, where their primary residence remains the Republic but their work destination is now located in another EU28 country, usually one of its major cities like London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Munich, Frankfurt.

Futurologists have recently claimed that this type of intra-European movement would become a “mega trend” in years to come. A 2006 study from the Centre for Future Studies (CFS) – Social Demographics in 2016 – argued a new breed of worker would emerge across a post-Schengen European Union. Taking advantage of the removal of mobility and labour-market barriers between European countries, as well as the growth of relatively cheap air travel, EU citizens, so the CFS report contends, are increasingly living in one EU country while working in another, shuttling back and forth between the two.

A graphic on the front cover of Social Demographics shows a map of Europe. Superimposed over the map is the grid of an underground rail network. The name the CFS gives to this redrawn European map: “The New Commuter Belt”. Accounting for expected growth in air travel, the expanding reach of high-speed rail lines, and intensifying road traffic in major metropolitan areas, Social Demographics predicts that, by 2016, the numbers of so-called “Euro-commuters” will rise to millions.

Is the Republic of Ireland, then, becoming a “suburb” of a “new commuter belt” emerging across Europe? The Irish Emigration in an Age of Austerity report would not support such a claim. However, what the report does support is the claim that, in certain areas, among certain households, unconventional types of emigration like commuter migration appear to be more in evidence than elsewhere across the country as an alternative to more conventional emigration.

My research draws on in-depth interviews with Euro-commuters, and asks: who are these people shuttling between two or more European countries, and why do they choose to undertake this unconventional form of migration? And, having made this decision, what do they hope to gain by so doing?

A squeezed, fleeing middle?

My findings show that Euro-commuters have many characteristics in common. All worked in professional-managerial occupations, at various seniority grades, all in well-remunerated positions in their overseas workplaces. Based on references to their housing, travel, lifestyle, leisure, consumption and education, all too were part of the Irish middle class.

Most followed similar commuting schedules, travelling between the ROI and various European cities on a routine (weekly or bi-weekly) basis. Most shared similar family circumstances – married or co-habiting, in long-term relationships with partners back in Ireland, with children of schooling-going age enrolled in the Irish educational system.

Many cited similar benefits to their private lives and their careers as a consequence of Euro-commuting – developing an expanded network of professional contacts, learning new job skills, having a greater sense of personal autonomy in living alone for part of the week, making new friends in new places.

At the same time, the disadvantages associated with this particular kind of mobility were echoed across several accounts – loneliness in the commuter destination, fatigue from air travelling, occasional miscommunication with left-behind partners over domestic and private issues, missing out on special family events.

In this light of shared experiences, Euro-commuters take on the outlines of a distinct migrant group.

However, when I looked into their motivations for Euro-commuting, here the coherent portrait of the typical Euro-commuter began to fragment. My findings show that a range of motivations drive this unconventional mobility. As the Irish Emigration authors rightly note, mortgage-debt issues and the presence of young children – especially school-age children enrolled in the Irish educational system – certainly feature among these motivations. But so too do other, less visible motives.

For some, the decision to Euro-commute is more a lifestyle choice, the to-ing and fro-ing between two or more countries offering, as one Euro-commuter put it, “the best of both worlds”.

Take Michael’s account (Note: All first names used in the text to refer to Euro-commuters are pseudonyms, so as to protect their anonymity). He is emphatic that he became a Euro-commuter chiefly as a matter of quality of life.  Michael works in London, in the financial services industry. He has been a commuter, on and off, for the past twelve years now. The economic recession throughout the ROI, he insists, is not a signal cause behind his commuting routine; he could find work commensurate with his salary expectations and level of experience “in the morning” in Dublin, if he so choose.

Instead, he “loves the life” he has commuting between his home in a salubrious suburb outside Dublin and central London. “I always felt,” he says, “that I’m bigger and better than this place [Dublin].”

Michael continues, explaining how he feels the Irish capital is a “small pond” professionally, that too many parochial rivalries stymie workplace innovation and talent there. By commuting, he has been able to sidestep what he sees as the small-minded business environment of the Irish financial industry, has been able to thrive both professionally and personally as a result.

He concludes: “This is a lifestyle choice rather than a forced situation.”

For others, their essential motivation for undertaking this pendular migration relates more directly to career progression: they move overseas for work, to amass a certain mobility capital that will benefit their professional development.

Eoin’s reasons are typical here. He moved two years ago to Bristol to take up a promotion with the company he has worked for in Dublin for the past five years. Effectively, he went from being assistant head of department in Dublin to being department head in Bristol. His job in Dublin was not under threat, he stresses; his mobility is not expressly linked with the ROI’s economic crisis.

However, he admits, if he was to progress from the position he was in, then it became clear that he would have to take an inter-company transfer – to a bigger branch in the Britain.

