Here by Choice: Rise of the Economic Nomad

More than ever, multinational companies are sending highly skilled expat workers overseas-but at what cost?

By Charles Ross, The Economist

Published 12 October 2014


Multinational companies have always sent workers across the globe to take up positions that cannot be filled by the local workforce. Attracted by high salaries, appealing perks and valuable experience, skilled expat workers have typically been happy to serve their time abroad before returning home to continue their careers. Singapore, in particular, has always been a popular destination, with its multicultural environment, high standard of living and easy access to some of the best holiday destinations in Asia. 


The number of skilled employees living outside of their home countries continues to rise, growing by 70% over the last decade. However, this growth is increasingly driven by those who move abroad by choice, rather than by first-wave expatriates who were posted and repatriated at their employers’ discretion. To be sure, some may have gone abroad on an assignment and then chose to remain in the country to which they were posted. Others may have left home at a young age to explore the world and never went home. All have been driven by the different lifestyles and better economic opportunities available outside their home countries.


While hard data is scarce, anecdotal evidence suggests that the population of such economic nomads is growing rapidly in Asia. It includes not only Western graduates and professionals who have found opportunities in the region, but also Asian nomads—moving, say, from India or the Philippines to Singapore or Hong Kong, or from South Korea to China. In a recent survey of more than 4,000 so-called multimarket professionals in Asia conducted for Telstra, more than half (56%) said they do not expect to be working in their home country in five years’ time and only onethird expects to have returned home.
The trend seems likely to continue as the need for talent in Asia’s fast-growing economies continues to
accelerate, and employment conditions back home— especially for those from Western countries—remain tough.
In light of their intention to remain abroad, this population of economic nomads faces some challenging questions. First among them is how to raise their children. They have perhaps grown up with no strong connection to the cultures either of their parents or the country they live in. These‘third-culture’ kids can struggle to establish their identities. Families are more likely to be split up: with some aspects of life in Asia challenging—notably pollution and skyrocketing costs for services such as education—some families have chosen to live apart, with the breadwinner (usually the father) remaining in Asia while the family relocates to the home country.Another vexing issue is where to send children to university. If studying overseas, they are bound to find it difficult to adjust to life in a community that may be less cosmopolitan than the one they grew up in.
Another dilemma is where to retire. While an economic nomad’s adoptive home might have good economic prospects, it might not be well-equipped to support ageing retirees. With the cost of private health insurance escalating, nomads who come from countries with well-developed public health systems will consider returning home. There are also the issues of rapidly rising living costs in locations such as Singapore and Hong Kong, and where the children eventually choose to live.
A third question for consideration is how this style of living affects traditional networking, whether familial, social or professional. How do those living abroad maintain close ties with family and friends back home? Do they stay plugged in to professional networks even if they are long-term expats? 
For economic nomads the professional benefits of living in Singapore are obvious. What is less obvious is the impact this nomadic lifestyle will have on their retirement and the generations to come.