March 22, 2005

Drain that brain

Every year, like a hardy perennial, the New Zealand media get themselves into a lather about the so-called "brain drain", i.e. the emigration of young people presumed endowed with more brain power than those they have left behind. An OECD report found 24% of all New Zealanders with a university degree now live overseas, a percentage that is closely matched by both Ireland and Luxembourg. The reasons are legion and almost self-evident: youthful wanderlust, overseas experience, career opportunities, dual citizenship - not that much different from any other small economy with a large market economy nearby.
Public Address has been collecting mails from NZ expats and returnees on their experiences and opinions regarding this issue. I'm an immigrant in this country and thus contributed to the brain drain of my country of birth, and it is an issue there too. So all this gnashing and self-flagellating needs to be put in a globalisation context, the freedom of movement and labour is not nearly matching the progress in freedom of trade: it's still far easier to trade with your overseas clients than to migrate yourself.
So here I was, draining my country of some brains, after expensively (but for me almost free) educating me. I first moved to Britain where I was an economic migrant, thanks to that wonderful institution, the EU, whom I am eternally grateful to for allowing me to spread my wings and fulfil some ambitions. Unfortunately, that freedom was (is) only extended to EU passport holders, so meeting my partner, who is a 5th generation New Zealander without paternal rights of abode in Blighty, did not leave us any choice but to migrate to New Zealand.
This was 1990, Jim Bolger was 2 weeks away from winning the election, and I was forced to come to terms with enormous culture shock. Trying to find a job that suited me and was within my work experience field was not all that easy (certainly a lot more difficult than in London where I walked into my job the day after I arrived, and kept it for 3 years). In New Zealand, potential employers looked askance at a male who could use a keyboard. Employment agencies told me not to expect any jobs because employers didn't want males who could type. It sounded like a "Carry On" scene. I did find a wonderful job eventually, and in exactly my field of expertise (even though the salary was just over half the London one). Oh, did I say I knew how to use a modem and WordPerfect? This was in the New Zealand technological stone age, where you needed to wait long for dial tone to call Europe at Christmas time, the internet was something in science fiction mags, and I was begging my European friends to send me their old newspapers so I'd be able to read something intelligent. Call me a snob, but call me, it was hideous.
But this was 15 years ago and, really, I have absolutely no regrets staying in New Zealand. This was largely due to personal reasons, I have still the same loving partner who dragged me all around the world. For most of my life I had lived within a 3-hour train journey radius to Paris, Amsterdam, Cologne and (later) London, so why the hell did I want to come to a country where the nearest "abroad" is just about the same as "home"? There are plenty of things that keep me here. You could play the "what if?" game with your own life and think about what might have happened if you took a different decision in your life. But that is not very fruitful. What I am certain of is that the opportunities here in NZ have been marvellous and they would never have presented themselves had I stayed in Europe. My dream job - everybody surely has got one - was to run Channel 4 Television, when it was headed by Sir Jeremy Isaacs and Michael Grade (not now!). That would, of course, never have happened. But now, here in NZ, I do a job not that dissimilar and I am perfectly content with that. Ambition realised, I'd say.
For being a country of immigration, New Zealand is not all that welcoming, especially if you're not part of the old boys club, a.k.a. the white countries of the Commonwealth, since there is a problem with recognising educational and work achievements. "Having NZ experience" in job vacancies is a ridiculous requirement, and is that why NZ companies are too stuck in their ways?
New Zealanders also need to get over their inferiority complex, such as asking visitors who just exited Auckland Airport "what they think of the country so far" and then be offended if said visitors want their money back - even in jest.
What do I really like about NZ? Being able to live on an island near the main city and have the beach almost to myself on most days; sharing a BBQ with the neighbour, who just caught 2 big snappers; enjoying and partaking in public issues; and moan like the Kiwis.

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