IWA View: No Country for Young Folks: Looking for the Full Picture of the Welsh ‘Brain Drain’

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Dr Jack Watkins from the IWA explores the realities of the ‘Brain Drain’ – and asks how Wales can be a good place to live for young poeple.

Back in April we hosted a lecture by Prof Gerry Holtham to mark the end of his 20 year period as an IWA Trustee. In it, Professor Holtham drew on his considerable expertise on all matters relating to the Welsh economy to focus on an issue of central importance – the migration of young people out of Wales and the demographic challenge that this poses.

‘Migration is an immensely complex policy issue onto which people project their own agendas and emotions.

Months later, Economy Minister Vaughan Gething MS announced his plans for the next few years. The wider points of this agenda will be covered elsewhere (including by our Economic Policy Lead Harry Morgan Thompson here), but one observation that has attracted attention outside of Wales picks up on Professor Holtham’s concerns about attracting and retaining the best and brightest.

Brain drain is something that everyone has a view on. A quick scan of reaction to the Minister’s speech uncovers a huge range of presumed explanations, from a lack of jobs, to higher education funding that incentivises moves away from Wales, second homes that price out locals, right through to the imposition of COVID-19 passes and too many toll roads, and even some of the classic tropes that young people are too lazy or overqualified.

Hopefully what this illustrates is that migration is an immensely complex policy issue onto which people project their own agendas and emotions. Personal anecdotes and myths dominate the discussion, perhaps because there is surprisingly little data available. We rely on the once-a-decade census, NHS patient data and graduate surveys to give us a picture of who moves and to where, and there is even less data or research telling us why they move. Aside from the occasional vox pop we rarely hear from young people directly. Most of the discussion is led by people, like myself, who aren’t young anymore yet feed our own experiences or frustrations into these myths. 

Syniadau uchelgeisiol, awdurdodol a mentrus.
Ymunwch â ni i gyfrannu at wneud Cymru gwell.

One such myth is that this is a particularly Welsh problem. In terms of university graduates, Wales has in the past retained fewer of these than Scotland, but more than many regions of England which are of similar sizes (and some with higher productivity). Swansea is in the top ten cities in the UK for graduate retention, and for attracting ‘returners’ who move to study elsewhere. 

‘The idea of the rational graduate poring through economic data before deciding where to build their life doesn’t match the more complex reality.

Often forgotten in these discussions is Wales’ ability to attract people from elsewhere. Cardiff has a young population and is the fourth highest importer of students among the UK’s cities. The Welsh experience also compares favourably with other regions of Europe, such as southern Italy, parts of Portugal, Greece or Poland, from which millions of young people have left (with many of their young people finding their way to Wales as a place of relative opportunity). 

The problem is therefore nuanced, and is unlikely to be the same in Gwynedd as in Cardiff. To understand these nuances and do something about them, we need a better understanding of the varied factors that motivate migration (something that the Scottish Government have taken an active role in). History points towards the importance of jobs. Better opportunities and potential pay are clearly a strong driver of migration, as they have been for centuries, and there is clear evidence that graduate-level jobs are more concentrated in certain places in the UK. 

Nonetheless, the challenges of filling well-paid vacancies for public sector roles such as GPs and teachers in rural areas suggests that money alone does not attract people into an area. Experiments with moving big public or semi-public bodies, such as ONS or S4C, have tended to see staff quit rather than move. Talking to firms in Cardiff’s tech sector, some are willing to offer above-market salaries but struggle to attract the people they need. 

The idea of the rational graduate poring through economic data before deciding where to build their life doesn’t match the more complex reality. Looking beyond jobs, the evidence that we do have suggests that many young people are motivated by the social and cultural offering of a place. Research by the Wales Rural Observatory highlighted the boredom and isolation that many young people felt living in rural areas, with few friends and peers to meet up with and with ‘nothing to do’. Our own work on the Swansea Bay city region saw young people describe it as a ‘cultural backwater’. There is a degree of path dependency in the sense that young people often move to be closer to other young people, and evidence from Belgium suggests that family and friends are an important influence. 

Gofod i drafod, dadlau, ac ymchwilio.
Cefnogwch brif felin drafod annibynnol Cymru.


There are many things that the Welsh Government can do to make Wales a good place to work for young people. Prof Holtham called on Government to be radical and to lighten the absurd intergenerational premium that is currently seeing graduates facing a 50% tax rate, through funded HE for those who stay in Wales and social care levies that rise with age. But in addition, Wales has to become a place where younger people want to live. 

‘We also need to accept and even welcome the fact that young people often just want to go away and experience something bigger and different. A key challenge is to make those people think about coming back later in their lives.

One way to do this is to develop a cultural offer across Wales that reflects young as well as old. No one should underestimate the degree to which young people choose where to live based on the quality of a night out (just look at the stock photos used in recent media coverage), and Welsh cities and towns are falling behind on this score. Despite the ‘music city’ boosterism, Cardiff is recognised as one of the worst cities for music in the UK, and an increasingly diverse younger generation is not seeing their music represented in a city whose big bookings often hark back to years gone by (and it’s not entirely clear how the proposed new arena is going to help that).

Other cities like Bristol, Liverpool and Nottingham are setting an example that places across Wales should try and follow. Creative uses of old retail and industrial spaces have led to varied, grassroots-oriented events as well as the chance to breathe life back into old high streets. Local authorities need to facilitate this, but too often they stand in the way by approving the high-street flats whose future residents will complain about noise, by restricting the areas of towns and cities where music can be played, or by designing licensing conditions around the experiences of big commercial restaurants and bars

The reality is that small towns cannot provide all of the kinds of opportunities that cities can offer, but so many places in Wales would start to feel bigger if they had better transport connections. Today’s young people are less likely to drive than previous generations, and yet our public transport is designed around the needs of the old. Bus travel is one of the few areas where the cost of living in London is highly competitive compared to Wales; a day-rider ticket in Blaenau Gwent for those without a bus pass will set you back £7, and services are nowhere near as regular or direct. The previously-proposed Bus Services Bill should not be allowed to be lost to COVID-19.

We also need to accept and even welcome the fact that young people often just want to go away and experience something bigger and different. A key challenge is to make those people think about coming back later in their lives, and for that purpose Wales should build on its strengths to become the best place in the UK to raise a family. Managing the affordability of housing, connectivity both in transport and in broadband, access to green space and a generous childcare offer could all help to make life good for young families. 

It is probably unrealistic to expect that any combination of policy interventions will be able to push water uphill and see a massive process of counter-urbanisation within Wales. Anyone who expects the place that they grew up to stay as it was when they were young will almost always end up disappointed. But we can address some of the key challenges that make life so difficult for young people here, and in doing so ensure that people can live the life that they want to live within Wales.


Dr Jack Watkins is the IWA’s Foundational Economy Project Lead.

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