Why are young people emigrating?

September 2020 | Arfor, Featured

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By Dr Dyfan Powell, Wavehill

The ONS statistics show that thousands of young people leave the Arfor[1] area each year. This is one of the structural weaknesses of the area’s economy. These young people are economically active and, as individuals who have been brought up in the areas, are very likely to be Welsh speakers. The loss to the area is economic and linguistic, and a previous blog published on our website has examined internal migration statistics, noting that around 8,000 people aged between 16 and 24 left the Arfor area in 2017-18, while around 7,000 have immigrated to the area.

Although the statistics help us to understand migration patterns over the years, including detail on individual destinations (around two thirds going to England), there is little research available on young people’s reasons and motives for leaving the Arfor area. Jones (2010) proposes that most individuals leaving the heartlands of west Wales do so for employment reasons. Jones’s work echoes Blackaby and Drinkwater’s research from the 1990s, which offered a similar debate, expanding by studying the success of Welsh speakers who have moved to south-east and north-east Wales.

‘It seems likely that many well-qualified individuals from west Wales have moved to larger cities because of the lack of suitable employment opportunities in rural areas… For whatever reason, Welsh-speakers appear to do better in the Welsh labour market than their non-Welsh-speaking counterparts.’ (Blackaby & Drinkwater, 1997: 167-168)

This is a familiar story for those interested in the field, the narrative of young people in rural Wales moving for a job in the city. It is important to respect and accept the findings of this research.

But, more recently, this purely economic theory has been challenged. The recent work of Cunnington-Wynn (2018), based on a series of interviews with young people in western and northern towns, concludes that the reasons and motives of youth migration are multi-layered and complex. Although economic and employment reasons were mentioned by young people, these were superficial, while issues of identity and sense of belonging were profound considerations for them.

‘The research found that emigration amongst young people from the Welsh-speaking areas is dependent on a number of complex and multi-layered factors, and does not reinforce the work of Jones (2010) which states that young people move from the traditional ‘Welsh’ communities for economic reasons only. Indeed, he discovered quite the opposite, namely that the choices of these young people were dependent on their sense of belonging and their patterns of integration into the communities concerned. Here, there is a discussion on the importance of Welsh language, culture and nationality considerations in relation to their sense of belonging and their patterns of integration.’ (Cunnington-Wynn, 2018: 60)

These findings are closer to wider research on rural migration and emigration, which accepts that wider and more complex factors than just employment drive young people to leave the areas where they grew up. This broader research points to the conservative and patriarchal nature of rural communities, and the tendency for women to emigrate where there is opportunity (i.e. if they do not care for others).[2] Recent research, as well as the lessons from the wider literature on emigration, show the need for more scrutiny and research to understand the reasons of young people’s emigration, and not to accept the narrative that young people leave the Arfor area for employment reasons only.

There are clear policy implications for scrutinising the various factors that influence the choice of our young people to leave the Arfor area. The policy response to the loss of young people over the decades has focused on trying to create more and better jobs, in an attempt to persuade young people not to leave. But if these young people leave for other reasons, such as reasons relating to culture or identity, then offering more jobs is probably not an effective means of realising this objective.

[1] Arfor is a region of the counties of Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Anglesey and Gwynedd

[2] Indeed, a snapshot of the ONS emigration figures proposes that more women aged 16-24 leave the Arfor area each year than men. Since 2012, 15,546 men 16-24 emigrated but 17,121 women.

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