Some might say we are on our way back to the 1980s. Before people conjure up images of long-haired mullets and leg-warmers, what I am referring to is an extended period of high unemployment, out-of-control public finances and in particular a massive exodus of migrants from the country leading to a decline in the population.

We will leave the conversation on the first two issues for another day, but the latter point was raised in the past week by the release of the latest population estimates from the CSO for the year to April 2009.

'Resumption of Net Migration', as the population data release is titled, is direct and to the point. After 13 years of net inflows to the country, and very large inflows in recent years, there were 65,000 emigrants in the year to April, relative to only 57,000 immigrants. More than likely, outward flows accelerated and inflows slowed in the latter part of this period as the labour market continued to weaken. Given this backdrop, one could be forgiven for believing that the Irish population is set to decline significantly in the coming years.

There is though a totally different dynamic currently at play in Ireland relative to the situation in the late 1980s. The differences relate primarily to two areas.

Firstly, the population is still growing. Despite the 8,000 net outflow of migrants, the Irish population still managed to grow by 37,000 persons in the past year. This was due to the continued increase in births; there were 75,000 in the 12-month period to April 2009. In this instance, we have to return to the '90s – the 1890s, that is – to find a similar number of births in any one year in Ireland. It is not that the birth rate has shot up because people have more time on their hands, but the baby boom generation of the late 1970s are now at the child-bearing age themselves. This natural increase is double that of the late 1980s, reducing the chances of outright population declines, although we would not rule out the possibility in the short term due to recent migration patterns.

Following the accession of the 10, and then later 12, new EU member states in 2004 and 2006, Ireland became proportionally the biggest recipient of migrants from these states. With unemployment rates in the high teens in many of these countries at the time, most European labour markets were sluggish, and with Ireland experiencing boom growth rates and virtually full employment, it was a no-brainer for these immigrants to land on Irish shores.

However, if there was any doubt that recently arrived migrants were mainly just here for economic reasons, this doubt must surely be receding with the new information over the past week. Of the 65,000 emigrants that left in the past year, 30,000 were from the 12 accession states. Separately released figures this week showed that the number of people from these countries in employment fell by 15% in the past year, with sectors such as construction and industry seeing the most dramatic declines, falling by 54% and 28%, respectively.

Although high social-welfare rates relative to other countries may convince some migrants to remain in Ireland, the original incentive for moving to Ireland – to find work – has been substantially reduced. For example, at the time of accession in May 2004, the unemployment rate in Poland stood at 20%, relative to less than 5% in Ireland. The unemployment rate now stands at 11% in Poland, while the economy is expected to grow both this year and next. In Ireland, we know unemployment is at 12% already, but for those from the accession countries, the unemployment rate is already at 19%. Reasons for moving are obvious given this reality.

In the short-term, therefore, emigration is likely to be dominated by foreign nationals. Over the 2004-08 period, there was a net increase of 150,000 in the population from the new member states. Some of these individuals will stay as they have set down roots here, but the trends that have now begun tell an important story about the motivations of these people. For Ireland, though, the priority must be to try to avoid a repeat of migration of the domestic Irish.

Emigration by the Irish has indeed increased, going from 13,000 in 2008 to 18,000 in 2009, but this represented less than 30% of the total leaving the country. Emigration in the 1980s was economically and socially damaging as it largely comprised of our "best and brightest".

If a brain drain does start, the chances of an Irish recovery are much diminished. It must be avoided at all costs.

Dermot O'Leary is chief economist with Goodbody Stockbrokers