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The world turned upside down, or back to normal?

FOR many in the West, migration normally works in one way only. Migrants from “emerging” or “developing” economies arrive in Europe or the United States to earn salaries they would struggle to find at home. In the years since the World War II, workers have relocated in the millions to build lives elsewhere, drawn by the prospect of working in a wealthy, expanding economy. One of the most obvious examples is the Mexican work force currently resident in the US, numbering around 12 million (though estimates vary wildly). European countries have experienced similar influxes of migrant workers who helped rebuild economies after the War. There are, for example, around four million ethnic Turks now living and working in Germany. France and Britain host similar groupings.
Over recent weeks and months, however, there has been a distinct shift in this well-established flow of migration: Workers from developed economies are beginning to relocate in greater numbers to economies in the developing world. In Europe at least, the key driver is economic and is directly related to the ongoing financial turmoil affecting the euro zone. The change stems from how younger workers leaving schools and universities are reacting to the crisis. Although the turmoil is fast approaching its fifth birthday, workers of all ages have up to now hung on in the hope that a solution will be found. While there has been some progress of late – Greece jumped yet another hurdle last week in its race to become financially independent – many national economies in the euro zone remain in a highly precarious position. Many people are now saying enough is enough, and the more adventurous, usually younger workers, are looking to a future beyond their national borders.
In Europe, the two countries witnessing the highest number of departures are Spain and Portugal. Not surprisingly, these two economies are among the worst hit by the euro zone recession. According to the Spanish National Statistics Institute, more people left Spain in 2011 than arrived there – the first time this has happened since 1990. In 2011, about 1 percent of the population of Portugal left. A lot of this human traffic heads toward faster growing Latin America.
The flow from Madrid and Lisbon to cities such as Rio de Janeiro is eased by the cultural overlap. A young man from Portugal moving to Brazil will of course speak the language and it is likely he will have some family living there. Spaniards may not speak Portuguese, but they can make themselves understood and get by easily. More than that though, anecdotal evidence suggests the attraction is one of atmosphere. Brazil in particular has an aura of growth about it. Within the next four years, it will host a football world cup (2014) and an Olympic games (2016). These two mega events alone require huge investment – analysts estimate about $1 trillion – and, inevitably, input from talented, skilled workers.
Brazil today is like a sponge absorbing the world’s supply of engineers. There are only so many skilled workers Brazilian universities can churn out so Brazilian companies are looking further afield.
Where better to look than Portugal and Spain, ravaged as they are by recession and high unemployment? There is a similar trend occurring within the borders of the European Union itself. Workers are shifting from lower growth economies in search of better prospects: so Greece and Italy are losing workers, while Germany and Britain are benefiting.
This is nothing short of disastrous for the countries losing their talent. The people most likely to get up and go are the best educated and most talented: that is, exactly the people the home country needs to rebuild its economy. The effects of this are very long term. How many people who find jobs in a different economy, where they build new lives, perhaps marry and have children, will want to return home in a few years when fortunes are different? Some – not all – maybe not that many.
For many commentators, the departure of bright young graduates to a distant developing economy is a severe break with tradition. It feels like the world has been turned upside down. You could look at it another way though: Is it not just a return to the norm? For centuries go-getting Europeans headed to the new world in search of a fresh start. Today’s out of work young Spaniards are merely re-tracing the steps their forefathers took. Given modern communications, it is easier now than ever before for the best talent to seek out the best opportunities worldwide.
The other aspect of this huge rebalancing process is the fact that migrants who left developing economies over the previous few decades are starting to return home. Political changes have an impact here too. One reason so many Mexicans headed for the United States over the last four decades was because of the dreadful security situation in Mexico, which was ravaged by organized crime. The state of affairs there now is not perfect but it is better, and as a result increasing numbers of Mexican emigres are heading home. Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians who left in recent years to find work abroad are on their way back too.
The lesson from all of this is that populations are not static. People move around, more so now than ever before, and that has profound consequences, for their new country and for the country they leave behind.