Lots of young and educated Americans are expatriating from the United States, more than ever before. Why? Here are a few of our theories, based on interviews with 27 Americans living in Buenos Aires.
1. The Rat Race
Many of the Americans interviewed mentioned their dissatisfaction with the “rat race”, the “fast pace of life”, the “competitive” atmosphere and the “work-oriented lifestyle” in the United States. According to them, Americans place too much emphasis on professional success and spend too much time working.
“We wanted to slow down our life because we were both working days, nights and weekends. In the states, you know, I was working 70 hours a week. Working 8 to 8 is “you’re a slacker”. Be there earlier, stay later, work Saturdays…”
“You don’t realize but you get into such a routine in the States, and especially in the bigger cities, it’s such a rat race. And in New York if you weren’t the best and the fastest at your job, there were 2 people waiting behind you, waiting to take it, even when there wasn’t a crisis”
In the United States there seems to be a pressure to be “productive” and “goal-oriented” at all times, which is why these Americans felt that they had to leave the country in order to find a better work-life balance. This lack of an acceptable work-life balance in the United States is also reflected in how, compared to other first world countries, Americans workers have less job security and benefits, such as fewer vacation and sick days.
2. The Current Job Market
What’s very interesting is that while in the United States there is a lot of importance placed on one’s professional life, the job market for college graduates has been in a downward spiral for the past decade. Aside from growing redundancy numbers, about half of recent college grads in the United States are unemployed or sub-employed (working in a job that doesn’t require a college degree). The workers hit the hardest by this job market crisis have been predominantly young college grads with “less technical” degrees. Coincidentally, the majority of the Americans living in Buenos Aires interviewed for this project have degrees in the arts and social sciences.
The worst years of the financial crisis in the United States, 2008 and 2009, directly affected several of the Americans living in Buenos Aires that I interviewed. Some had been laid off, and others hadn’t been able to find a decent job after graduation.
“I graduated college early in December 2009 and I moved to Seattle with one of my sorority sisters to get a job. But you know in 2009 was when our market collapsed. There were no jobs, everyone got laid off. Now that I’m a headhunter and I talk to people, like interview about their jobs everyday, so many people I talk to got laid off in 2009. It blows my mind. There were no jobs. I started with things that I had experience with, in my major, art history. I started with museums cause I knew how to mat and frame so I thought I could get a job as a framer. Nothing. I couldn’t even get a job at Starbucks. It was awful. I must have applied for like 600 jobs and I didn’t even get responses”
“2008 was the worst MBA market ever and that was when I graduated. No one was hiring”
“I got laid off in New York with the financial crisis. In March 2009.”
3. American Politics
The grand majority of the Americans living in Buenos Aires that were interviewed claimed to be politically “liberal” or “left”. The political situation in the U.S. wasn’t at all the main reason they left, but it definitely had some influence on their decision, and unfortunately for the United States, after almost a decade of the George Bush Administration, many intelligent, creative and highly educated Americans moved abroad.
Although some of the Americans that had left have since returned now that Obama is in office (and even if they haven’t, many feel the current political situation has improved in the country), that doesn’t change the fact that the United States is known internationally as one of the most “conservative” countries in the world.
“If you say socialism in the U.S. people start cocking their shot guns (laughs). But I think that’s obvious because we were a country founded by puritans, by extremely conservative people, and I firmly believe that even though centuries go by, you’ve got that root. You can develop beyond it because humans are always progressing, but you always have the root and that’s the heart of the United States”
“Even now in the 21st century, [if you say] socialist party, communist party, they come after you with pitchforks”
In fact, several of the Americans interviewed mentioned that when you leave the U.S. it’s necessary to “shift your understanding of the political spectrum” since in the United States “leans more to the right” than the rest of the world. In other words, our left is less left than the left in other countries, and our right is more right that the right in other countries. Or something like that.
“There’s left and right in the States, but our left is still more towards the center or center-right. The left here makes our left look pretty conservative”
“The political spectrum in the U.S. is just shifted so much to the right to the point where a conservative here, like say Sebastian Piñera of Chile, would be a democrat in the United States. Or that Angela Merkel, who is center-right in Germany, would be a democrat in the U.S. The spectrum is so much to the right that I had to sort of re-center what I understood about international politics and political beliefs”
4. Conservative, structured, materialistic, corporate-oriented America
The right-oriented political spectrum has certainly influenced the culture in the United States, and many of the Americans that move abroad do so to escape the “puritan”, “moralistic” and “socially conservative” society in their home country. One clear example of this, according to several of the Americans interviewed, is the very conservative attitudes towards provocative clothing in the United States.
