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Brian Brennan: Emotions run high as our youth's spirits hit new low

THE barber was trying to make conversation, as barbers do. A haircut involves a certain amount of personal intimacy and a bit of chat helps to minimise any sense of the absurd.

Asked what he was up to these days, the young man in the chair said he would be emigrating to Australia in a couple of weeks.

Oh, and how did he feel about that, asked the barber.

There was no reply; and when the barber paused in his snipping and glanced in the mirror he saw that his young customer had begun to quietly weep.

A lot of tears are being shed these days as sons and daughters fly away, to return perhaps for occasional visits, which will become less and less frequent as years go by and the bonds with the new homeland grow stronger.

How dramatically have things changed for the worse in a few short months. How attitudes have changed.

Last August we told the story of a young graduate, Carol Flannery MSc, who had written to this newspaper saying that, because she could not even find a work-experience post, never mind a paid job, she was preparing to emigrate.

"Like all graduates of my generation, I am stuck", she wrote.

"Taoisigh, past and present, I lay the blame at your feet. You had a job to do, but you failed."

In the little controversy that her letter provoked, there was a great deal of eventual sympathy for Carol, particularly from ex-pats working abroad.

But initially there was criticism of "silver-spoon graduates with unrealistic expectations" and Carol was reminded that a university qualification does not bestow a divine right to a job.

The Irish Independent was accused of making a martyr of Carol Flannery.

Now that a steady stream of young people being forced to emigrate has swelled into a raging tsunami, it would be hard to find anyone prepared to lecture in this way.

For others, of course, the prospect of going away is a great adventure. They're straining at the leash, relishing the long distance messages they are receiving from friends about ready employment and fun in the sun.

The Tanaiste said as much on the BBC programme 'Hardtalk' last year, but her assertion that emigration does not have to be "a bad thing" was not well received.

Others will look at the state we're in and make a calculated decision never to contribute to the restoration of insolvent private financial institutions that brought the country to its knees and to a domestic and European political establishment that allowed it to happen. They will choose to earn wages and pay their taxes elsewhere and, in the process, turn their backs not only on their home country but on the EU as well.

Who could put his hand on his heart and criticise them for a lack of loyalty?

Young graduates don't feel they can afford to hang around until the fabled 'smart economy' arrives and with Ireland having slipped from fifth to 17th in international literacy rankings in 10 years, they can hardly be blamed.

A National Youth Council of Ireland survey tells us that 70pc of unemployed young Irish people believe they will emigrate in the next 12 months and the ESRI says that 1,000 people are leaving Ireland each week in search of work, mainly in Australia, Canada, Britain and the US. More than 100,000 people -- most of them young and educated -- are expected to leave by April 2012. Fifty-thousand this year alone. That is far more than the peak of 44,000 who emigrated at the height of the last recession in 1989.

The statistics do not reflect the inestimable loss to the country in economic terms nor the toll of human anguish.

Nor has the unique dilemma of young Irish people gone unnoticed abroad. The Dutch TV version of 'Prime Time' is to screen a programme this week focusing on emigration from north Cork, having filmed there for four days.

Saskia Dekkers of 'News Hour' said Dutch people would be shocked by the plight of young Irish people forced to emigrate.

"In Holland, people emigrate because they want to. In Ireland it's an economic necessity. Young people don't have a choice," she said.

"We could clearly see some people were sad and depressed."

The creation of jobs with little or no money to throw at the problem will be the biggest challenge facing the next government. Yet that is the only thing that will stem the haemorrhage of young talent.

The latest opinion poll suggests that Fine Gael may be in a position to form a government on its own. If so, it will try to end what the probable future Taoiseach has described as the "scourge of forced emigration" by providing thousands of one-year internships. Unemployed graduates would gain practical work experience for basic pay, while continuing to study for a higher degree. Labour proposes something similar.

Whether this will be enough to persuade young graduates, who are keen to put their skills to work, to stay at home remains to be seen.

We'll see. In the meantime, the exodus is accelerating.

brianbrennan@independent.ie

Irish Independent