Our government worries so much about immigration, and yet doesn’t consider how many Brits might be thinking about leaving our shores. It could lead to a dangerous brain drain, writes John Oxley
Last week’s migration statistics reaffirmed the issue’s place on the political agenda. Fuelled by a post-Brexit surge in non-EU immigration, as well as one-off programs for Ukrainians and Hong Kong nationals, net migration reached a record high of over 600,000. This continues the trend of rising numbers, with the government pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands looking purely symbolic. Yet while much of the focus has been on inflows, Britain should also start to worry about outflows.
With wages in the UK stagnating and prices rising, moving out of the country is beginning to appeal to more and more workers, especially the highly skilled and most productive in London. Research from last year suggested that 3.4m Brits were planning to move abroad, with around 400,000 workers planning to do so in the next two years.
For many this will remain a daydream, but the pull factors are increasing. A decade of frozen wages in the UK has made the country far less attractive for the most productive. A junior professional could earn double in New York compared to London, with the cost of living only around one third higher. Further afield, places like Australia offer higher wages for a range of careers, including trades and medical care, on top of the sun and surf that could tempt younger workers.
Many of these countries seem keen to tap into British talent. New Zealand has announced a new visa programme offering all under 35s in the UK a chance to relocate for three-years. When tech firms began lay-offs last year, posters began appearing around London tempting the newly redundant workers to move to Lithuania. Social media is replete with ad campaigns trying to lure high-value employees abroad, from Canberra to Copenhagen.
No one knows yet how much effect this will have. Emigration from the UK rose from about 2008, and now sits rather firmly at around 600,000, about half of the number of people moving here. This figure also includes, however, migrants returning home after shortish stays. The figure for UK natives moving away is around a fifth of that number and has been holding steady for a while.
Yet there’s no guarantee it will stay that way. There has probably never been a better time to move abroad. Advances in technology have made the process far easier, with complications such as banking readily solved with financial apps. Equally, the growth of Zoom has made staying in touch with loved ones far more manageable than before.
The possibility of remote work has also increased the lure of new shores. For many it’s now possible to relocate without even changing job, taking some of the uncertainty out of emigrating and allowing to exploit differences in the cost of living. Those who can consult or freelance may be particularly footloose and able to swap the struggles of the UK housing market for a higher standard of living in Southern or Eastern Europe.
These outflows should be of concern. Those who leave tend to be ambitious and productive, workers in their prime years who pay taxes, spend money, and don’t need much in return from the state. They are significant net contributors to the economy and essential to the running of businesses and public services. A brain drain is rarely good for a country.
It’s been a while since Britain was a major source of emigres. Outflows peaked in the 60s, as people were tempted by generous packages to move to newly industrialising commonwealth nations. Later, the oil-rich Gulf states attracted many as they developed into oil-rich powers. The “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” generation saw tradesmen from deindustrialised areas ply their trade in Europe, but Britain largely remained an importer of labour. Brits saw few opportunities abroad and lacked the language skills or desire to take them. Now the position is shifting.
Whether it is the big bucks lure of the US, the sun of the antipodes, or the tax breaks offered to repopulate dying Italian villages, emigration is coming back on the agenda. Pushed by stalling wages, unaffordable house prices and political disillusionment, more and more Brits might be wondering if they are better off out. The government should be worrying about this as much as it does about those coming in.