Eoin states:  “Well, I am very career focused at the moment. So is my girlfriend. So we discussed it. She has a very good job here in Dublin, so leaving that wasn’t a non-starter. And if I was to ever to sort of get moving up the ladder here, then I had to move with the crowd I’m with.”

Commuting-as-lifestyle driven on the one hand; commuting-as-career driven on the other. These are two distinct sets of motivations evident among Euro-commuters. That said, these drivers remain a minority among those I spoke with.

A much more prominent narrative to emerge is that of “commuting-as-livelihood-strategy”, where, effectively, the advent of the Republic’s economic downturn is a key motif for Euro-commuting. From near-full employment during the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ years (roughly 1995-2007) to a current 13.8 per cent unemployment rate, many sectors of the Irish economy have suffered severe job losses since the recession began in late-2007. And even for those who have not lost their jobs, swingeing pay cuts, massive tax hikes, and increased job precarity – conditions demanded by the ECB, EC and IMF (or ‘troika’) as part of Ireland’s €90 billion 2010 bailout loans – are undermining workplace conditions.

Such domestic “push” factors spur many Euro-commuters to consider employment opportunities overseas, while higher remuneration and better working environments in neighbouring EU countries act as further “pull” factors.

As Oliver, working as an accountant in London and commuting back at weekends to Galway, has it, “This is work, not life.” “Having a job,” echoes Barbara. She commutes every second week between Hamburg and the Wicklow countryside, outside Dublin, and goes on: “Having an income – that’s why I do this.” Likewise, Thomas, who shuttles weekly between Frankfurt and Cork: “It’s about survival, isn’t it?”

But what, exactly, does this “survival” entail? Almost unanimously these Euro-commuters refer to keeping abreast of mortgage repayments on family homes purchased in the Republic. Barry’s story encapsulates this scenario. He purchased his semi-detached suburban home outside Dublin (where I interviewed him) in 2006 – when Irish property prices were nearing their peak.

At that time, he had a secure job in the IFSC; he earned enough to pay the mortgage, and to meet him and his family’s other living expenses – private health insurance, children’s education, annual holidays, fuel, motor insurance and road tax on two cars, and so on.

Now, he flies over and back between London and Dublin, working weekdays in the English capital’s financial centre, before returning to spend weekends with his wife and children in Ireland. He lifts his hands in the air, rolls his eyes, and says:

If it wasn’t for this [house], things could be a lot different. I mean, we love the house, we have invested a lot of money and energy in the place. But if we had, a . . . what you call them, a jingle mortgage like they do in the States, then the keys might well be in the postbox . . .

Barry’s quote refers to a touchstone issue among the majority of people I interviewed: their family homes, and meeting the high cost of mortgage repayments, featured front and centre in their accounts of Euro-commuting; by travelling overseas for work, they could generate sufficient income to meet their day-to-day costs of living (mortgage, insurance, health, children’s education) back in Ireland.

The reference to American-type “jingle mortgages” is especially relevant, too. A jingle mortgage is a euphemism for a loan whereby a borrower strategically defaults – oftentimes posting the keys of a house (hence the “jingle”) back to the lender in the mail. In the ROI, strategically defaulting like this is not possible, as the borrower remains liable for the balance of the original loan, even after the property is re-sold.

Because of this scenario, those like Barry feel themselves entrapped. Their earning potential has been severely reduced in the ROI, if not entirely decimated, yet they are obliged to continue servicing costly mortgages.  As a result, one viable compromise is to commute overseas for work as part of a livelihood strategy, an economic necessity, to meet their inescapable financial commitments in the ROI.

As Barry states: “You have to stay afloat.”

This idea of “staying afloat” financially is certainly paramount in several Euro-commuters’ accounts. However, importantly, the motivation for Euro-commuting cannot be entirely reduced to hard currency, the blunt bottom line.

Instead, alongside the economic rationale for their migration decisions, at the same time a more class-based rationale as members of the Irish middle class runs through these interviews. Euro-commuting, effectively, safeguards against the threat of downward social mobility that accompanies remaining either out of work or on reduced earnings in the ROI.

On this point, Peter is explicit. He still had work in the aftermath of the economic contraction from 2007 onwards, though his income – cuts to overtime, clawbacks on expenses, rising taxes – had dropped sharply by 2010. Consequently, he opted for a better remunerated post with the same company in Germany, and now commutes back to his family home in County Wicklow most weekends.

He can now comfortable meet the mortgage repayments on his family home, and the second car that was lying idle in the driveway for a few years is now back on the road again. The family have also recommenced taking annual holidays, something they foreswore in recent times.

