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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lifestyle Migration

When I first heard that term I really didn't know what to make of it.  The term "lifestyle" in English seems to imply something rather frivolous and even pretentious.  Something that must be the province of the rich global elite and not within the reach of "regular folks."  What I discovered when I looked into it is that this is actually a very broad category into which researchers have poured very disparate people:  international retirement migrants, sojourners in India, small entrepreneurs running bed and breakfasts in France, and foreign spouses of nationals.

In Global Migration Governance, Caroline Olivier gives this definition:  "The term 'lifestyle migration' is applied to a growing number of migrations that are largely undertaken for lifestyle reasons and which do not fit into the existing policy categories of migration."  This basically means anyone who has migrated for reasons other than opportunity and oppression (essentially labor and humanitarian migration).  In general these are people who have the means to choose where they want to live based on criteria that have very little to do with economics.  It's really not at all about money or landing a better job. Lifestyle migrants are primarily from developed countries and their destinations are either other developed countries or emerging countries.  This people are very hard to count since they are often quasi-legal in their countries of residence and very often they don't live abroad full-time.  The British are well-known for this.  In 2006 it was estimated that one in ten Brits live abroad and 500,000 live part-time outside the UK.

Some of them are even technically "illegal immigrants" and some work under the table teaching their native languages. They seem to be tolerated for the most part because they bring money in at a very low cost to the host countries:  a retired American in France on U.S. Social Security is not doing any harm and may even be doing some good since the money is coming from outside France and is being injected into the local economy.  Similar reasoning applies to French retirees in Morocco.  Some countries have figured this out and offer special programs to draw these migrants in.  The "Malaysia My Second Home" program seems to be very popular and the Japanese government was actively promoting at one time "overseas ikigai towns".

This is called "International Retirement Migration" and the reasons behind it seem obvious.  However, what about all the other migrants being lumped together as "lifestyle migrants?'  In Lifestyle Migration (a book of essays and research on this subject) they offer the following as cases that they think exemplify this phenomenon:

  • Western Lifestyle Migrants in Varanasi, India
  • Romance Tourists, Foreign Wives or Retirement Migrants Cross-cultural Marriage in Florence, Italy
  • A Desire for Difference:  British Lifestyle Migration in Southwest France
  • Taking the Risk:  The British in Didim, Turkey

I finished both books feeling very unsatisfied and a bit unsettled.  The only thing that these migrants have in common is the fact that they mostly come from developed countries (all social classes and income levels by the way) and are seeking intangible things that cannot be expressed in monetary terms.  That does not, in my view, make their motives selfish or suspect - something that I feel is implied in the term "lifestyle."  Is there something illegitimate about wanting to stretch one's retirement pension or to raise children in a country that has less crime or a better education system?  What about a gay couple who moves to a country where the laws permit them to marry?  Can you really reduce this to a lifestyle choice or is it something infinitely more important - the right to be with the person you love and benefit from a legal framework that offers more protection and stability?

The danger of lumping all these people together under a tent that is practically guaranteed to raise the hackles of people in their home countries is the real possibility that these people will be punished:  taxed to extinction, forced to give up their citizenship or permanent residency status, or just vilified in the media.  The perception of people in the homeland is generally negative - this people are often portrayed as disloyal or selfish or lacking in maturity.  In all fairness sometimes this kind of migrant has a discourse that is not terribly kind or understanding of the people back home.  It does not help to describe one's life outside the home country as an "escape" or to treat people in the homeland as boring and unenlightened.  This is unnecessarily provocative and unfair - moving to India to live in an ashram or to France to start a "gite" does not make anyone morally superior or special.  Whenever I fall into this trap I try to remember that I am merely one American among 100,000 other Americans living in France,  and I am just one small U.S. person among the millions in Europe and around the world.

So I am hoping that the term "lifestyle migration" goes out of fashion very fast.  I don't think it's accurate or useful and it might even be dangerous.  The "people who move around" don't need anything that encourages positive or negative stereotypes.  What we need is to be "right-sized."  We are normal people who are doing normal things (raising families, working jobs, going to school).  The only difference is that we just aren't doing those things in our countries of origin.  That's all.


Ovid said...

It does sounds like "lifestyle migration" is a very accurate term for this (as opposed to refugees or economic migrants). Maybe you have a strong negative association with the word "lifestyle"?

I would actually love to see more people being able to adopt lifestyle migration. Heck, moving from the big city to the beach because you like to swim would be the same thing were it not for the fact of being in the same country.

Or maybe I just misunderstood your point? I've been known to do that :)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Curtis,

No, I think you hit the nail on the head. I do have a strong negative association with that word. Not sure where it comes from. I know that I have heard it used in a very sarcastic, mocking way. I think there is a cultural divide between the homelanders and the diaspora and we need to be careful what words we use because they can frame the debate.

I did a thought experiment the other day and tried to imagine explaining "lifestyle migration" to someone like my working-class grandfather or to some of my friends and family in the U.S. who are under water with their mortgages. If I try to put myself in their shoes then, yes, we do look like a bunch of spoiled children when we complain about things like citizenship-based taxation. "Lifestyle" implies choice so their reply is simply "your choices are not my problem." Ok you have more forms to file and you might be taxed up to 70% of your income but I'm sitting here unemployed or in debt and I don't have time for this. This is the sort of thing I worry about and I suspect that it's one of the biggest reasons we don't get much traction when we talk about the issues of overseas Americans. I don't think the characterizations are fair but I think we ignore their context at our peril. To someone with a a particular worldview, "lifestyle" is very positive and affirming. To another person in a very different situation it is waving a red flag in front of a bull and can provoke him from a state of relative neutrality or mild envy to a state of vindictiveness. This is what Roger Conklin means, I think, when he talks about citizenship-based taxation as being a "sin" tax. I worry that "lifestyle migration" could be perceived a luxury item that merits punitive measures.

Honestly I'm having a hard time really getting a grip on what I want to say about this. I feel like I lack the proper vocabulary or framework to express this properly. Maybe I need to go back and talk to the class war experts again.

What do you think?