The United States we know today exists thanks to immigration, which has been an integral part of the shaping of the country in political, economic, social and cultural terms from its early beginnings until today.
In fact, we focus so much on immigration (moving to a foreign country) that very often we forget about its counterpart: emigration (leaving your home country). Although the US is the #1 immigration destination in the world (it receives more immigration than all other countries in the world combined), a tradition of emigration has existed in the country since its humble beginnings.
The Evolution of American Expatriation
Historical expatriation included those fleeing times of war, business and religious missions, and of course, the various waves of American expats that moved to Europe in search of alternative lifestyles and cultural opportunities. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that the expatriation trend really started to pick up steam.
In the 1920s we first started hearing the word “expat” in the United States in reference to the hundreds of Americans that moved to Europe (especially to the most well-known cities, like Paris and London), attracted by the culture and low cost of living, a phenomenon known as the “Lost Generation”. These original expats were mainly “creative” types, including artists and authors such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound.
Later, during the second half of the 20th century we saw even more U.S. expatriation – World War II veterans, men escaping the Vietnam War mandatory draft, participants in the newly created international programs the Peace Corps and Fulbright, and of course those taking advantage of the newly open East after the end of the Cold War.
Since then, thanks to technological advances, the globalization of the economy, the growing phenomenon of traveling, working, studying and volunteering abroad, and of course the new trend of teaching English abroad, the volume of Americans living overseas is growing. In fact, contrary to the popular rumor that only 10% of Americans have passports, the truth is that it is actually closer to 30% (Forbes Magazine, 2012), and the number of American college students that study abroad has increased by about 150% in the past couple decades.
Lastly, we cannot ignore the fact that there may be a correlation between growing American expatriation rates and the growing gap between rich and poor in today’s contemporary global system. The theory is that this new “world system” – which is controlled by the winners (first world countries) at the expense of the “losers” (third world countries), causing the growing economic gap between these regions – influences migratory movements from developing countries to developed countries (movements that are often categorized as “forced” due to the lack of opportunities in the country of origin). However, we believe that this same theory can, in part at least, explain the opposite current as well -from developed countries to developing countries- where in the context of the economic power of their home country, Americans not only have the means to travel and live abroad, but very often their money (from savings, pensions, social security, earnings, salaries) can yield a higher standard of living in those countries due to comparative costs of living and exchange rates.