2020 has been a challenging year. Freedoms curtailed. Plans compromised. Routines disrupted.
People living in real fear, often for the first time. Facing levels of uncertainty beyond their experience.
A silent assassin floating on the very air we breathe. Weaponising human contact and personal interaction. Thinning the herd as it picks off the disadvantaged, the old, the sick, and the vulnerable.
It sounds like the setting for a young adult dystopian novel. Crushing futility. Despair. Hopelessness. The only thing missing is the unlikely Katniss Everdeen style underdog, possessing Greta Thunberg levels of rage and stubbornness worthy of Zeno the Stoic, to triumph over adversity and save the day.
And yet, against that bleak backdrop, there are positive signs nearly everywhere I look.
People taking stock of their lives.
Re-evaluating their circumstances, goals, and priorities.
Taking decisive action to better themselves and improve their lot in life.
Emigrating abroad. Going back to school. Leaving the big city. Re-skilling. Starting a business.
Whether driven by choice or circumstance, the promise of new beginnings inspiring dreams of a better future.
It is these people who are the underdogs in the story of 2020. Taking control of their own destiny.
Charting a different course. Deciding not to join the cacophony of rent-seekers demanding the government bail them out. Handouts. Mortgage holidays. State-aid. Subsidies. Tax breaks.
Migration has been a topical subject in my world recently. Several acquaintances, former colleagues, and even a few friends have packed up their lives in search of opportunities further afield.
More are actively considering the idea.
Fearing being caught in a post-Brexit confluence of longer-term demographic and structural trends.
The realisation that remote working isn’t a temporary workaround. It is here to stay.
The 2020s evolution of the white-collar work environment. Just as the 2010s brought the gig economy and hot-desking. Offshoring in the 2000s. Outsourcing in the 1990s. Computers back in the 1980s.
Reversing the 250 year-long trend of people needing to move to the expensive big city for work.
Like many countries in the developed world, the United Kingdom has an organic birth rate incapable of sustaining its existing population. Even before the current pandemic induced financial uncertainties, the rate of live births per woman was near record lows.
Meanwhile, a generation of nationalistic politicians have campaigned on the promise of greatly reduced immigration. A seemingly popular platform, supported by legions of predominantly white “left behind” voters residing outside of London.
Once upon a time, the United Kingdom made a compelling case to host the regional operations of multinationals seeking a gateway to Europe. Access to the common market. English language skills. Political stability. Strong rule of law. Well-educated population.
After Brexit, the United Kingdom reverts to a small isolated local market with expensive employees, that has spent the last few years displaying on the world stage discord, dishonesty, and dysfunction.
A market serviceable by small local sales offices. No longer justifying a regional headquarters presence.
Those demographic and structural forces combine to raise an uncomfortable question: where is the ongoing demand required to continue driving London property prices upwards going to come from?
Will Great Britain remain a destination of choice for the next generation of “greater fools”? Or will it echo Argentina’s experience, crumbling from global top 10 economy to shambles in under a century?
Bright prospects and booming economies attract business and create jobs. The inverse is also true.
Which leaves London based knowledge workers facing a dilemma.
Are their long term career prospects and salaries more certain at home or abroad?
What opportunities will be on offer for their children, when they enter the workforce?
Questions that can only be answered with certainty in hindsight. Until then there is only assumption, educated guesses, and risk management.
The decision to migrate is a big one. Expensive. Life-changing. Stressful. With a host of unexpected challenges and unintended consequences.
Today’s post looks at the migration experience, based upon my own misadventures. This post is in response to some reader requests to elaborate on some aspects of a recent comment I left over at SavingNinja. The usual disclaimers apply. Sample size of one. Your mileage may vary.
Moving to a new location is challenging at the best of times. Moving to a new country even more so.
Imagine a world where everything works differently to what you are used to.
Customs. Laws. Social conventions.Taxes.
Normal to everyone who was raised with them. Foreign, and often slightly bizarre, to the outsider.
Throw in a potential language barrier, and you start to picture how daunting a challenge migration is.
Yet as the old legal principle goes “ignorance of the law excuses no one”.
Nobody cares that you are new in town. That nothing makes sense.
The aloof seeming natives aren’t being rude, when viewed from their perspective nothing is amiss and everything is functioning the way it is supposed to. They didn’t ask you to come. If asked, many of them would actively not want you to be there at all: “Driving up property prices! Taking our jobs! Not paying taxes!“
When migrating you have left a place of unconscious certainty, where you intuitively understood how and why things work the way they do. Conditioned to acceptance. Educated in where to look and who to ask should things be unclear. Surrounded by a support network of people with more experience than you.
As a migrant, you are alone in unfamiliar surroundings. Stumbling in the dark. Often lacking the basic vocabulary and language skills required to start finding answers to the torrent of questions and unknowns you will undoubtedly experience.
