Meet the expats of the future

14 April 2017

Stereotypes are useful, but dangerous. They give us a nice easy, familiar way to categorise people and roles, but they are usually based on earlier experiences, which stick with us – which often make them outdated and inaccurate.

And so it is with expats. A few years ago, they were predominantly of a certain type. Usually male, often white and quite senior, they would spend 3-4 years overseas, with their family in tow. And because that was how they once were, it is a stereotype that stays with us.

But the world of global mobility is fast-moving and perceptions born in previous decades don’t serve us well. Driven by trends for equality and multi-culturalism, and the increasing specialism of global mobility professionals, expats are changing. We would like to introduce you to some of the new kinds of people who are taking on global assignments, which themselves are changing in scope and duration. Meet the expats of the future.

The businesswoman

In the interests of gender equality, we should point out that females are no more or less ambitious than their male counterparts. But the last few decades have shown a marked increase in the selection of female employees to go on global assignments, and this is largely down to a changing, more open-minded business environment. Comparing figures compiled by Selmer (2003) and Brookfield GPRS in 2015, the proportion of female global assignees rose from a mere 5% in 1980 to a slightly more representative 25% in 2010.

Perceptions that women are less suited to overseas roles are far less prevalent these days. Even the most chauvinistic societies, who tolerate gender inequality within their own culture, have equal respect for work colleagues from overseas, whether men or women.

The young hopeful

Whereas expats were once sent overseas to lend their experience to a situation – or more specifically to help instil the values and practices of global HQ on geographical outposts – the ‘learning exchange’ now works both ways. Instead of the expat being a conduit of knowledge, the expat is now often the student rather than the teacher. Organizations recognise that overseas deployment is a key role to play in not only in the development of future leaders, but also in retaining that key talent. Global assignments are both a learning experience and loyalty-building exercise (read more about this in our post: Is your global mobility program a fix for now or a plan for the future?).

As a result, the expat profile is becoming younger and much more diverse. The pool of hungry young talent, full of potential and ripe for development is inevitably larger than that of senior, proven executives, so the proportion of younger expats is increasing all the time.

The big difference, from the perspective of the global mobility department, is that younger employees will probably have fewer commitments. This not only makes them more likely to want to travel, but it is also obviously far cheaper to move a single person than a whole family.

The multi-cultural citizen

Increasing globalization has also meant that global mobility is no longer dominated by European or North American companies dispatching their European or North American executives to the rest of the globe. The return trade is every bit as prevalent, a trend driven not just by the growth of BRIC and other economies, but also by the realization that a multi-cultural outlook is a must for senior management recruitment. Industry leaders need to look outwards, not inwards, and companies are increasingly tempted to hire non-nationals for senior roles. In the UK, for example, 40% of the leadership of FTSE 250 companies were born outside the UK.

The short-termer

The duration of assignments is changing too. While 3- or 4-year assignments are still the most popular, shorter-term assignments are on the increase. Between 2008 and 2017, according to statistics from ECA, long-term assignments have reduced from 63% to 45% of the total, while short-term assignments now account for 22% – up from 14%.

This makes a significant difference to the kind of person who does the assignment, and the way they go about it. It will affect decisions on relocating families, schooling, renting or buying, and of course will make a difference to the degree of assimilation into the local culture.

The day-tripper

Another significant change over the last nine years has been the increase in international commuting. In 2008, 23% of all overseas workers ‘commuted’; this figure has now risen to 33%. Driven largely by ever-improving transport links, this trend may see weekly or even daily travel from the home country to the host country.

Crucially, it is simpler to organise and manage – they need no more documentation than a passport and typically make all their own travel arrangements. On the other hand, these travellers are sometimes called “stealth expats” because they are not classified as assignees, nor do they fit into any existing corporate expat policy. As a result, day-trippers can fly under the radar, with serious risks regarding tax liability, social security, and immigration procedures.

Celebrating the diversity of future expats

What about our 45-year-old, white male, with his trailing spouse and 2 children on a long-term assignment? Although his stereotype may have become redundant – the role he plays is far from redundant. As companies seek to standardize work practices, and cross-pollinate by global interactions, the overseas deployment of skilled, experienced, senior execs is critical.

But now, by working with the other emerging groups of expats he is now part of a wider and more diverse global workforce, which is collectively able to serve the company far more effectively than it did a decade ago.

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