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Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Sommers Hypothesis

Otsuba Park, Osaka, Japan, June 2017
As I was doing my fieldwork in Japan I came across something that is referred to as the Sommers Hypothesis.  Scott Sommers is a Canadian who has lived in Taiwan since 1996 and before that he lived and worked in Japan and South Korea.  His website says that he is working on his PhD in Educational Psychology at Ming Chuan University in Taipei where he also teaches English.

I read the old posts on his blog from time to time and I enjoy them. He has eclectic interests, writes well, and he's a thoughtful man with a lot of experience living in Asia.

In his blog archives I found several posts by Sommers where he looks at the EFL industry in Asia through the lens of my passion, international migration.

Foreign English Teachers as Economic Migrants

The Economic Migration of English Teachers in Asia

The Issue of Social Class Among Foreign English Teachers

Sommers begins his inquiry with a puzzle.  Why is it that so many Anglophones from developed countries came to Asia in the 1980s and continue to come in large numbers today?  Some of this flow is Global North-North migration (Canada to Japan, for example) and some of it is Global North-South (UK to Thailand).    You have only to look at the Japanese immigration statistics for this population to see that this phenomenon is real.

Japan Statistics (see 2-14 Foreigners by Nationality and Age (Five-Year Groups) (1950--2005)(Excel:88KB)) show that in 1965 there were 12,685 US,  1,940 UK, and 1,460 Canadians in Japan.  In 1980 there were 18,590 US citizens.   In my MA dissertation Anglophone Migrants in Japan Mobility, Integration and the Secondary Labor Market  I took note of this in the larger context of increasing immigration to Japan:
  • "But with the rise of the Japanese economy, foreign labor was welcomed in the 1970s and 1980s (Douglass and Roberts 2003, pp.6–7). By 2008 the foreign population had grown from less than 1 million to over 2 million (Chung 2010, p.3). Most of the migration was from other Asian countries like China but the number of Americans, British and other English speakers grew too. In 1985 there were 25,170 US citizens in Japan (Statistics Bureau n.d.). In 2010 those numbers had risen to 50,667 Americans and 16,044 British (Statistics Bureau 2016a)."
So Sommers was absolutely on to something interesting.  And he was right to focus on the sector he knows the most about, the EFL industry, because I would argue that this was the "pull" that brought these Anglophones to Asia.  All of them?  No.  A majority of them?  I would say Yes.  My study seems to confirm it and there is research to support it (See D. Hawley Nagatomo's work, for example, or a close at the visa categories they used when entering Japan).

Sommers argues that any explanation of this migration must take into account "[t]he large and seemingly endless number of Anglo-Americans who are leaving their homes; its origin in the 1980s and "[t]he fact that they move almost entirely to those places in Asia where English teaching jobs are available without special training, the income is reasonably high and the standard of living is comparable with their mother country."

He is using a push/pull model where the "pull" is:  a good economy, jobs, decent wages, and a high standard of living with a minimum of professional credentials required. He is correct that EFL jobs can be had in Asian countries with only a BA in any subject.   On the ECC website two of the requirements are: 1. "Bachelor’s degree in any discipline from a recognized institution" and 2. that the applicant be a "Native speaker of English (grade 1 through completion of high school conducted with English as the main language of instruction)."  Compare that to teaching in a public school, say, in a province of Canada which requires a degree and certification.  Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in the public schools in the US has a similar certification process (depends on the state). 

That's the pull, but what was the "push"?  Why did they leave the US, UK, Canada, Australia?  It's all the more puzzling when one considers that these were mostly young, college-educated individuals. If you look at the country statistics they don't appear to be the least privileged members of their societies.  In 2015 only 33% of Americans had a college degree. So what's up?

Some people are satisfied with a very short answer:  it's all about the adventure  This is a "lifestyle" choice  (and let's stop the conversation right there.)  But Sommers isn't satisfied with that explanation and neither am I.  For one thing, "adventure" is a very broad term and means wildly different things to different people.  For another it's a self-reported state of mind, not (as Sommers points out) something tangible that you can measure.  If someone says to me "I'm moving to France to have an adventure" then I need to follow up with "What does that mean to you?" And when she returns (if she does) what are the indicators that say "Adventure achieved." (Or not, as the case may be.)  

