Saturday, June 1, 2013

Rise of The New Expats?

I stumbled across this post from The Atlantic in my Facebook feed today and it gave me pause.

Europe's Record Youth Unemployment: The Scariest Graph in the World Just Got Scarier

And here’s their scary graph:

This is a disturbing visual reference to the terrible mess that Europe is in right now. And I don’t just mean economically.

Talk of a “brain drain” is common in Spain and a mention of the phenomenon finds its way into every news story about employment numbers. According to Spain’s National Statistics Institute, more than 365,000 people under 30 have left for other shores since 2012. In a country of 47 million that only amounts to 0.77%, but that number is expected to skyrocket this year and the folks leaving represent some of the best, brightest and most ambitious people that the country has to offer. And Spain is losing them for the foreseeable future- if not forever.

This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed here in China. Here’s a recent CCTV report:

More significant than simply a brain drain, I think that we could be on the verge of the birth of a new kind of expat. The world has never before seen such a highly educated and relatively well-off population of people emigrating. The avenues of travel have never been more open, accessible and far-reaching. People can go anywhere, and with our age’s communication infrastructure, moving to the other side of the planet isn’t as daunting a prospect as it has been throughout the rest of human history. You no longer have to sacrifice connections with your family, home culture or friends if you move.

And this isn’t only happening in Spain. As The Atlantic's graph shows, it’s a Europe-wide phenomenon. With such ease of movement, the younger populations in every troubled country on the continent propably see moving abroad as not just a possibility, but as a viable option.

The consequences of this new kind of emigration are hard to predict, but at the very least there will be a generation of people whose ties with their communities loosen and whose cultural identities shift. (I know that mine certainly has.) In the historically insular populations of Europe, cultural innovation and civil society will suffer. Even when people return (if they return), those who have gone overseas will be different. They’ll bring back new customs, ideas, foods and habits. Will they all be good for their home countries? Only time will tell, but as an expat I know that once you've lived overseas for a while your perspective and outlook changes irreversibly. When masses of Spanish, Greek or Italian youth come back after a decade (or more) away, how will they fit in with their countrymen? At what numbers will they even go back?

These young people leaving Europe will change more than just their ideas while they’re overseas. They’ll get married. They’ll have kids. They’ll build careers. They’ll be trans-national. With no end to economic troubles on the horizon, and with more and more people fleeing the continent, this new generation of expats could become, or could at least give birth to, humanity’s first-ever large-scale, non-tribal group. That is to say, they won’t be of any single place or be beholden to any nationalistic cultural norms.

That would be such a radical shift from any type of living that we have ever known as a species that it boggles the mind to consider what the kids of our generation will be like. (I’m an economic refugee, too; I got out just before the crash in 2008.) They’ll be multi-lingual and multi-contextual. They’ll be fiercely independent, having never known any kind of social safety nets. I can see flashes of it today here in Beijing with my friends’ children. They’re all growing up in a racially, culturally and linguistically mixed-up environment. They’ll probably move -internationally- several times while they’re growing up. To them, this will all be the norm. Place won’t be nearly as important to their sense of identity as it traditionally has been to us in the past.

There are already people like this in the world (I even know some of them- they’re awesome), but I think that we’re on the verge of seeing their numbers increase dramatically. Their emergence over the next decade or two is going to have an effect on us in ways that we can’t even imagine.

What an exciting time to be alive!