Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, March 5, 2012

Migration between Highly Developed Countries

K left a comment in  response to Friday's post about global migration.  I think we both have the same curiosity about why people migrate from one highly developed country to another - from the US to the EU and vice versa, for example.

You might think that I would be in a good position to talk about this because I did it.  Yes and no.  My experience is not atypical but it doesn't come close to covering the diverse motivations of all the other migrants I've had the pleasure of meeting and conversing with over the years.  Another difficulty when it comes to tackling this topic is that so much is based on the perceptions that people in highly developed countries have of each other and their respective countries.  Before people migrate they are starting from a subjective view of their home country and projecting themselves into a possible future in another place that they think will be better for diverse reasons. But "better" is relative.   Clearly when a person moves from one modern country to another he is not thinking, "Will I have enough to eat there?" "Will there be running water?" or "Are there ATM's?"  He/she is definitely looking for something above and beyond satisfying the most basic needs.

Nonetheless, I think there is overlap between their motivations and those of their brethen who migrate from low to medium development countries:  a better future for their children, security, opportunity.  For that reason I would resist any characterization of these people as "spoiled global elites."  At the risk of sounding un-American, I argue that there are things, tangible and intangible, that may matter much more to some then money or a glorious career.

I spent part of this weekend thinking about how to answer K in a concrete way and I came up with a few themes that seem to come up very often when I talk to migrants from the US to the EU, or from the EU to the US, or from either of those places to Asia.  This is what I've gleaned from just talking to people I've met and come to know over the past twenty years or so.  You may disagree with the items on my list and some of what I report here might irritate you.  Bear in mind that these are things people have told me based on their perceptions of where they came from, where they wanted to go and why they landed on one shore as opposed to another.  They are not necessarily objectively true (most preconceived ideas aren't).  In some cases, the reasons people had for leaving home are so personal that they say next to nothing about the home or host country and everything about that person's particular (often very difficult) situation.

Family:   It is more and more common for people to have families that include multiple nationalities and members living in many different countries.  It can happen very rapidly.  In my own family in THIS generation alone for the first time we now have family members on two continents and three countries with three different nationalities.  More importantly, we are in constant contact with each other via email, Facebook and the like.  This is something that my grandparents (or my spouse's grandparents) would have found inconceivable.  We are talking about intercultural marriages (of which there are an enormous number between EU and North Americans) and the children of these unions and their children.  It's not just about having multiple passports, it's about having multiple close connections (blood or marriage ties) with people in other countries.  I have met any number of people born on one side of the Atlantic who activated a citizenship from a parent or grand-parent in order to spend some time in the other country (US/Canada or the EU).

Established Expatriate Communities:  A migrant from the US to France is walking into history - not just French history but American history. France has been a destination for Americans since before the American Revolution. Those who come here today are following in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, Ernest Hemingway and others.  This is a well travelled path.  There are others.  Today, Americans can find vibrant expatriate communities in the UK, Germany, Japan and Canada.  Other developed countries have very similar migration paths to other developed countries.   France, for example, has a very active expatriate community in Japan, the UK and the United States (check out California).  Like migrants from developing countries these channels are very important when it comes to drawing people to a particular place.

Similar Standards of Living:  These days a middle-class person in France or Germany lives just as well as a middle-class American or Canadian. Yes, there are country differences but the basics are there. Moving to another developed country does not mean deprivation or a very radical change in one's standard of living.  If you had a car in Germany, you can have a car in the U.S.  If you owned a house in the U.K. you can own a house in France.  Basic consumer goods are readily available in all these places.

Relative Differences in Living Standards:  Here is it where begins to get really subjective.  Standards of living may be similar in all highly developed countries but every country has its perceived strong and weak points. Often these are semi-tangible and cannot be measured in monetary terms.  One issue I've seen come up again and again is personal safety.  Some of the Brits I've talked to have the perception that France or Denmark would be much safer places to live. Almost every European I've conversed with had the perception that the U.S. was downright dangerous.  These perceptions matter a great deal because people actually make migration decisions based on them.  It can be as simple as perceiving that Country X is a better place to raise children then Country Y or the home country.