“Look, I’m a Catholic, but I guess I turned my children into Protestants. One of them does piano, one horse riding, the other plays hockey. All these are very pricey, and if they were to keep doing those, then daddy had to go, didn’t he?”

Peter uses religion here as a metaphor: if him and his family are to remain part of the Irish middle class, then he has to find a labour market position that pays for the trappings that go with that middle-class lifestyle – hence, his weekly commute to Germany for work.

Now commuting to Vienna Monday-Friday, Andrew is similarly conscious of the necessity of downgrading his expectations should he remain full-time living with his wife and children in Dublin. Before the economic crisis, both Andrew and his wife were in full-time professional positions; him as an architect, her as a career civil servant. Their life, Andrew says, was “comfortable” – foreign holidays with the children twice a year, two cars on the road, a nice house, in a nice neighbourhood.

In the wake of the “Celtic Tiger’s” demise, both their incomes and future career prospects in Ireland suffered considerably and as a result they were finding it difficult to sustain a similar quality of life to what they were accustomed to circa 2007.

A lot of it, if I’m being honest, is Keeping-Up-With-The-Joneses. I mean, Marie’s income has been shredded, mine too. So it was either try and sell this place and move to a cheaper area – like [less prestigious residential area A], or [less prestigious residential area B] – and stay in the job here in Dublin. And of course, cut out some of the extras. That wasn’t really an option – the kids like their school here, and we are well liked in [affluent Dublin suburb]. So if we wanted to stay, somehow I needed to be earning the big bucks.

For the like Peter and Andrew, livelihood strategies clearly intersect with middle-class social norms and values around residential location, leisure, lifestyle, consumption practices, children’s education, and so on.

Neither Peter, Andrew, nor several others want what they perceive as a demotion to their social status, so they become Euro-commuters in order to (literally and figuratively) circumnavigate this undesirable scenario.

The alternative – remaining in Ireland on much-reduced means – would threaten this class-based identity. That is, it would lead to losing some of the class-specific distinctions in their domestic and social settings – moving to a less affluent neighbourhood, cancelling some of the children’s fee-paying extra-mural activities, driving a smaller car.

A “mancession”?

But if Euro-commuting is spurred for many by a threat to their social standing as middle class families in the Republic, it is also spurred by a threat to their gendered identities as male breadwinning figures. Time and again, when encouraged to greater detail why they made the decision to Euro-commute, several Euro-commuters I spoke with tell of how they would prefer to be living away from their families across the EU28 so as to financially support them back home rather than remaining either un- or under-employed in the Republic.

Here is Joe, explaining how he is happy that – unlike some Irish men he knows – he did not, as he phrases it, “just sit around on my arse” once his career prospects in the ROI began to look uncertain, around the middle of 2008. He could easily, he says, have stayed in Ireland, reduced some of his outgoings, claimed social welfare payments from the State, and done occasional work on the black market – undeclared, one-off freelancing jobs for clients who would pay cash-money. In this way, him and his family could have got by, survived.

Instead, Joe opted against this, opted against, as he says, “scrounging” off the welfare system at home in the ROI. As he puts it, “I got out there and earned money whatever way I could.”

This sentiment is echoed by several Euro-commuters, the attitude almost taken-for-granted: “You do what you have to do,” says one in relation to the need to earn a living; “I mean,” states another, “you follow the work. That’s it basically; no work in Dublin – fine! London, then – fine! Put me on the plane, strap me in.”

Joe continues in this bullish tone: “I was hanging around [working two days per week] for a few months, and I said to myself, ‘Fuck this! I can’t be watching day-time television at my age [forty-one], I need to be doing something.’ So I made some calls, did the whole CV thing – and in a few weeks I was getting on the red-eye at 6.30am.”

Now that he is commuting between his home outside Cork city and the EU, Joe says he feels much more in control of his life – “I’m the author of my own destiny again” – and he is proud of his assertiveness, the initiative he displayed in the face of a challenging situation.

Another Euro-commuter, Peter, quoted above, gives a similar account to Joe’s. He says that he now recognizes many of the faces on the Monday-morning flights departing Dublin airport, and that he has begun to get friendly with a number of the other passengers, exchanging greetings, familiar nods of recognition. “The lads on that flight, we’re doing this [Euro-commuting for work] for our families,” Peter says. “If you ask me, we’re the unsung heroes of Ireland.”

Peter fails to consider the possibility that there may well be women (“the lads on that flight”) making up part of the Euro-commuting population. For him, such people are men, such men have families at home in Ireland, and such behaviour – undertaking the strain of travelling overseas to provide economically – is exemplary of how a provider should behave (even if it goes unsung, unrecognized).

Again, Peter contrasts his migration with that of his peers who have remained in Ireland, as he puts it, “stewing”. This binary notion of those who show initiative (by Euro-commuting) and those who do not (by remaining in Ireland “stewing”, “scrounging”, et cetera) is repeated across several interviews.