At some point I suggest that you have to dig deeper and go beyond what people say and look at who they are, what they did at home, how they were able to move abroad, and what they do in the host country.  I personally believe that "adventure" is indeed one of the motivations, but is it the only one? Highly unlikely.  Migration is almost always multi-causal and there is no reason to think that Anglophones from developed countries are any different.  

And here is where Sommers raises hackles because he suggests that these anglophones are not just migrants, they are economic migrants.  In general, Americans, Canadians, Brits do not like that term and don't want it applied to them.  To them, it implies low status and puts them on the same level as the unloved and unwanted immigrants in their own countries.  I fully understand their position even though I disagree with it.   

In what sense, then, are they economic migrants according to Sommers?  It has to do with their relative position in the home country job market, the capital they left home with, and the positions open to them in the host country.  He speculates that :  "Anglo-american groups are represented in East Asia as English teachers in proportion to their disadvantage in their domestic labour markets."  

And what is this disadvantage he says they have? Their degrees.
  • "Since the late 1980’s, I estimate that close to a million Anglo-americans have taught English in East Asia; Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Over a number of posts, I have developed the idea this is a direct result of the decline in workplace value of the BA (Bachelor of Arts). Graduates who are not able or willing to gain further merit through graduate studies or professional education have been marginalized. Without this merit, liberal arts graduates have been forced into underemployment in the ‘dead-end’ jobs of their mother country or to move to the margins of the industrial world where their language and cultural skills have been commoditized and are thus sellable."
In other words, when young people are unable to get jobs at home that are commensurate with their university-level education (and paid well enough to cover the cost of that education), they look to opportunities abroad that leverage their degrees and native-speaker English skills.  EFL companies in Asia actively recruit young, college-educated people from those "core" Anglophone countries.  

Very interesting hypothesis.  He points to studies in the 1990s that suggest that there has been a decline in the value of the BA in those countries.  I did a quick but not extensive search for more recent data and, frankly, I found a lot of studies but no firm conclusions other than general agreement that having a tertiary education is better than not having one.  There is a good 2016 article in The Atlantic about a study that would seem to support Sommers' point.  My own study suggests that, yes, it's mostly (not always) young people with liberal arts degrees that come to Japan to work in EFL.  It was definitely the top employer by far. 

Still that's just one study and it's not proof of "push." Most college graduates in the US and other countries stay home, even those with liberal arts degrees.  What is the difference between those who stay and those who leave?  And I don't think that this can simply be a difference between the "adventuresome" and those who do not want to take the risk.

Another way to look at it is through the lens of socioeconomic status (and a degree is often used a proxy for that but I'm starting to think that this is deceptive).   In addition to degrees we might want to take a closer look at other indicators like how they were able to finance going abroad.  I came across a very few cases in my study where the adventure was almost entirely financed by the family back in the home country or personal savings. They didn't need to work and could devote 100% of their time to making connections and studying the language and culture until they were ready to find a job, open a business, or go to a Japanese university.  I can't help compare their experience to that of those who came to work "on the economy" in local jobs where they were hired for their English skills.  Almost all had a least a BA, so the real difference could be one of resources.  In a couple of cases connections were important - they already had a family member living in Japan and they lived with them until they found their feet.

Why am I so interested in this?  Am I simply being a "spoiler of fun" and all around buzzkiller?  I would defend my interest (if I must) and Sommer's hypothesis for two reasons:  1. It's my passion and I really want to dig into migration puzzles like this one.  Sommers asks good questions and right now my answer to them is "I'm not sure but I'll take that hypothesis and run with it."  Even if it takes me into uncomfortable territory.  And that alone is good enough for me.  