At the beginning of the journey, a vicious circle often forms.
You can’t rent accommodation without a job.
You can’t get a job without a bank account.
You can’t open a bank account without a tax identifier.
You can’t obtain a tax identifier without a permanent address.
The time it takes to obtain a tax identifier varies by jurisdiction, but it is seldom a quick process. For example, in the United Kingdom it can take up to eight weeks. An eternity when you are living on the rapidly diminishing savings you brought from your home country. A period of purgatory during which you may find yourself unable to (legally) earn an income and ineligible for social security.
The shock to your confidence that this delay inflicts should not be underestimated. You are out of your comfort zone. Technically homeless. Probably unemployed. Haemorrhaging money with little means of staunching the flow. Gnawing doubts and suffocating uncertainties abound!
Did you make the right decision?
How long can your savings be made to last?
Why is migrating like coping with a newborn infant, where nobody talks about how difficult it really is?
Will there be a happily ever after? Or is your inner saboteur correct in claiming that happy endings only occur in brothels and fairy tales?
The first six months of a migration are attritional. Brutal. Character building. An emotional rollercoaster that tests even the strongest of relationships.
The good news is that many, but not all, migrants do eventually navigate their way out of that vicious circle. More than a few hit eject and bail out. Decide it is all too hard. Return from whence they came.
Some migrants obtain sponsored employment before they arrive in their new country.
This can make the migration journey a much smoother one, providing the job works out. Visa conditions vary, but it can be very difficult to change employers when the ask includes taking over a sponsorship. That puts all but the most niche skilled of sponsored employees in a very weak negotiating position, entirely at the mercy of their employer.
A large investment bank in Hong Kong once offered me a sponsored “dream job”, complete with a generous relocation package. A week after I was due to commence work, cost-cutting measures eliminated the position and made redundant the entire team I would have joined!
I had ultimately turned down the role because the visa conditions meant my lady wife would not have been allowed to work in Hong Kong. A lucky escape in hindsight, but an opportunity that in reflective moments still occasionally has me wondering “what if?”.
When migrating as a couple, the non-sponsored spouse may experience many of the challenges described above, or visa conditions may preclude them from undertaking paid work entirely.
Professional identity threatened.
Relationship balance of power altered.
Combine these with some culture shock and a liberal dose of homesickness, and it is not surprising that the number one reason that migrations fail is an unhappy spouse who wants to return home.
Experiencing a new culture when on holidays is an exciting adventure.
New sights. Sounds. Smells. Tastes. Observations and insights.
A brief introduction, before returning home to regale friends and family with tales of all the weird and wonderful experiences you enjoyed or endured.
Migration takes that adventure to a whole new level. Total immersion. No escape.
The culture shock of that immersion can be overwhelming at times.
The food is different. Much of what you used to eat at home is now unavailable. The rest is difficult to obtain, expensive, or tastes different. In its place is a whole new world of products that the locals happily enjoy. Requiring you to experiment and relearn to adapt and survive.
Those favourite coffees, cafes, restaurants, and treats of old quickly become overfond memories. Rose-coloured reminiscence elevating them to a pedestal they can rarely live up to in real life.
Care package comforts from concerned family back home during those trying early months.
Things long taken for granted at home become noticeable in their absence. A friend who migrated to Australia a couple of years ago was dismayed by some of the differences. How could anybody survive without Amazon shopping? Cope with embarrassingly slow internet? Have to pay eye-watering prices for fresh fruit and vegetables?
Weren’t all these things basic human rights?
Perhaps you have a resume full of locally respected firms and attended a leading domestic university. Impressive at home, but if the names were not international top tier brands, such as McKinsey or Oxford, then they carry little weight in your new locale.
Your accustomed sense of conferred status and entitlement suddenly humbled with an ego-bruising thud!
One of the biggest challenges facing new migrants is the cultural knowledge gap.
In your home country, you were familiar with the local celebrities. Folklore. Politicians. Sportspeople.
You understood the tribal identities and beliefs.
You knew who were lionised as heroes or painted as villains.
The shared anecdotes. Collective experiences. Cultural references.
In your new home, you will have limited and patchy knowledge of all those things. Over time that knowledge gap reduces, but it never fully goes away.
For example, in the United Kingdom cultural shorthand regularly includes references to Thatcher’s Britain. Blitz spirit. Eton old boys’ club. The 1966 World Cup. The “hand of God”.
Imagine hearing those terms without understanding the historical significance or cultural context.
Trying to figure out why some former political leaders such as John Major and Gordon Brown are respected elder statesmen, yet others like Tony Blair and David Cameron are persona non grata.
Now expand that sense of bewilderment to popular culture touchstones such as Blue Peter. Carol Vorderman. George Best. Grange Hill. Mr Tumble. Only Fools and Horses. Top of the Pops.