Effectively, for the likes of Joe and Peter, their male-provider identity was jeopardized by the rapidly contracting economic conditions in the Republic in recent years and the subsequent loss in earnings they suffered. But by commuting, they display resilience; they shore up not just class-based identities as members of the Irish middle class but also strongly-held-but-threatened gendered identities as reliable, primary breadwinners. These Euro-commuters are (again, literally and figuratively) prepared to go to great lengths in order to do so.

And by so doing – much as with their class-based identities – the upheaval and change to their gender-based identities as male-breadwinner figures now has a strong semblance of stability and continuity restored to them.

Closing thoughts

The portraits presented here illuminate one stream of current intra-European migration – a stream that has often been overlooked in scholarly, policy, journalistic, and other accounts of EU citizens moving between member states. The findings open up discussion of some of the casualties of the economic crisis engulfing the EU. These middle-class migrants, reluctantly criss-crossing the European Union so as to consolidate their social status and breadwinner role in the Republic of Ireland, can be seen as part of Europe’s “crisis migration”.

That said, their crisis, if it can be described as such, remains a relatively privileged one – Euro-commuters may bemoan the fact that they have to undertake this unorthodox mobility in order to secure their class-and gender-based identities in their origin country, but if a hierarchy of global movers exists, then they surely remain close to its summit. As one Euro-commuter put it, “This can be a pain in the arse [Euro-commuting], but it’s not as if I’m a stowaway from Pakistan arriving in a container in the port in San Francisco.”

Above all, what I have illustrated here is how a peculiarly 21st-century form of mobility – Euro-commuting – is motivated by an intersection of class- and gender-based identities. In terms of social class, the economic downturn of 2007/2008 threatened middle-class lifestyles and consumption practices for many Euro-commuters. Consequently, the decision to Euro-commute is framed around how this form of pendular migration will help maintain and restore those class-specific lifestyles and consumption practices in the Republic.

As such, to use Rutten and Verstappen’s apt phrase, “[t]hey regard the migration as a requisite precautionary strategy to maintain their status as middle-class families” in the ROI – thereby also ensuring class reproduction across the generations.

In terms of gender, again the economic downturn can be seen to imperil particular gendered identities as male-breadwinner figures. To oppose this, Euro-commuters choose to commute overseas for work, thus reinforcing their self-identification as strong economic providers. They sometimes frame these breadwinner accounts in the language of resilience – they refused to accept their situation, they coped with the shock of economic insecurity in their origin country by becoming part of an unorthodox stream of intra-European migration.

My research also highlights how, as a particular modality of migration, it is clear that the stress for Euro-commuters is steadfastly on the Republic of Ireland. These migrants are strategically mobile, deploying their economic, social and educational resources so as to strengthen their class and gender positions back home. In this way, to paraphrase the Irish Emigration in an Age of Austerity report, we can see how emigration may well become complicated, and further, how alternative, unconventional mobilities like Euro-commuting arise.

Another issue. Euro-commuters are certainly conscious of the considerable sacrifices their mobility regimes extract, particular in the domain of intimate relationships and caring responsibilities back in the Republic. That said, they viewed their mobility decision, overall, as the correct one to make, their migration project as a success. Though it was by no means an easy decision, and there were certainly drawbacks attached to the arrangement, ultimately they were succeeding in maintaining their families’ middle-class social status in the Republic of Ireland, as well as reaffirming their own gendered-identities as strong provider-types. However, could others see the Euro-commuting project as a failure? Might there be Euro-commuters who consider their mobility a poor decision?

I encountered no such voices. This can be explained, I think, by the fact that all my “commuting-for-livelihood” Euro-commuters considered Euro-commuting as a form of temporary migration. All stated that it was their ambition to return to the Republic full-time, as soon as a suitable position in the Irish labour market commensurate with their experience and qualifications could be secured.

However, if such future aspirations could not be realized, and what was conceived as a temporary sojourn overseas turned more permanent, then, arguably, these Euro-commuters’ views on the success of their migration project could well alter, significantly. This Euro-commuting-as-temporary-mobility attitude was shared by my “commuting-for-career” respondents, who also wanted a return move to the Republic once a suitable job posting arose.

Interestingly, the exception here is the “commuting-for-lifestyle” respondents; their future mobility aspirations were much more open-ended. They were content Euro-commuting for now, and might well continue doing this as long as they found it enjoyable; they might also return to the Republic, if circumstances changed.

As such, theirs could be deemed “success stories” without the necessity of framing the migration decision to Euro-commute as temporary, and without the contingency of buoyant economic recovery in the Republic, sometime that is far from guaranteed.

David Ralph

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