“I really don’t know why you’re staying here,” a family friend said recently, after I poured him a glass of wine. Bemused, I glanced around our garden thinking it was fairly obvious why I was spending the afternoon at my dad’s birthday lunch. As our conversation progressed it became clear that the “here” he was referring to was the country and the “you’re” in question meant my generation. He couldn’t fathom what made Britain an attractive place to live as a young professional in 2023. Later that day, yet another guest asked when I would be jumping ship for, perhaps, Madrid or even Sydney.
Last April, Google searches for “moving abroad” were up 1,000%, according to research commissioned by the immigration law firm Reiss Edwards. Later, in October, a study conducted by Totaljobs found that approximately 4.5 million Britons were considering moving overseas in search of a better quality of life, including employment options and housing costs. Three per cent of respondents said they were looking to relocate within the next two to three years. That might not sound a lot, but if it came to fruition it would mean an exodus of more than 380,000 workers.
It would be the youth leading the charge as, unsurprisingly, the poll numbers dramatically increased among the younger generations. A huge 30% of adults between the ages of 18 and 24 questioned in the study said they were hoping to leave in the next few years, while 17% of 25- to 34-year-olds said they were making similar plans. The figures were also significantly higher among those living in London, now synonymous with an extortionate housing market and sky-high prices.
Gen Z are looking for ways to fly. “I always wanted to live abroad, and with everything costing way more these days, in part because of Brexit, why wouldn’t I?” 24-year-old Callum tells me. Last year, he moved to Spain and even though he now earns less, he finds his money stretches further. “It’s also nice to live in a country that doesn’t feel like it’s falling apart.”
But for others, Brexit has clipped their wings. Despite an increasing number of countries, including Portugal and Malta, now offering digital nomad visas, the UK’s departure from the bloc has put up barriers to moving abroad. Europeans who had moved to Britain, however, are not shackled by the same challenges. “Yes, Google searches are going up and, yes, people are looking to move abroad. But what I have seen is that interest is a lot higher than reality,” explains Julius Lajtha, former president of the Young European Movement UK and a climate pact ambassador to the European Commission. “Those who end up doing it in reality are those who can.”
Those, in fact, like Lajtha. He graduated from the University of Aberdeen earlier this year and, until recently, his plan had always been to stay in the UK and work in London after his degree. However, the global allure of the Big Smoke quickly cleared once the job search commenced. Even in the most prestigious companies and lucrative private practices, the salaries advertised were not high enough to cover outgoings, including rent costs that now average two-thirds of incomes.
Then there was Brexit. “I could have envisioned myself living in a country out of the EU if there was a comprehensive plan of how it would be managed. However, this does not exist,” he says. The inevitable became clearer: London – and even the UK – was no longer the place for him.
“It’s ridiculous, but a graduate’s salary is lower in London compared with other European capitals, so why would I stay?” he asks. Next month, Lajtha begins a graduate job at Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national rail company, in their Frankfurt office and he believes he has “hit the jackpot” as life in Germany brings with it perks that Britain couldn’t compete with. The average graduate starting salary is €44,000, one of the highest in Europe, surpassing France’s €40,000, and social lives come at a more respectable price.
“I pay €50 a month to use all regional transport and I’d never pay more than €5 for a pint in the bars I visit,” he tells me. When I reply that I recently bought an £8.50 pint, he laughs sympathetically.
The theme is common among Lajtha’s peers. Ordinarily, many international students opt to remain in the UK after their undergraduate degrees for employment or postgraduate studies, and this had always been an option for Malena Ehrenzeller, a second-year war studies student at King’s College London.
However, the vast increase in tuition fees and rising accommodation prices are causing her to re-evaluate her options: “I’m considering a university in Denmark, which also has a war studies department. This does offer a less specific degree compared with KCL, but I wouldn’t have to pay tuition fees.” She is also considering going home to Switzerland as, while living costs in Zurich and Geneva are high, the tuition fees are not.
