“I feel like we’re being deported from our own country,” my husband said.
“It’ll be an adventure,” I replied, trying to sound game.
“I wasn’t looking for an adventure,” he said. “I was just looking for a job.”
We didn’t know we would be part of a wave of educated young Americans heading overseas in search of better employment opportunities. According to State Department estimates, 6.3 million Americans are studying or working abroad, the highest number ever recorded. What’s more, the percentage of Americans ages 25 to 34 who are planning to move overseas has quintupled in two years, from less than 1 percent to 5.1 percent. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 40 percent are interested in moving abroad, up from 12 percent in 2007.
In the past, Americans often took foreign jobs for the adventure or because their career field demanded overseas work. Today, these young people are leaving because they can’t find jobs in the United States. They’re leaving because the jobs they do find often don’t offer benefits such as health insurance. They’re leaving because the gloomy atmosphere of the American economy makes it hard to break through with a new innovative idea or business model. “This is a huge movement,” says Bob Adams, president and chief executive of America Wave, an organization that studies overseas relocation.
Stories like ours are everywhere.
When Liz Jackson, 31, earned her PhD in educational policy from the University of Illinois, she hoped to find a job as an assistant professor. She applied for about 50 jobs in 2010. But U.S. colleges and universities were shrinking; layoffs and hiring freezes were rampant. Jackson’s only nibbles of interest came from the Middle East and Asia.
She ended up taking a position as an administrator at a university in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. There, in addition to a tax-free salary of $45,000, she was given a three-bedroom, three-bathroom apartment to live in rent-free, plane tickets for her and her husband to visit the United States every year, 44 annual paid vacation days, an $8,000 moving allowance, and a promise to help find a job for her husband, who’s a physicist. Plus, there was great health insurance, with no co-pays, dirt-cheap drugs and free dental coverage. This was a major draw for many of Jackson’s friends, almost all of whom are fellow Americans.
“We can pay off our student loans in the next six years,” Jackson says. Together, she and her husband owe about $200,000. “That would be impossible in the United States.”
Jackson estimates that half of her graduate school classmates in the United States are underemployed or employed in jobs far different fromprofessions they trained for. Still, her family has a hard time understanding why she and her husband chose to live abroad. “They didn’t believe us when we said we can’t get a job” in the United States that’s competitive, she says. “Not only can we not get jobs in the U.S., but even if we did, we’d be taking a serious pay cut.”
After a year in Abu Dhabi, Jackson did a second job search in the United States. Once again, no bites. She’s now happily employed as a tenure-track assistant professor in Hong Kong, and her husband is a science instructor at the same university.
Even for those fortunate enough to find work in the United States, there’s still the sense that the best opportunities — the best quality of life — are far from New York or Silicon Valley.
Sean Love, 27, traded a job as a medical research assistant in an “understaffed and underfunded” lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for a similar job in Singapore. But the new position comes with better funding, happier co-workers, twice the number of vacation days, nearly free health care and a much higher quality of life.
Love’s girlfriend, who had spent months fruitlessly searching for a nonprofit job in the Baltimore-Washington area, had two appealing job offers within two months of moving to Singapore. Other friends who moved to Asia had similar experiences.
“Asia is without a doubt the new land of opportunity for those brave enough to buy a plane ticket,” Love says.
A 24-year-old New York native employed at an international bank in Jakarta, Indonesia, told me he frequently tries to persuade his unemployed friends back home to move East.
“The opportunity is in Asia,” he says. “Staying in the U.S. right now is not how you really up and make a name for yourself. . . . Asia presents you an opportunity to get out of the mess in the U.S. You can come out here and teach English and — boom! — you’ve got a job. You can come out here and start a rinky-dink startup and — boom! — you’ve got a job.”
There are more opportunities in Asia “simply because of the higher growth rate,” explains Megan Fitzgerald, an international career coach based in Singapore, who says young Americans are drawn to the money and the sense of possibility in the Eastern Hemisphere.
For American children of immigrants, moving back to their families’ countries of origin is increasingly appealing. Hong Kong is full of “ABCs” — American-born Chinese — who have returned to where their parents are from, in search of opportunity. Ditto for young Indian Americans moving to India, where officials report a major increase in ethnic Indians moving to India from abroad. In 2010, at least 100,000 people of Indian descent returned to India. They’re often called “repats,” or “returning expats.”
“There are a lot of entrepreneurial people moving back to India, living really well, starting things,” says Robin Mount, director of the Office of Career, Research and International Opportunities at Harvard’s Office of Career Services, who tells me that Harvard students of all backgrounds have grown increasingly interested in working overseas.
Anxious as my husband and I were about moving abroad, we consider ourselves lucky. Hong Kong has been quite an adventure, despite the sky-yellowing pollution and the insanely high rent. Instead of buying washed spinach at Trader Joe’s, I bargain for yams, pak choy and fresh tofu at an outdoor market. Instead of living in a one-story condo, as we did in Chapel Hill, N.C., we live on the 12th floor of a 24-story high-rise. Instead of driving, we ride a ferry across Victoria Harbour, skyscrapers gleaming along the shore like dragons’ teeth.
My husband loves his job. His colleagues, about half of whom are from abroad, are smart and engaged. His schedule is humane. His students are curious and hard-working. In addition to the generous pay, we get a housing stipend for rent and have great health insurance. Because of the United States’ foreign earned-income exclusion, we don’t have to pay U.S. taxes on most of our Hong Kong income. Hong Kong’s income tax is generally lower than that in the United States, and most expats in Asia have similarly favorable tax situations.
Without knowing Cantonese, considered one of the world’s hardest languages, we may never feel like locals. But now more than ever, “local” is hard to define. Our friends here are from all over — the United States, Britain, India, Italy, South Africa, Greece. A few came for the adventure. But most others came for the jobs.
To a large extent, this wave of overseas migration is simply part of life in an increasingly globalized economy — and that’s a good thing. That young people would look beyond the United States when considering job prospects is a sign of a maturing country and an increasingly open and multicultural world. There’s no reason that smart, talented people should stay in the country where they were born or where they grew up. Plus, working abroad means learning new skills to be brought back to the United States — assuming you choose to return.
But the fact that so many young Americans are moving abroad of out necessity, because U.S. companies and institutions aren’t paying decent salaries and benefits? That’s problematic. The fact that so many young Americans have lost faith in the United States as a place of innovation and possibility? That’s deeply worrying.
We need to invest in talent, in education. We need to offer benefits similar to those in other developed nations. We need to recognize that working longer hours and “doing more with less” doesn’t create better workers, only more burnt-out ones.
For now, living in a tiny high-rise apartment 8,000 miles from America is the best way we’ve found to achieve the American Dream.
Emily Matchar, author of “Homeward Bound: The New Cult of Domesticity,” is a freelance writer in Hong Kong.