Sunday, April 22, 2012

Why do career expatriates stay?

DSC09659I moved to the Netherlands in 2007, a corporate expatriate assignment for management and product development.  When it ended, I left the company, as many expatriates do: it’s one of the biggest problems with international human resource management.  Unlike most, I chose to remain overseas, setting up a new Dutch business and working on international opportunities to develop medical devices after the formal end of my assignment.

My reasons for staying were a mix of ambition, connection, life balance, and challenge.  I thought that they were likely unique: I knew a lot of people who stayed because they had married Dutch people or had put down roots during long-term assignments, but none who stayed for entrepreneurship. 

Why do people make the jump from short- to long-term expatriate careers?  Maria Crowley-Henry recently analyzed the issue in her paper Twenty-First Century International Careers: from Economic to Lifestyle Migration, focused on expatriate settled in France, but with conclusions that likely hold true more broadly.

She begins by noting that ”career” is a narrative, a continuous process of acquiring competence and recognition, used to create the next step into the future and further growth.  At one time, career progression was managed by companies, but employees now write their own stories.  They gain experience, they develop self-knowledge, leading to formation of an occupational identity grounded in their talents, needs, and values.  These identities could be, for example:

• technical/functional competence
• general managerial competence
• security/stability
• entrepreneurial creativity
• autonomy/independence
• service/dedication to a cause
• pure challenge
• lifestyle

Alongside self-managed career narratives and the opportunities created by globalization of products and labor.  “Mobile workers move up any ladder onto which they can get a foot,” she notes, creating boundaryless careers that do not evolve within a single organization or country.

All well and good.  But when a self-defining, mobile, boundaryless worker makes the transition to being a “bounded transnational”, what factors drive that choice?

The reasons were really interesting (I’ve put the number or respondents giving each reason alongside).

  • Cosmopolitan lifestyle:  Craving the admiring glances of contemporaries; wanting to be perceived well by others in having an exotic lifestyle or image. (9)
  • Redemptive lifestyle:  Wanting to escape the commute, the media, the drinking culture in the home country: choosing not to engage with negative aspects of their home country in the host environment. There is an element of rebirth, the ‘phoenix’, a new beginning in avoiding a self-destructive lifestyle; anti-‘rat race’. (4)
  • Proving self:  Wanting to be perceived by others as having made the right initial choice; not wanting to take a step back, pride. (3)
  • Fear of return: The home country that they left has changed and moved on; a feeling that they would no longer fit in there without the need for readjustment.  (2)
  • Relationships:  Relationships in the home and/or host country with significant others (parent, child, spouse), where the duty of care and other’s desires are taken into consideration. (16)
  • Life quality: Wanting to remain in order to enjoy the quality or balance of life on offer.  (18)
  • Home integration: Feeing more at home in host country than in home country.   (9)
  • Tough adjustment:  Not wanting to go through the adjustment / readjustment phase again.   (5)
  • Job satisfaction:  Having a job in the area, equivalent of which one might not get in their home country.  (2)

She concludes that, while economic factors may have brought people into expatriate assignments, lifestyle factors are the ones that cause them to settle down as permanent residents in their host countries.  These include

• the individual (unique characteristics of the person);
• the individual’s stakeholders (e.g. family);
• the job in question (tasks, rewards) and the work environment (colleagues, policies);
• host country elements (amenities on offer, weather, environment); and
• the wider society (socio-cultural factors, such as the extent of the multicultural community; labour laws, minimum wage, maternity benefit, etc.).

Broadly, it rings true for me: lifestyle is the largest factor: even the elements related to career are likely part of it.


Amanda Blog and Kiss said...

Last weekend in London my husband and I were debating on whether or not we should stay in Amsterdam or move on. He kept asking, "Why do you want to stay there? What is there that isn't here in London?" And I couldn't put into words what it was. But several of those points are valid: Tough Adjustment, Home Integration, Life Quality.

Dave Hampton said...

Hi, Amanda, and thanks for the thoughts. I agree, when US folks ask why I don't come back, it's hard to explain that I'm simply actually happy staying. I'd pick Job satisfaction, Life quality, and (sadly) Cosmopolitan lifestyle (it feels vain, but it's cool).