Throughout human history, people have moved from their home nation to another for a whole list of reasons, usually in search of money whether they were poor and unemployed or rich and looking for an investment opportunity. You might say that the first group trades its labour and the other trades its money, but Marco Polo certainly was not the first of his kind. And he wasn’t just a casual visitor. His famous trip to China lasted 24 years.
A number of opinion surveys, including some very large ones taken over a period of time by Gallup, indicate that there is one primary driving factor for moving to another nation that can be summed up in one word – opportunity. It works at all class levels. Let me briefly mention the three “classes” most often associated in the past and currently with global relocation.
The “criminal class” has been international for a very, very long time. I will not waste much time on them, but they are a classic example of the free market in action. If they can make a buck in crime 10,000 miles away, then off they go to make it. Needless to say, but let’s note it, these guys are the least liked.
The “working class” are those tens of millions of people who migrate in search of employment and a decent income (as they each define it). The UN’s International organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates a global total of 214 million migrants and this is the category that includes the great majority of them. These folks are either welcomed or not, but they are frequently the target of discrimination and outright hostility. They may be accused of “taking jobs” or of “costing the taxpayers money” or simply being illegal as is often the case in some parts of the world. On the other hand, their labour is valued and has made a major difference in many a nation’s development (the US is an obvious example). There are a mixed bag of emotional reactions to this mobile working class, but they are poor and must deal with however they are seen, whether that is an accurate portrayal or not.
The “elite class” is made up of wealthy people who spend much of their time, money, and effort in nations outside their home nations, commonly owning properties in more than one nation. Chrystia Freeland does an excellent job of profiling this class in the current cover story for Atlantic magazine. Let me share one paragraph of her report.
“Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition — and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly. Perhaps most noteworthy, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home. Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves.”
That’s pretty strong language, but it makes sense. I am not a member of this “class”. I don’t have anywhere near enough money for that, but my appearances at Barron’s, the Christian Science Monitor, Reuters television, CNBC, along with my essays at various Internet new sites has allowed me the opportunity to meet some of these folks. Very nice people upon meeting them, their intelligence and drive are very noticeable.
When they discover I am not rich, about 80% of them move along as Ms. Freeland suggests, but the remaining 20% are folks who understand that financial wealth is not always a good indicator of who has something useful to offer and I enjoy their company. As for that other 80%, I find them amusing. With more than four decades of global work behind me, if I had wanted to be among their number, I would have led a very different life. I did not go that route and have not regretted it for a moment, so I wish them well, laugh to myself, and move along too.
All three of these groups, different from each other as they are, have one thing in common. They are seeking new opportunities. Each also responds to a “need” in the nation to which they choose to move. The criminal class responds to a need for something another society wants to repress or eliminate. The working class responds to a need for cheap labour. The elite class responds to a need for money, be it investment or speculation. Finally, with the huge improvements in communication and transportation, each of these classes has grown dramatically in recent decades.
But there is a missing class. Actually, they are not missing at all, but they are missed by nearly all commentators. This is the globally-mobile middle class. They bring money, but nowhere near as much as the elite class. They also bring their labour, although not always as cheaply as the working class. And they are not part of the criminal class. Although they are not as numerous as the working class, they are much, much larger in number than the other two classes and also growing rapidly.
They are typically not migrants, if you consider a migrant as someone looking for citizenship in their new country. Over the centuries, the bulk of those moving to live in another nation have been migrants as it was not easy or cheap to return home if they changed their minds. Their willingness to seek citizenship in their new nations was something very common and often just a matter of necessity.
Today, we need new words. Too many people are moving to other nations without any expectation of giving up their birthland citizenship, although they may be expecting not to return as a resident. I call them “relocators” because that is a more appropriate term than the traditional use of “migrant”. This middle class is the group that interests me most and where I have focused my research.
I can’t tell you how many people are in this globally-mobile middle class, but I can say without hesitation that they number in the tens of millions. Yes, tens of millions. Our ignorance of this class is stunning. To the very limited extent that people think of this kind of relocation, most are very specific. Americans, as one example, when asked who they think may move to live in another nation frequently mention retirees moving to warmer climates, usually in the Latin America, or of young people out to have an adventure. Having completed eight professionally-conducted surveys of large, statistically-valid samples of the US population since 2005, I can tell you flatly that neither of these groups comes anywhere near dominating this class.
