Thousands of highly-skilled New Zealanders are returning from overseas as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. But why did they leave in the first place? Listen to episode one of Coming Home now.
For New Zealanders of a certain age, the brain drain is a deeply evocative phrase. It captures a number of different threads in our national character, and reactions to it reveal more again. It describes the migration of ambitious New Zealanders out into the world, mostly to Australia, the UK and USA, but with a long tail to almost every country on earth. It also, in its construction, implies that those leaving represent the smart ones – and thus that those who stay behind are lower calibre people.
The numbers don’t necessarily bear this out. While a large number of highly-educated people have left over the years, an equally large cohort has left without as much training, mostly to Australia. All up, those who have a right to live in New Zealand, but choose not to, are thought to be one million strong – the second-largest diaspora in the OECD, on a per-capita basis, and the highest as a percentage of its high-skill population.
As long as we have known about this issue, we’ve worried about it. Former PM Robert Muldoon famously quipped that the departure of New Zealanders for Australia raised the IQ of both countries, and this subtle resentment at those who have left has lingered over the years, as if their departure is somehow a judgement on those who stayed.
This is in part because it has been such a consistent phenomenon. At its peak, we saw a net loss of over 50,000 a year, and it has only rarely dipped into reverse – even in recent years there have still been thousands leaving. Until, in March of this year, it flipped, with the largest ever net inflow of New Zealand citizens.
All it took was a pandemic to reverse a decades-old phenomenon – despite the restricted number of places, high cost and associated risk of travel in the Covid-19 era, a net 7,200 New Zealanders arrived into the country over the past six months. And research from Kea, an organisation tasked with providing services and links to the diaspora, suggests many more are planning to follow, with as many as 250,000 planning to come home over the next couple of years.
Even if that number proves too high – and it’s certainly beyond current MIQ capacity – the return poses enormous challenges to this country. Where will they live? And work? More than that – who are they? What drove them away? What’s calling them back? And do they want to stay?
These are the kinds of questions we seek to answer on Coming Home, a brand new limited series podcast from The Spinoff, hosted by managing editor Duncan Greive and podcast manager Jane Yee – who herself returned from the US in a desperate rush as lockdown beckoned in mid-March. It’s our most ambitious podcast to date, and the first in the highly produced narrative style, with ex-BBC producer Claire Crofton expertly weaving these stories together.
Collectively, it reveals that the conventional understanding of the brain drain is too narrow, and incomplete. If you talk to New Zealanders who have left, their reasons are as diverse as their identities. To pick just two: Julia Arnott-Neenee was global social strategy lead for HP, and found that people in other countries had fewer preconceptions about her identity as a Sāmoan New Zealander, and a woman, in a tech industry still dominated by white men. Thirty years earlier, chef Peter Gordon left New Zealand to engage with a restaurant world which barely existed in New Zealand, yet returns to one transformed, to make a contribution to it.
Along with the stories of returnees, we also have expert commentary from the likes of demographer Dr Paul Spoonley, and Kiwibank chief economist Jarrod Kerr, himself a returnee with a tale to tell.
Coming Home in its entirety ultimately gets to the heart of New Zealand’s complicated sense of identity, traversing tall poppy syndrome, its relationships between its diverse peoples, how it treats migrants of all stripes, how we present to the world and how the world perceives us. And the way all those things impact the opportunities, wealth and wellbeing of those who live here.
It’s important to offer heartfelt thanks to Kiwibank – it came to the party to sponsor this podcast, and we absolutely couldn’t have done it without its support. Producer Claire Crofton, engineer Tina Tiller, researcher Sherry Zhang plus Simon Day and Lucy Reymer also played key roles.
We’ll be releasing new episodes each week, covering different aspects of this complex story – one which contains huge opportunity for New Zealand, but the very real risk that it will slide by us if we don’t, as a nation, reach out and grab it. After all, the returning New Zealanders are us – but as they sometimes note, often their landings have been pretty bumpy, and made them wonder if these islands are still home.
Please join us over the next five weeks as we explore this unprecedented phenomenon – from the decisions to leave in the first place, to the terrifying journeys home through a world closing its borders, to the wildly varying realities which have faced those who have come home.
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