"Whilst it is impossible to come up with a coherent answer as to why the middle class migrate internationally, it is plausible to see international migration as a particular mobility strategy, employed consciously or otherwise, that leads to their appropriation of social, cultural and economic capital (Bourdieu 1984). No longer do we just see managers and executives in Europe using international mobility to increase their transnational socio-economic networks and augment their class position. We also see large numbers of skilled migrants venturing overseas on less structured journeys of advancement. This advancement involves a different balance of social, cultural and economic capital to the corporate professional, but is nevertheless important in middle-class reproduction and internal distinction." Scott, S. (2006). The social morphology of skilled migration: The case of the British middle class in Paris. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 32(7), 1105-1129.
Definitions of "middle-class" abound and differ according to the metric used: income, occupation, lifestyle. I think of it as group that has some level of financial and social capital (family background, education, credentials, skills, assets) but not enough of these things to put them in the "upper class." The children of the well-to-do don't have to get a university education (though they usually do at elite institutions at home or abroad) nor do they have to worry too much about where they will work because money, connections, the family business means that they will never be unemployed unless they choose to be. The middle class, on the other hand, must think strategically - how to best use the resources they have to get a good education and/or a profession that is financially and psychologically satisfying. For the children of the middle-class some kind of paid employment is rarely optional; it is necessary in order to pay for housing, raise a family, and retire in relative comfort wherever they live.
Middle-class status in the home and the destinations countries, I contend, affects migration in many ways.
Temporary versus permanent: Temporary migration is a strategy that seeks to increase one's capital back in the home country. The "Big OE" overseas experience like study or work abroad can confer important social capital. It can lead to better higher-status work at home. For example, a writer that spends a couple of years in Paris finances his stay doing childcare and writes until he is noticed back home and gets a job there based on his Parisian experience. Paying off credit cards or student loans is another possibility and many graduates go abroad to do this with the intention of coming home with less debt or savings. These are called "target earners" since they plan to leave once they have achieved their financial goal. However, the overall goal of the sojourners here is to maximize whatever benefit there is to being abroad and leverage that capital to make a better life at home.
Those who come to settle in the new country are thinking more long-term (but not necessarily permanent). Their intention is to leverage their capital into something that will provide them with a decent living in the host country. Their middle-class status in the home country can mean that they are reluctant to take on work that would lower their status in either country. Furthermore, they have a model of "success" or upward mobility in the home country (one that is entirely relative) that they try to replicate in their new home. What is most important here is that do this with limited resources and social capital which doesn't always translate very well. They can not afford to stay in the host country without working or being with a spouse or partner who is working. They may also not be in a position to move back if it doesn't work out: the sheer cost of moving a household, the uncertainty of the job market in the home country, medical problems, family obligations are all things that may limit further mobility.
Different Skills, Different Outcomes: The "skilled" migrant is often defined by level of education with a BA or some tertiary education being the lower limit. This ignores the enormous differences in universities, degrees, experience, and credentials. There are migrants with home country degrees in business, finance, medicine, engineering and science and there are those with classics, philosophy, political science and the like. A basic liberal arts degree may be worth just as little in the destination job market as it was at home unless it's from an internationally recognized elite school. I would argue that most middle-class migrants from developed and developing countries leave with higher levels of education than unskilled migrants, but where they went to school and what they studied still matters. Anyone with Internet access can look up the Shanghai ratings and company HRs may have their own internal ranking with preferences for specific schools in the host country or abroad. So those middle-class migrants from better schools in sought after fields have an edge.
This clearly translates into different outcomes in the destination country. Those who come from other schools may have to fight even harder to get work that is commensurate with their education because they probably don't have native-level language skills or the right connections. There are different strategies to overcome these things. Some decide to open their own businesses or to go freelance. Others find occupations where the employer doesn't care about what the migrant studied, only that he or she has a BA in order to get a work visa. Another, interestingly enough, is to lie or to forge credentials. This assumes that the employer in the host country won't or can't check. All of these strategies have one thing in common; they may or may not pay well but there is a higher level of risk: a business can fail, freelancers may not find enough clients, a person with a generic BA can be replaced with another cheaper person with a generic BA and fraud might not only get him/her fired, it can put his immigration status in jeopardy.