The dominant group is made up of middle-aged Americans, about a quarter of whom are households of three or more people, thus children are very definitely involved too. Most surprising to most people, the number of American households considering relocation outside the US (or purchase of a property outside that is typically to be associated with later relocation) runs into the millions (that’s households, not just people). The earlier surveys served as the basis for my Barron’s article and my CNBC appearance with Erin Burnett, among others. That was back in 2007, but a follow-up survey in March of 2009, when the stock market was hitting lows along with the collapsing housing market, showed that although many had been “stalled” in their plans to relocate, the overall numbers were surprisingly resilient. If funding is found, I may be working with an American university to do a new and more detailed study in 2011. That would be very nice, but I don’t expect any reversal of a trend that has remained so steady for the six years I have already spent studying it.
But that’s just Americans. A study by Britain’s Institute for Public Policy Research a few years ago found that nearly one in 10 Britons had already moved from the UK. A summary of their results can be found at the BBC. In addition, today’s financial crisis in Europe is feeding this phenomenon. In Ireland, we hear that, “One in three Irish people aged between 18 and 24 are planning to emigrate in the next 12 months, new figures show” in an article from Irish Central. And as we hear from Reuters, some 6.5% of the Portuguese population had already emigrated by 2008 and many more are expected to have followed since (and to be following them in the near future). These are a few examples and they are hardly unusual in Europe.
But it is not just the Old World of the North Atlantic where this is occurring. Despite the common knowledge that the growth of emerging nations has led to a huge increase in people with the money and opportunity to relocate, the term “expatriate” in the Old World is typically used in reference to their citizens. In truth, there is a huge movement among others as well.
In Panama where I live now, it is no secret that the number of Venezuelans relocating here to get out of the clutches of Hugo Chavez runs in the tens of thousands. They already outnumber Americans and Canadians, and they are making investments that clearly indicate they don’t intend to leave any time soon. If Chavez is replaced at some point, it will be years before Venezuela recovers from the sharp divisions of the last decade and Venezuelans who have already made the decision to move their families and their money to Panama and other nations aren’t likely to move back until Venezuela has recovered some semblance of “normalcy”. That could take a while. But should that occur, they may still remain here with their business investments in a friendly atmosphere where they feel free and welcome. That would be no surprise. Tens of thousands of Colombians moved their families to Panama to get away from the cartel violence in past decades and, despite Colombia’s increasing success in reducing the influence of the cartels, these folks are now so integrated into Panamanian society that it is doubtful that many have any real interest in returning permanently.
Similar examples of middle class relocation can be found all over the world from South Africa to Australia to India to Russia to Brazil and in a hundred other nations. An “expat” these days is not likely to be a native English-speaker, although he or she may speak it as a second language. Whatever, language is unimportant. This is a trend. It is huge and it will impact the course of history, although that may not be appreciated for another generation or so. It is happening so quickly and on such a large scale that it cannot help but have a major effect. After all, these people may not bring as much money as the elite class or as much labour as the working class, but their total contribution is far from trivial.
Why is this going unnoticed? I can assure you that this is the case. Despite my activity in this area and my discussions with many on the topic, there are very few people that I can discuss this with on the basis of hard data and research. But why?
Simply put, this middle class is made up almost entirely by people who follow the laws of the country to which they relocate, thus the word “illegal” does not come up when discussing them, and they are not criminals in any respect. Although as a group they represent the movement of a very, very substantial sum of money, they do not demonstrate this in an obvious manner as does the global elite. A hundred people buying homes for $200,000 each, for example, don’t get the attention of one person buying a home for $20,000,000.
Additionally, they are not a movement. They have no leader, no “cause”, that has brought them attention. These are independent decisions made in tens of millions of individual households without reference to each other, or to any leader, or to any cause. They do not seek attention and they do not draw attention, so they don’t get it.
I could write several thousand more words on this topic without breaking a sweat, but this is already a long post and is only meant to be a very basic introduction. Future Brief will discuss a number of issues, but this “silent trend” is one that will definitely be a primary focus, so you can expect to hear more on the topic if you visit here.
I could say that I was talking about the “tip of an iceberg”, but the truth is that an iceberg is a poor metaphor. It is more a matter of looking at a wide mountain range of many peaks and valleys. That makes for a much more interesting journey and I hope I will have some fellow hikers to enjoy it with me in times to come.
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