“Just look at our bathing suits. I went to Brazil and I totally had my whole butt-coverage bathing suit and everyone else just had their thongs. I mean that right there, something so simple, shows how conservative we actually are compared to other people”
“I wore an outfit, I was going out in Boise, [and someone said to me] “that’s kind of sexy to wear out” and I was like, “I would wear this to work in Buenos Aires””
Other more conservative aspects of the society that these Americans had direct issues with included the discrimination of homosexuals and individuals of hispanic origin. According to John Wennersten, who wrote the book Leaving America, ”Americans with marginal lifestyles, such as homosexuals or those with a preference for tattoos and pierced noses, are attracted abroad to places that tolerate their lifestyles”.
“If you were Hispanic, anything goes. I had tacos thrown at me, people would call me “spic”, “wet back”, they wouldn’t want to touch me thinking they were gonna get a disease. Mexican jokes..”
“My sexuality is way less of an issue here than it would be in the United States”
Conservative society also tends to promote violence, another aspect of American culture that chases away these liberals. Whether it’s war, the police-state atmosphere, or violence resulting from poor gun control (shootings in schools, coffee shops and movie theaters that have become almost common-place since the turn of the century), these liberals want nothing to do with it.
“Look at this Columbine culture in the U.S., like every 6 months some angst ridden teenager is shooting up their high school or their university”
“What the hell is with the TSA? That is ridiculous. I got so many pat downs. Is this Nazi Germany?”
Another aspect of a conservative society that motivates expatriation is the overly “structured” atmosphere and pressure to always “conform” and be “correct”. Many of the Americans interviewed felt that in the United States there are a lot of “rules” and “pressure to conform” to society’s “rigid” expectations. As we learned here, it’s those that are more politically conservative that value structure and maintaining the status quo, not the more progressive members of society.
“In the US […] you have to stick to a certain schedule, you know everything is in its order, in its place”
“I just find that [in] the States there’s a lot of pressure to be correct and society determines what is correct […] and I find that there’s just a lot of pressure to conform.”
“One of the things for us that we didn’t like about the States was always, you know, we had good credit and everything, but just that credit check to rent an apartment, just that constant “you have to be in the system” and “you have to be a certain way” and I just kind of like things being a little more loose. We like things being functional but just to where you don’t have the pressure of, if your grass dies you have to run to Home Depot and buy grass or you get a little note from the Homeowner’s Association. Because we lived that. Messiness allows a certain level of tranquility that you don’t have when you live in a society that’s very rigid.”
According to these Americans, another negative aspect of this “structured” environment is the narrow and conventional “path” society expects them to follow: finish college, get a good job, get married, have kids, and in the meantime, accumulate wealth. In the United States, they perceive “excessive life and career planning” (- Judith Freidenberg).
“When you grow up in Ohio you have one path pretty much, and that path is go to college, get a job, get married, have children, and you never actually grow up knowing that you could do anything besides that, you don’t realize you could really travel, go places, you know, do whatever you want. That’s not an option, so I just was very unhappy with that life”
“Everything is so structured and there’s a life plan, a path and you’re kind of expected to follow, and even if you don’t want to follow it you kind of find yourself on it because everyone around you, everything you experience, kind of leads you to that path. Maybe your friends are getting married and buying a house and having kids, like my friends that are doing that, and that’s fine, but I don’t think that’s for me”
On the other hand, the competitive success-driven atmosphere and subsequent wealth of the country has also impacted the culture, bombarding Americans with marketing and publicity, in turn fostering materialism and greed. I personally believe that this dangerous combination is, in part, responsible for the psychological conditions and epidemics such as obesity and hoarding.
“I see a life in the U.S. as very materialistic, and it’s not necessarily bad, I’m not pointing a finger like “oh you consumers, you guys love your stuff and your McDonald’s”. It’s not like that, but the life that my family, my sister, my friends, the life they live revolves around a lot of things that I don’t really care about”
“I had wanted to figure out what I wanted without being told what I wanted whether it was by a television commercial or a fashion magazine”
This materialistic atmosphere seems linked to a growing “corporate-oriented” and society, where corporations and capitalism rule at the expense of people. This situation has inspired the recent “We are the 99%” and “Take Back Wall Street” social movements that criticize massive corporate earnings and the widening global economic gap between the masses and the few individuals that control the majority of the wealth.