Social Mobility: Some middle-class migrants go abroad with the intention of moving down the class ladder. They are looking for a lifestyle, not professional or social advancement. And yet, very few, in my experience, go to work in a factory or clean houses. Instead they write, translate, teach, organize tours, open a bar/restaurant or just go back to the home country periodically to save enough money to return abroad. Other middle-class migrants are content if they can just maintain their home country status in the host country: a good "white-collar" or "pink-collar" job with benefits; a house or apartment that they own; enough pay to raise a family, save for retirement, and send the children to university. In some cases the host country offers more possibilities for these things than the home country did. Social-welfare programs vary widely among nation-states and depending on the migrant's situation, there may be more security and a greater likelihood that his or her children will also be middle-class or more. And then there are those with ambitions; they want to do better than they would have done in the home country. Moving is all about upward mobility: starting a business in a place that favors entrepreneurship, marrying someone with a higher status and more resources, becoming an itinerant cosmopolitan "creative."
Redefining Successful Migration: Somewhere in the middle-class migrant's mind is an ideal of the "successful" migrant and the fear of being seen as a "failure." In some countries and cultures just moving abroad immediately confers status if the person is from a middle-class background. (Elites moving about is just, well, "normal.") However, that status is precarious because as more and more other middle-class people migrate, it becomes less about the fact the migrants moved and more about what he or she did when she got there and settled.
There is a certain amount of defensiveness that creeps in when family or friends back home question how well they really are doing. They feel that they must constantly justify their decision to move and stay. I have to wonder if those who come from countries of immigration don't have a very difficult time with this. Their middle-class status in the home country may be a result of centuries of immigration based on a perceived ideal that immigrants and their children are supposed to do better with each generation - from cleaning houses to small business owner, from SBO to law or medicine, from professional status to politician, high-level executive, CEO and so on. There is a clear connection in this ideal between geographic mobility and social and professional upward mobility.
Middle-class migrants do not always do better and this is extremely embarrassing in both the host and home countries. In the home country there is wonder that the migrant has somehow squandered a wonderful opportunity; in the host country it feels just as bad to struggle to achieve one's personal goals as it would at home. "Going back" is seen as failure.
That kind of pressure leads migrants to redefine "success." Instead of money or status, they point to other things they have done: learned a language and a new culture, made friends, married, found a job they like even if it isn't something that they had ever aspired to do and doesn't "go anywhere." They extol the virtues of the host country compared to home. And they very rarely openly discuss the challenges, dissatisfactions, frustrations they experience abroad. That would be handing ammunition to those who questioned the move in the first place and think that the migrant should return.
My take on this is that we greatly overestimate the ability of the middle-class migrant to be successful in all respects in the host country. Yes, they have more education and some skills but there is no guarantee that they have the right ones for where they are going. But they have at least a BA and speak English. How hard could it possibly be to get a really good job abroad? It can be very hard, actually. There a millions of people around the world who speak English and more learning every day. There is a much smaller number of people who went to a school in the Shanghai List Top 10. Not to mention that a BA does not automatically mean an aptitude for languages or the ability to absorb culture or have a successful relationship. Furthermore, my definition of middle-class it implies limited means. These are people who do not have years to master the language and life in the new country before they hit the job market.
I am often frustrated at the lack of research on middle-class migrants. It is just as interesting as the mobility of the unskilled versus the skilled or the poor versus the well to do. Maybe more so because they are operating under multiple constraints. They have resources but they are not unlimited and so they must be very flexible and very smart about how they leverage what they have versus what is possible in the destination countries. And when it's migration from one developed country to another it is not obvious what constitutes a "better" life in financial or social terms.
In the old immigrant steamships passengers were divided up into classes with luxurious first class cabins, the bare minimum in steerage (third class) and the intermediate second class accommodations for those with a little money but not enough to pay for better. Something like that, I think, still operates and I think it would be worth our time to stop our obsession with the very rich and the very poor and see what the invisible middle has to offer migration studies.