Ryan Greenaway-McGrevy argues NZ is looking less like a developed nation and more like a pretender as well educated young people flock overseas

By Ryan Greenaway-McGrevy*

Immigration was a recurring theme in the run-up to the election. But with all the talk focussed on the flow of people into the country, we ignored a more concerning migration – the massive number of New Zealanders that choose to leave.

Admittedly the recent trend has been a tale of kiwis coming home to roost. But this is almost certainly a temporary deviation from a more persistent exodus from God’s own. This recent analysis from Statista using OECD data suggests that roughly one in six native-born kiwis are now living overseas.

That is a lot of home-grown talent being put to use in other countries, and a few quarters of record low emigration is not going to put a dent in that figure. Even if this kiwi diaspora wanted to come home tomorrow, do the maths and you’ll quickly realise that we do not have the housing or the jobs to accommodate them.

It seems we are world-beaters when it comes to exporting people. That same Statista report shows we are second only to Ireland among developed nations, beating the likes of Mexico, Poland and Turkey and their much-maligned émigrés. Remarkably, across the ditch less than 2% of Aussies have chosen to leave the lucky country.

We are even better when it comes to exporting the so-called ‘high-skilled’ – people with a tertiary degree. An earlier OECD report reckoned that about one in four native-born kiwis with a tertiary degree were overseas.  Our hi-tech sectors seem to be constantly complaining about how they cannot fill their job openings. Instead of talking about how we can attract more high-skilled migrants, maybe we should take a look in the mirror and think about why so many of our own are choosing to build their lives somewhere else.

Perhaps our high rates of emigration are a simple consequence of being a small, English-speaking nation. But the tiny nations of Iceland and Luxembourg are able to retain more of their people than us, and I doubt that their youth are not well-versed in English.

Yet instead of declaring a war on housing affordability, our leaders appear more intent on protecting and inflating their own housing portfolios. Instead of tackling our persistently high and shameful rate of child poverty, our leaders have been preoccupied with what our flag should look like. (The right choice, by the way, was laser-eyed kiwi – although a certain red fish may have been the most appropriate symbol.)

The unspoken message to our young people has been loud and clear: If you want to secure your future, build your lives somewhere else. And they have. While banging on about how the youth are disengaged and don’t vote, we have failed to notice that they have been voting en masse for decades. They have been voting with their feet.

I don’t blame them. With so many of us tenants in our own country, with a quarter of our kids growing up in poverty, and with so many of us ultimately choosing to leave, we are looking less and less like a bona fide developed nation, and more and more like a pretender.


*Ryan Greenaway-McGrevy is a Senior Lecturer in Economics and the Director of the Centre for Applied Research in Economics at the University of Auckland.