“I just have this overwhelming impression that the United States does a really excellent job, which I find poisonous, propagating the company line, that’s so well thought out because we are the key to products. That bothers me. It’s pollution of the mind”
Let’s go even further…this corporate-oriented culture means that access and quality of basic necessities and public services, such as education, healthcare, and even our food and the environment, are at risk. These aspects of society are just another way businesses make money in the United States, leaving citizens in debt and at-risk as they watch (consciously or not) their quality of life and personal safety take second place to the earnings of major corporations, insurance companies, hospitals, food producers and educational institutions.
“A lot of the gay guys I know down here in AA have HIV and some of them come down here to get HIV treatment, free. That’s something I found interesting. Which I think is such a commentary on our health care system, that people leave the country. Not having free health care in our country I think is pretty outrageous”
“I do not want my kids going to university in the states. No. […] I am still in debt. I mean it is ridiculous. I love that New York times article, the one about the student loans. I mean nobody told that girl that she was going to have $90,000 dollars of debt as a philosophy major from NYU”
5. Existential Reasons
Finally, it’s important to mention that in many cases, expatriating (or “emigrating”) had less to do with leaving the United States, and more to do with going somewhere else. Meaning, regardless of their issues with the United States, many felt compelled to move abroad, not in order to “escape” something, but rather in order to “find” something.
I believe that the best theory to describe this phenomenon is “Existential Migration”, an idea proposed by Greg Madison in 2006. Unlike economic migration, simple wanderlust, exile, or variations of forced migration, “existential migration is conceived as a chosen attempt to express something fundamental about existence by leaving one’s homeland and becoming a foreigner”.
Existential migrants have very specific values: liberty, independence, experience, mystery, and they cherish what is different, unfamiliar and foreign. That means that these individuals seek out new experiences, and explore different cultures, because they feel more alive, and believe they learn more about themselves, when faced with new experiences and unfamiliar surroundings.
In my interviews with Americans living in Buenos Aires, the word “freedom” came up again and again – freedom from the rat race, freedom from society’s expectations, freedom from materialism, freedom from order and structure, and even freedom from having a car. They also told me that part of their motivation for expatriating from the U.S. was that they find their home country “boring” and “normal”, and foreign cultures “fascinating” and “exciting”. They appreciate diversity, many are self-proclaimed “xenophiles”, and many said they “enjoy” learning foreign languages . These Americans see themselves as “adventurous”, always wanting to try something “new” and “different”. Many mentioned they intentionally look for ways to “escape their comfort zone”.
“A lot of people ask me why I’m here […] and sometimes I agree, like, “why am I here?” […] the government is so corrupt and nothing works and when you compare it, it is one thing…but it’s the experience, which is what I think they don’t understand, that even though there are tough things, the experience is worth it. Even though I might have a horrible day where nobody understands me, I don’t understand anybody, and the bus doesn’t stop when I hail it. And then there are really good days where I’m with friends and we’re going in and out of two languages and I learn so much about other people, and you meet people you would never meet in the U.S. It’s just… this place fits in my life right now and it’s hard to explain that because, yea, the U.S. does have a lot more benefits than Argentina does. Here it’s like an adventure. It’s something new, it’s something different”
“The majority of Argentines would love to go to the U.S. and live there forever. A lot of Argentines I know say “oh, you’re so lucky, why do you live here when you could just go to the United States and live there forever?” Its hard to defend “why do you want to live in my country?” I try to explain it to them, where it’s all about how living abroad changes your perspective on the world. So their perspective is going to a better place and ours is more like a general perspective of leaving your comfort area and what you know to go experience something different. Not going to the better place but going to a different place”
“I think in general we’re maybe more open than the general U.S. population on average. We are more open to different things and different cultures and being flexible, obviously because we have to be flexible, but I think of the people from my hometown and the things they know about the world or [their] interest in the world, and they’re very limited, they’re not too interested in other people or other cultures and I’m very interested and I think that’s something we [Americans abroad] all share”
It’s important to mention that existential migrants make sacrifices in order to honor their values and follow their hearts. These values even take priority over security and belonging, as some of the Americans interviewed have made these sacrifices in order to live abroad. In fact, some of the interviewees left stable jobs behind, even in the middle of a crisis, to pursue their existential needs through expatriation.
“I feel productive when I’m learning a language or something. You know? It’s a good feeling for me. I really enjoy that feeling, rather than just going to work for a company and making a few more bucks”
“Right now if I was still in border patrol I’d probably be making 170K a year. so you see what I gave up to come over here? [But] what I’ve gained as far as experience, life experiences, cannot compare to the money I would have earned”