Colin Nagy, Skift
As the cushy expat gigs wind down in the world, what is needed from a policy standpoint to attract the new generation of talented, remote workers who can go wherever they please? And what does it all mean for travel’s ecosystem?
One of the casualties of globalization, hyper-connectedness, direct flights, rising levels of nationalism — and a global pandemic — is most certainly the plum expat gig.
It’s not only a job but an aesthetic of sorts. The lifestyle is perpetuated mostly by large multinationals (think finance and insurance) and characterized by cushier-than-normal living.
Twenty years ago, if you were a New York-based banker that moved to Hong Kong for work, your very nice housing on the Peak was paid for, as was your children’s private school, and exclusive club membership. In many ways, these types of expats lived in bubbles where they mostly engaged with their own kind — the country they were parked in was little more than window dressing.
It was also a lingering vestige of colonialism — and all of the negative airs of superiority that implies. Many of those living this lifestyle followed a similar route to the one their countries had taken: Brits into Hong Kong, the French to Southeast Asia, etc. And, like earlier colonial caricatures, expat living was generally a bubble designed to cushion “hardship” assignments far from the comforts of home. The world has obviously changed a great deal and many of those countries once looked at as adventure assignments are better operated and more sophisticated than an expat’s home country. And, of course, expats had many touch points to the global travel economy, that will presumably no longer exist.
But, as the travel industry reels from the re-alignment of the world, it also begs the question of what will replace the expat archetype of old?
With the acceleration of remote work, we can read the tea leaves of what places like Barbados and Estonia are trying to do: make their countries palatable for the rise of workers that don’t need to set foot in an office and are intrigued with a better quality of life, cost of living and a life reboot of sorts. Current visa schemes aren’t super easy for people right now, leading to undignified border runs to re-set the clock on a visa, or other less-than-easy methods. The rise of the so-called digital nomad represents a valuable opportunity for countries to bolster their coffers.
But it won’t be smooth sailing in the transition from the old expat lifestyle into this new frontier: expect some tumult on the horizon as the world re-aligns.
One of the most frequent expat landing pads, Singapore, is in the middle of a revolt of sorts. With a slowing economy, high-paid expats are becoming mini-pariahs, and as unemployment rises among nationals, there’s quite a bit of tension. Bloomberg reports: “The uncertain job prospects, online commentary and stricter conditions risk making Singapore a less welcoming destination just as the city-state needs foreign investment the most. And as workplaces clamp down on hiring it could further limit the options for expats who have long seen a stint in Asia as an important and lucrative experience.”
This was quite predictable in the short to medium term. As formerly “emerging” economies surge and improve, and education levels across all sectors (not just finance and business) rise, there’s less need to port in talent from abroad. In addition, pressure on the balance sheets of multinationals means that some of these excessive packages to executives have been pared back. Hong Kong isn’t exactly Yemen or a diplomatic hardship post where you need to pay far above market to get someone to go. Should a modern company be paying for a driver and household service for someone on a two-year stint in a modern Asian city?
The one thing that will keep the expat archetype around (though perhaps with lesser creature comforts and fewer drivers) is the need for executives to get their ticket punched: launching products in new places, or understanding market fit with a different consumer class. It is hard to think that brands like LVMH or L’Oreal won’t be still doing that 20 years into the future. But their social circles of other expats gathering in exclusive clubs will surely be smaller. Which is probably a good thing.
And as the world re-aligns into new ways of working that don’t involve taking the 7:06 from Greenwich into Grand Central Station, there’s an opportunity for smart countries to re-align themselves to attract the new, increasingly mobile workforce, new digital nomads. It is one of the new, regulatory challenges of the 21st century, not unlike much needed the on-demand economy debates, that will have increasing and urgent importance to solve in creative ways.