Instantly relatable for natives who grew up with them, yet unfamiliar and inexplicable to newcomers.
Many new migrants struggle with an unexpected coldness or disinterest from loved ones back home.
There are a few aspects to this.
First, you packed up and left. Abandoned them. Turned your back on the lives that they, and until very recently you, happily lived and shared. That stings a bit!
You may have taken away their nieces, nephews, or grandchildren.
Your parents may feel that they can no longer count on you as a viable caregiver or someone who will keep an eye on them as the frailties of age start to catch up with them.
Absent from spontaneous social events. Missing minor milestones. After work drinks. Helping move house. Relationship breakups. Sporting triumphs. Weekend barbecues.
You may only be a phone call away, but it isn’t the same.
When you do fly in to attend the major events, your very presence becomes an event, stealing some of the limelight. Birthdays. Graduations. Weddings. Funerals.
Be prepared to miss a number of those milestone events. Visa renewals can take up to six months at a time to process, during which you may not have access to your passport.
The applicant faces a tough no-win decision. Request your passport back early, lose their place in the queue, and jeopardise your ability to remain in the new country. Or pass up the chance to see your little sister get married, or meet those newborn nieces and nephews in person.
Finding a sympathetic ear may prove difficult. The trials of migrating perceived to be self-inflicted wounds, easily remedied by moving back home. Pretty soon you may find yourself starting to censor what you talk about. Choosing mostly safe topics of conversation.
Second, you are growing and evolving. Opening your mind and spreading your wings. New experiences coming thick and fast. Some good. Others less so.
Meanwhile, your colleagues, family, and friends back home lead largely unchanged lives.
Doing the same things. In the same places. With the same people.
Unable to relate to all the different things you are experiencing in your new home. Some may feign interest, because you find it interesting. Others will get defensive, perceiving judgement in comparisons and threat in differences observed.
You realise you need to find a new peer group to share your adventures with. That you are leaving your old life behind.
Third, when you do return home for a visit it can be a bittersweet experience.
Things will seem smaller and less satisfying than they had in your rose-coloured memories. You no longer fit quite the way you used to. Social circles evolved to your absence. Moving on without you.
The thought occurs that you are now an outsider both at home and in your new locale.
The ex-pat trap
A common crutch for the new migrant is to seek out other members of the diaspora.
Fellow ex-pats with familiar accents who are slightly further along the journey. Sharing hard-won wisdom and insights that may help avoid some of the early traps and common pitfalls.
Ex-pat groups can be a double-edged sword. Transient. Often populated with people seeking to recreate a pale imitation of their old lives in a new place. An endeavour doomed to failure.
At first, they can provide a welcoming respite from the loneliness and uncertainty. A shared cultural past and common identity providing an instant bond.
After a while, an inherent dichotomy becomes apparent. By embracing a familiar bubble of outsiders, ex-pats resist integrating with the new. Slowing the pace at which they start to feel at home in their newly adopted culture.
A valuable community, but one that long term migrants tend to outgrow.
One thing ex-pats are great for is advice on niche topics of interest to a vanishingly small pool of people just like you. Visa requirements and processing times. Double taxation treaties. Pension transfers. The implications of changing tax residency, such as triggering capital gains tax events or losing access to tax-advantaged accounts.
Migration is an adventure. A huge leap into the unknown, without a safety net.
In some ways it resembles raising very young children. Challenging during, while you often wonder what you have done to your life and when it will get easier? Then rewarding after the fact, in hindsight.
The potential for personal growth, career advancement, and (sometimes) wealth generation is great.
It provides a unique opportunity to reinvent yourself. A fresh start free of baggage, history, and pre-conceived ideas about what you are capable of. A chance to shed the monkey off your back, away from family expectations, cliquey social circles, and suffocating closed minds.
Migration is also a risky proposition. Fraught with stress and uncertainty.
Yet for many of us, the worst that may happen is we slink home with broken dreams, injured pride, a lighter wallet, and are briefly forced to eat some humble pie.
A small price to pay for a grand adventure, particularly if the reward is the chance of a better future for ourselves or our kids.
- Beattie, A. (2009), ‘Argentina: The superpower that never was’, Financial Times
- Collins, S. (2008), ‘The Hunger Games’, Scholastic Press
- Ipsos (2019), ‘Attitudes towards immigration’
- Laërtius, D. (~250CE), ‘Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers’, translated by Hicks, R.D. (1925)
- Mrs SavingNinja (2020), ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’, TheSavingNinja
- Office of National Statistics (2020), ‘Births in England and Wales: summary tables‘
- Thunberg, G. (2019), ‘No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference‘, Penguin Books
- Gov.uk (2020), ‘Apply for a National Insurance number‘