But then there is the second reason which concerns all of us.  One of our (Americans abroad) arguments against the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and for Residence-based Taxation (RBT) is that we are better characterized as working people with average incomes and assets, and not professional class or above, champagne-swilling, sushi-eating elite "expats."  We even write books that homelanders read about how how our experiences have greatly enriched us personally and professionally. And then we turn around and ask them to support us in our efforts to only be taxed in our host countries. It's not just the mixed message here, it's the fact that we have precious little proof that we are what we say we are. We know what we personally experience, we listen to our friends, but we know precious little about other Americans around the world or even in the next city.  And I think this matters a lot to how credible we are in this fight.

Sommers gives us one place we could start and he is to be commended for that.  But we need more data, more studies to support or refute what he has to say.  I would say that we need more studies about migrants from developed countries period.  A lot of government policies about immigration in the countries I have cited in this post are based on perceptions.  It's no different with emigration. We can kick back and listen to some politician or government bureaucrat tell us who we are (and grumble because we don't like it) or we can know ourselves and tell them with data to back it up.

And if it happens that the data show that some of us are, indeed, economic migrants?  So what?

It takes a lot of courage to pack up and leave and it takes a lot of hard word to build a life in another country with few resources.  We can be proud of ourselves for going where the work was, and there is nothing about that that says "failure" to me.

That's my unvarnished take on it, mes amis.  But I'm very interested in hearing what you think.  So fire away.


Ellen Lebelle said...

When I came to France to live, I was still finishing up my senior year in college. I was a newly-wed. I didn't come here to teach, but when it came time to look for a job, well, what could I do? You know how diploma-conscious the French are! I had a B.A. with a major in French, heavily dosed with International Relations. Berlitz was recruiting, so I went to Berlitz. Sometimes, when engaged with an interesting student, I wondered if I could work for their company. I even wondered out loud occasionally and the answer was "no", I didn't have the right diploma.
I made a first effort to get a "licence" back in 1973 or '74. That didn't work out; too discouraging as they had put me into 3rd year English and I had never had linguistics before. I found the dictées in phonetics to be useless. I really wanted to do history, even if that meant starting in 1st year, but they wouldn't let me. Plus, I was working full time.... So, I taught English because, according to the French, that was the only thing I could do.
Eventually, when I was 40, I did return to university and got a licence, followed the next year with a maitrise -- "Civilisation américaine" -- so still in English studies. I even took and passed the certification exam to teach in the school system and did that for a while, finally giving up in 2000. Then, I discovered technical communication. I loved that.
If I hadn't become an English teacher, "par défaut", what would I have rather done? I don't know any more. I was interested in the world of finance and banking back when I was a teacher at Berlitz.

Inaka Nezumi said...

Who is it that objects to the term "economic migrant"? I thought that going where the jobs are is considered a matter of course. And immigrant-heavy countries tend to lionize their immigrants who came for that very reason. So I don't see why some migrants would object to that label. I would expect them to treat it as matter-of-fact, or even a heroic throwback to their own revered ancestors.

Actually, I used to know some English teachers who were quite proud of how much they were pulling down, or used to be making in bubblier times. Of course those sweet deals are long gone now, and I don't get the impression that teaching English really provides an economic incentive to migrate any more. It might be a lateral move at best, so creating low resistance to migrating. But most native-speaking English teachers could probably have done better in their home countries, even with liberal arts degrees, if they had really wanted to. Some people skills and English writing ability would open a lot more doors in an English-speaking country than in Japan -- management, sales, consulting, real estate, entrepreneurship... All jobs that cannot really be done in Japan without good Japanese ability, except perhaps in a few small niche situations.

So it is kind of hard for me to see them as economic migrants. More like, economics were not a big bar to entry. And of course, once having settled down in-country for a while, economics can become a reason to stay -- mortgage, health insurance, pension and other non-easily-transferable ties that develop.

More data would definitely be good, though. Indeed, it is hard to convince the folks back in the old country what its emigrants really are like if we don't know ourselves.

Inaka Nezumi said...

Following up, I think more middle-of-the-road occupations (somewhere between English teachers and banking executives) might be more susceptible to economic incentives to migrate. Thinking primarily technical/scientific/medical/IT fields, where the basic job qualifications are relatively country-independent (the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, and computer programming languages, are constant around the world), so there are relatively few barriers to migration. But particular job opportunities or research areas may be better funded in one country than another, leading to migration pressures. Otherwise known as brain drain.