Cultural Capital:  This is even more subjective and involves the accumulation of cultural capital, often  to gain status.  I realize that this sounds terribly elitist but it's true.  Living in a foreign country for a time or being widely traveled with the ability to speak multiple languages is usually perceived positively.  It can be a means by which a migrant from a developed country gains status relative to the sedentary monolingual person in the home country. The "bump" depends on the country of origin and the country of residence.  Americans who go to France and live for awhile, for example, get to write books that sell very well.  Same with the U.K. residents in France.   French residents of Japan or certain cities in the U.S. seem to benefit from a similar halo effect.   This is to be handled with caution because it can also provoke jealousy and resentment.

Opportunities:  Sometimes the credentials from the home country sell better in another developed country.  France is filled with engineering graduates and, depending on the school, that degree may not buy as much opportunity in France or the EU as in a country like Canada or Australia.  An American with a liberal arts degree from a medium-level American university might be better off working abroad as a teacher, for example.  He retains a certain amount of status, puts his degree to good use,  gets foreign experience and avoids the unemployment lines at home.   Credentials can be translated more or less but the real differences are in the markets and some degrees and specialities can be a worth a lot more outside the home country.

Escape:   This is more common then many people realize.  There are people who have got themselves into serious trouble in their home countries:  jail, alcohol or drug abuse, failed marriages and other family problems, business failure.  They want a new life and migrating to another developed country can offer that.  Alcoholics Anonymous refers to this as "pulling a geographic." This is another one that seems to be universal - I've met both French and Americans who have done this.

Political or Social Climate:   I've never seen this be the sole reason people from developed countries migrate but it is a factor. Some people strongly disagree with the direction of politics in the home country and are unhappy enough about it to want to leave. During the Vietnam War, for example, many Americans moved to Canada.   In other cases it has more to do with the social climate.  I've talked to French of African or North African origin who are also eyeing Canada or the U.S. because they perceive that there would be less discrimination there.  African-Americans have a long history of moving to France because, quite frankly, they felt (and some people I've talked to in more recent times still think this is true) they have a higher status and better treatment in France as opposed to the U.S. Most recently, I've talked to some Americans visiting who are deeply concerned about the political gridlock in the U.S. and who wonder if the country could become financially and socially unstable.

I'll stop there because this post is getting very long. I'd love to get your feedback and ideas about this and if anyone has links to studies about migration from one developed country to another, I would be most grateful if you could post them in the comments section.

3 comments:

Unknown said...

My reason for immigrating (US to France) was almost entirely because of social benefits for my children (and I don't have children yet.)

We could have chosen either country. We both had jobs in the US, my husband has a greencard, we had family in both places, we like both cultures.

But I have been an American without health insurance, and when I finally got health insurance with my first job post-college, it was really crappy health insurance. And I have this horrible, horrible fear of a child of mine, or myself, or my husband being sick or injured and not being able to get care because of finances.

I know French health care is not perfect, but I can't tell you how wonderful it is to not have to stop and think, "Should I not go to the emergency room because my co-payment will mean I can't pay rent next month?"

Once I got here there were all these other benefits that started popping up that I didn't even know about before I moved. I can walk to the grocery store without needing the car! I don't have to obsessively check all the labels on food for ridiculous amounts of crap! There is LOTS and LOTS of vacation!

Now it's my husband who wants to move back to the states. He misses all-you-can-eat buffets, basketball games on tv, nice little suburban houses, and cheap restaurants.

I never want to move back to the states. All of that, I tell him, is what made our lives incredibly unhealthy.

I think this is a subject we will revisit again and again. We're really lucky because (moving costs aside, which are horrendous) we are free to move between the two countries. We're young (25 and 26), we've got the future ahead of us. But my heart, head, and spirit is in France. I don't imagine that will change.

usxcanada said...

Today, Americans can find vibrant expatriate communities in the UK, Germany, Japan and Canada.

Many years of living in four major cities tells me that this is not the case for Canada.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thank you very much for your comment and you make an excellent point. Yes, salaries are higher in the US (in general) but the social benefits and infrastructure are quite poor. So in the migration equation you have to compare what you would have to pay out of pocket in the US out of that salary versus a lower salary in Europe which nevertheless will entitle you to health care, a good education for the children and many other things. Personally I think you'd just about break even in the end. And there are other things on the europe side that I find very attractive - more job mobility, for example, since I never have to worry about losing my health benefits because I want to take on another job.

Hi usxcanada - that is interesting to hear. I based my impression of the US expat community in Canada really on Vancouver (the only city I know well in that country). If you have a chance give me your impressions - why do you think there isn't much of a US expat community in Canada? Is it proximity?