Living and Working Abroad in the 21st Century

CM Patha Chevening Alumna, Canada

If you live and work abroad, do you see yourself as an expat or as an immigrant?

Neither? That’s not surprising because those are outdated 20th century concepts for 20th century ways of living abroad. They continue to exist, but the 21st century is giving rise to an entirely new lifestyle that is having a profound impact on global cities, societies and economies, yet it’s hiding in plain sight. I call it roaming.

Roamers choose to live internationally, seeking an education and jobs away from home. They may live full-time in a foreign country, perhaps they've even acquired a local passport, but they've not committed to staying for good. They're living in their adopted country "for now." They'd never consider themselves immigrants.

Nor, however, would they consider themselves expats. Expats have an economic advantage over locals and most roamers do not. If expats work for a multinational company, they’ll be granted extra compensation for the “inconvenience” of living away from home. Roamers, on the other hand, actively seek out an international career and do not receive extra recompense for living abroad. Roamers are living in foreign countries because they offer better career prospects, more intellectual stimulation, or adventure. Where expats are living ex patria (“away from the fatherland”) and expect to be repatriated back home, roamers may never return to their home country and often grapple with the once simple question, "Where's home?" In the same way that 20 years ago, we all had a fixed telephone line and a fixed idea of home, today roamers have mobile phones and a mobile notion of home.

Lawmakers still think the ideal model of citizenship is reflected in John F. Kennedy’s patriotic appeal: 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.' Legislators have no clue what to do with an entire group of people who respond, 'I love my country, but I wouldn’t want to actually live there.' Passports and citizenship are meant to imply certain loyalties, predispositions and final abodes, but they may no longer indicate any of that at all. In the same way that religions have a secular and pious divide, we may be witnessing a nascent split between fervent patriots on one side and agnostic citizens on the other. You’ve probably heard someone say, 'I’m a lapsed Catholic'. Might people likewise start confessing, 'I’m Canadian, but I’m not practicing'?

As careers in a globalised world increasingly require us to move to foreign countries, roaming is becoming ever more common. It raises important questions for individuals, families, and governments: How can societies cope with this constant flux of people moving into and out of their country? Is roaming good or bad for local jobs and the economy? Can roamers ever move back to their home country and if they do, are they happy? In the next few weeks, I’ll be tackling these questions and more in the Chevening blog.

In the meantime, feel free to join my Roaming Facebook group and post your thoughts there.