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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Middle-Class Migrant

"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 Studies32(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.


Maria said...

In my little corner of Spain, it has long been the habit of emigrating to better one's economic and social status. A hundred years ago it was customary to move to Argentina or Cuba, where the emigrants would make their money and then come back to retire, or simply remain in their new country. Those that came back built large houses, called "casas Indianas" because they were built by those who went to the Indies. Those emigrants who struck it very rich built schools and invested in other philanthropies.

In the past fifty years or so, emigration has been more to the U.S. and Europe, and the object has been to be able to save enough money to build a house in the village. Just about every new house built around here from the sixties to the eighties or nineties, was built by an emigrant. Some who left but came back with little more than they had before, are considered failures because they failed to better their economic situation, and have little to show for their experience. Learning a language or learning from the experience doesn't cut it here. The emphasis is on economic betterment.

Iris Kapil said...

Your excellent and very informative essay brought back memories. In the mid-1960s, my husband, Indian, and I, American, with two small children, left the States to work and live abroad. He did research in Somalia and was a professor in Turkey. For me it meant not finishing the Ph.D. but I filled in with research projects, did an MBA in my mid-forties, then, after the kids went off to college, consulting assignments. By the late 1970s he had joined an international organization in Paris and it was there that I realized the global economy had begun, bringing with it a new sort of middle-class professional migrant. And now this is a field of study to which you are contributing. -- I write on my blog about the expat years and about an expat's life in retirement. This is a three part story on being an expat wife --

Andrew said...

I am not sure that middle class migrants are under-emphasized. Certainly looking at the Cdn experience, most of our high skilled immigrants are what would likely be considered middle class and have been subject of considerable study and evaluations as to how well they are doing.

Dian said...

In actual cases of potential abuse, it would be much easier to demand payment of French expats don't pay taxes when they come home to use medical care etc.

Mênchon is an objectionable candidate for many reasons, by the way, including his fondness for nominally left-wing dictators/strongmen.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Maria, Thank you. I think that's true in a lot of places. Why move if you aren't going to do better economically? And yet so many migration decisions today don't have that as the primary goal. Nonetheless, few people, I think, plan on living a life abroad that is significantly worse than their life at home.

Iris, Good to see you here! I highly recommend your blog and those particular blog posts. All are excellent reads.

Oh yes the age of mass travel has made it easier for everyone to travel and retire in distant lands. Class distinctions do arise in communities of migrants/expats. I saw reference to this in a book on retirement migration in Spain. The original migrants in one community were very well off or had some sort of grand career in the military or the arts. The next waves of migration from the same country were very different: middle-class people looking for a place where there pensions would go much farther. And there were tensions. I have seen something like this in Japan where older Anglophone migants talk about how they moved for the culture and the newcomers just come here for work. :-)

Anrew, I see your point. And if you have any good reads, please pass them on. What I am seeing is a lot of work on low-skilled and highly-skilled but not so much on the "sort of skilled". The middle-class migrant can also be hidden in plain sight under terms like "Lifestyle Migration" or "Professional Expats" or "Skilled Migrant." I don't see a lot that explores their socioeconomic status in the home countries prior to arrival - parents' occupations, income and their relative position within the home country society. Is the migrant the first generation to get a college degree or is she the 3rd? What kind of degree and in what field? What I see are researchers saying "these people have BAs and that means 'skilled'" which we interpret as "middle-class" or above. Let's dig a little deeper into the varying degrees of middle-classness. There is a lot of distance, I think, between a programmer or a finance expert and an English teacher in a Korean conversation school. Maybe as much as the distance between the teacher and the factory worker. And to what extent are the middle-class migrants economic migrants.

There is a fascinating hypothesis by a guy named Sommers that liberal arts majors from North America and Europe are indeed economic migrants. Maybe I'll post about it. In the meantime, here is the link

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Andrew, Here is a better link to Sommer's arguments. Try this one instead of the one in my previous comment:

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Dian, Thank you so much for your comment. While you are here can I ask you a question I should have asked Anthony: how are these people accessing French healthcare? When I left my last job in France my Carte Vitale was cut off since I wasn't working (I was in fact being treated for cancer). It was only reactivated when I declared myself as a dependent on my husband. My understanding is that you are only on the system if you have a job, are retired or on unemployment. That's what the secu told me. So how is Anthony's friend getting away with this? In fact, how can any expat who returns do this? If the person is retired I understand because any person gets full medical if they have contributed to the system at some point in their working life. But if you aren't retired or on unemployment your Carte Vitale will be inactive. So I am a bit confused here....

Dian said...

Anthony would have to answer your question about French expats accessing services in France. I was just trying to be logical: IF an expat can access services, THEN a charge could probably be made with much lower administrative and emotional costs than introducing citizen-based taxation.

Just to share a little info:

I am an American, living in Denmark (since 1978). I have dual citizenship - but being a Danish citizen is irrelevant to the tax situation as long as I reside in Denmark. I file residency-based taxes in Denmark and citizen-based taxes in the US. I support the efforts of ACA (American Citizens Abroad) to change the US system.

I haven't really investigated eligibility for e.g. benefits on a visit in one country while living in another - but could do so if it would be interesting for the discussion.

What I do know is that I receive US social security pension (taxed in the US, but not in Denmark) - and I receive Danish social security pension (taxed in Denmark, but not in the US). Everything else ("private" pensions, occasional earnings, interest, returns on investments) is taxable in both places with a bit of double taxation - despite the US-Denmark tax treaty, because the US is getting better and better at reducing deductions and exemptions for foreign-paid taxes and foreign-sourced income.

I have heard that the US and North Korea are the only countries with citizen-based taxation. Is that your understanding too?

Final note:

In a residency-based system such as Denmark, one is taxed on world-wide income. If the US switched to residency-based taxation, it would still, of course, claim taxes on US source income - just not on income sourced in the country of residence. How taxation would be handled in foreign-sourced income outside of the country of residence depends on the arrangement.

To be more complete, the picture should include voting rights. As a US citizen, I can vote in the US - and do so, because I am subject to US taxation. As a resident Danish citizen, I can vote in Denmark; if I resided outside of Denmark, I would be exempt from tax and be prohibited from voting.

A citizen without a vote is not able to affect the home country's treatment of expats - except, perhaps, through organizations such as the ACA. On balance, I think that supporting and counting on organizations such as the ACA is more ethical than being allowed to vote in a place where one doesn't live or pay taxes.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Dian, Sorry about that. A pleasure to have you here. I would be very interested in any information you have about accessing benefits in other countries. I know that the US won't allow access to Medicare unless you are a resident. In France you can get your pension anywhere in the world. Medical costs in France are so low that visiting Americans are usually very happy to pay even if they aren't part of the system.

My understanding was that it was Eritrea and the US. The Philippines used to have such a system but they gave up because it was too complicated to enforce.

Japan (as you can see from today's post) also has a worldwide taxation system.

Honestly? I would trade my voting rights in the US for the elimination of FBARs and citizenship-based taxation. I think that would be a fair deal. I'm sure there are a lot of people who wouldn't agree. But it doesn't look the US government pays much attention to us even with the vote. I like AARO and ACA a lot - I just wish they were a little Eurocentric. They are working on it.