Before Brexit, EU undergraduate students paid the same as domestic students, ranging from nothing in Scotland to £9,250 a year in England. According to official data, 13,155 EU students enrolled in 2021 for the first year of a primary degree compared with 37,530 the year before, and the UK’s departure from the bloc has been seen as the primary cause. Ehrenzeller admits that if her degree programme was offered in another European country, this change of fee status would have been enough to stop her from choosing London.
A record 7.6 million people waiting for treatment in the NHS is another factor deterring Ehrenzeller from staying. “I have a chronic illness and I’m finding the treatment offered very hard to access,” she reveals.
Martin Penov, another person who studied here, told me: “I’m not surprised Julius gave you my number.” In 2016 Penov was frustrated with how the Bulgarian education system functioned, so he looked at options in the UK. But after graduating this year with a politics and international relations degree from Manchester University, yet another migration was on his mind.
Most of the Bulgarian students Penov knew left within one or two months of graduating, whereas he wanted to remain in the UK, at least at first. “I tried to find any graduate roles related to media or humanities, but there just weren’t the positions. For the jobs that did exist, the salaries were just not high enough, especially when compared with the other European capitals,” he said. Covid-19 had also dominated Penov’s time at university, so he was looking for stability, which the UK didn’t offer.
When he began researching options for career paths, many appeared to lead to Brussels. “So, what was the point in committing to stay, when the role in my field would have likely seen me being shipped off to Brussels anyway?” Penov also disliked how London-centric career opportunities were and the work-life culture they possessed. “Until you hit your late 20s, it’s expected you’ll be in an entry-level role. There’s very little chance for serious progression, and lots of cases of job gatekeeping.”
There was, however, another factor pushing Penov out of the UK. “After Brexit, we all felt isolated. There was this huge feeling of being unwelcome and, being Bulgarian, I do feel I got the brunt of it,” he admits. Penov says he regularly received dirty looks when he spoke Bulgarian on public transport and recounts a series of insulting and bizarre questions he was asked – from whether Bulgaria was still communist to whether it was in Africa. It became, he says, “one bad memory after another”.
When Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on February 24 last year, Penov was eager to help the Ukrainian effort from campus, campaigning to help Manchester’s Ukrainians. “A lot of the volunteers were actually from Ukraine or the countries surrounding it, but,” he hesitates, “there were very few Brits.”
This lack of solidarity was, he says, the last straw. Now, he is working as a junior consultant for an international development company in Bulgaria’s capital. “I grew up in a small town in Bulgaria and now, being back in Sofia, I can see a future here,” he says. Prior to his departure, he did some maths. In the UK he would probably need to live with flatmates but in Sofia, he can afford to live alone. “The UK sounds and looks flashy, but if you can’t afford it, it loses its shine,” he says.
Art O’Mahony, the youth engagement manager for the Young European Movement, tells me: “The government’s approach to this exodus is pretty appalling, they are the antithesis of trying to increase productivity.” O’Mahony says the number of members looking to move out of the UK is growing. “There is the signal they are not welcome and this is hard to separate from Brexit. These skilled graduates are viewed as cash cows and aren’t appreciated. Now key areas of labour are finding it hard to find people.” For example, in the financial services industries, Dublin and Frankfurt have been huge winners of Brexit as London has lost out. Whether Sir Keir Starmer decides to mention it or not, O’Mahony believes the Labour leader will need to deal with this once he is in government.
Then, there are the consequences that aren’t measured as easily. “The symbolic and soft power that international students have must not be underestimated. Our society progresses with different views on the world and a variety of opinions. We have already seen the effects of this with a more polarised press and politicians,” he explains.
Now, even O’Mahony ponders whether he’ll stay in the UK, after moving to London for work from Ireland last year. “I often wonder how much longer I can do this,” he says.
He is not alone. And so the great Gen Z Brexodus goes on.