But even there, the very transportability of the occupation suggests that other factors may dominate the migration decision.

Definitely could use more data!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Ellen, Thank you for sharing that. The job market in France is notoriously hard to break into. Even young French struggle which is why my nephew is now abroad - the endless internships and short-term contracts.So many occupations require certification - teachers, of course, but also (as we found out) coaching in a gym. To be a paid coach you must study for a year and alternate it with unpaid work under a certified one. A year is a long time to be without income. I really admire your persistance. I had many talks with Jen about technical communication and that is a very interesting field.

I, too, had some pressure to move into EFL. It seems to be a very common path into which foreigners are ever so gently guided. It's as if the natives look at us and say "Round Peg. Round Hole."

My first job in France was "Assistant to the Director" of a small science NGO. That's code for "secretary." :-) It was an interesting place and I learned a lot about space science. But it was also a complete dead-end as far as professional mobility and while it had some perks it was also really poorly paid work and my degree in politicial Science was pretty much useless in a sea of people with PhD's. But it was work and at the time I was really grateful to have it. As you said, What else was I going to do? But when I had the chance (we were in the US for a few years because of my husband's work) I went to a community college to study IT. And when we came back to France it was the ramp-up to Y2K and the Euro. Every SSII was begging for IT workers and I didn't have any trouble finding a job in IT.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Nezumi-san, The waters are really muddy and it is hard to get any clarity. In my study and Dr. Amanda von Koppenfel's study of Americans in Europe people didn't like the word "migrant." Take "economic" on to that and people really get riled. And that makes sense because "economic migrant" in the US, Canada and the UK is associated with poor, unskilled migrants fleeing deprivation and lack of opportunity in the their home countries. And, yes, that's not them.

But that's not how the word is used in other contexts It can just mean a migrant who has (among others) economic reasons for crossing borders: a job or some sort of economic opportunity which (hopefully) means a better standard of living. This definition includes a very broad spectrum of people. A French engineer who gets a better paying job in California and moves there for that reason is without a doubt motivated at least in part by economics.

Could they have done better in the home country? I think that depends on a lot of things of which the degree is only one factor. The school matters as well as other resources like connections and other forms of capital. A person from a solidly upper middle class family has a lot more going for him than just a diploma. Bill Gates is a great example. The media like to portray his "rags to riches" rise. I call BS. His father was a corporate lawyer and his mother was a noted philanthropist and socialite in Seattle. When Bill dropped out of college Mom activated her connections and Microsoft was born.

Compare that to someone from a working class or lower middle class background who is the first person in the family to go off to college which they have been told is the ticket to the middle-class. The student loans are an investment to propel the kid into white-collar work. When he goes looking for a job after graduation his mother can't just call the wife of an IBM executive to help him and they can't pay back his student loans. He HAS to find a job with a high enough salary to cover those loans and still eat. Going back to school is not the answer because it means more debt. A lower-middle class job like clerical work does not represent a great ROI given the cost of getting a degree. Yes, the economy gets better and opportunities become available and I think you're right that they might have done much better at home. Eventually. But they may not have had the time to wait it out.

That's my perspective from what I admit is a working-class/lower middle class background with a degree in a subject that I loved from what was at the time a so-so university. In that light my father's advice to be "practical" had some merit. But if I had been truly practical I would have gone to a community college for a technical certificate or something along those lines. Which I eventually did 10 years later. And it paid off.

But I can't take my personal experience and argue that this represents some sort of larger phenomenon. I am truly frustrated by the lack of data on developed country migrants. Ther seems to be almost no curiosity about their social and economic position before leaving the home country relative to the host country. We just throw around words like "professional," "privileged," "skilled/highly skilled" and so on. We use educational attainment as a proxy for socioeconomic status which I think is a real mistake. But I don't have the data to support it. But I am motivated to look for it. I'm a little stunned that very few people are. As if we have something to fear. I don't get it.