What compels expats to move time and again—and do they end up sacrificing their sense of 'home' in order to see more of the world?
For Canadian expat Mike Spencer Brown, 'home' is his backpack—the same bag he's lived out of since he left Calgary in the early 1990s. Since then, he's thumbed his way around Iraq during the second Gulf War, lived and hunted with Bambuti pygmies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and even became 'the first tourist' in Mogadishu. In 24 years he's visited 195 countries, travelling continually.
"I get restless," explained Spencer Brown. "After a few days or weeks I'd start to feel like a rock in a stream with life gushing past me while I'd be stuck in one place. It's that sense of motion across the landscape that drew me on."
Only once in all his travels did he get homesick, he explained: "It made little sense at first until I clued in that this was how homesickness manifested itself in someone who can hardly remember what it’s like to have a home."
But while few people will ever explore as much of the world as Spencer Brown, a growing trend among workers living abroad is seeing more expats using assignments and jobs as a springboard for a nomadic lifestyle. The result is that many have to redefine what 'home' means.
The dawn of the global nomad
The term 'global nomad' isn't new. It was first coined back in the 1980s to document the experiences of expat children trailing their parents around the globe. Ironically, today, it depicts a kind of freedom, a catch-all term for a mobile workforce of entrepreneurs, freelancers, and employees alike, able to relocate anywhere given access to a signal and a smartphone.
As business author Jim Matheson writes in Rise of the Global Nomad: "They are not expats who have 'a home location.' This group is comfortable with change and sees each assignment as the source of a new challenge and a new experience." They are also on the increase.
Between 2009 and 2012, one study of 288 multinational firms by the consultancy Mercer found that, as well as a 20% rise in long-term expat employees, the percentage of workers being reassigned from country to country had almost doubled. In turn, growth in the support networks for expats is expanding too.
Tanzania-born Dutch psychologist and writer Marte Kaan set up Nomad Expat Coaching in Delhi, India to counsel expats and their families dealing with living abroad. In more established working destinations, such as Singapore, you'll find a coach, counsellor or psychologist on every street corner, she explained, but even in locations such as Delhi she is seeing sharp growth in practices like hers.
For Kaan, home is a something you build around you. She believes the kind of personality tailor-made for constant relocation is one able to quickly form a support network. "Making connections in your new community is very important. If you have kids, you put them in school and you tend to quickly form connections that way. For others, it might be forcing yourself a little bit out of your comfort zone. But it's a lifestyle that suits the outgoing."
"There are always new places to go"
From early childhood, writer Apple Gidley has lived in 12 countries and relocated 26 times, documenting her experiences in her 2012 memoir Expat Life: Slice by Slice. She has also witnessed a big change in the way 'global nomads' are perceived. What was once viewed as instability, she believes, has become attractive to employers and consequently more acceptable for career-focused employees.
"Back when I was starting out, you'd go for a job interview and they'd say: 'Boy! You've flitted around,' Gidley explained. "Today, corporations, companies and HR people are beginning to value the perspectives young people bring to the workforce when they have lived in different cultures. The intangible skills that they've learned are now being recognised."
The incentives for relocating to build experience have never been higher, confirmed Mark Price, principal in Mercer's international consulting group. "We are seeing that multinationals are expecting their talent pool to have varied geographical experience as a prerequisite to climbing the top rungs of the career ladder." Consequently, the pressure to keep moving is also immense.
For Gidley, her reasons for relocating have rarely ever been her own, whether trailing her parents as a child or moving with her family to her husband's latest oil company posting. Like others in her situation, though, she has learned to create her home around her wherever she goes.
"Home is wherever I am," she explained. "As an expat, friendships are formed quickly and deeply because you're reliant on each other a lot of the time, but it's a dreadful waste to regret leaving people behind. If you lose touch, you do. But I always make a big celebration of saying goodbye; if you don't say goodbye well, you can't say hello at your next place because you've left a bit of yourself behind—although you will do anyway. But leaving doesn't mean I've been unhappy somewhere; it's just that there are always new places to go."
"The smallest thing becomes exciting"
Expat psychologist Marte Kaan believes the destinations expats choose tend to reflect their personalities. "For example, in Delhi, you do not see homesickness very often," she said. "The people who move there tend to have more of a sense of adventure; they adapt quickly as opposed to those who might move to, say, Singapore or Istanbul—more established expat destinations. It's a sort of natural selection. I also see many people struggle with deciding where to go next, and when one of the options is ‘home’, it tends to create ambivalence: going back home as an expat is not as easy as one might think."
Certainly, the well-documented stresses of a nomadic life would attract only those with "a sense of adventure," or perhaps a low tolerance for boredom. Either description would fit French university lecturer Jameela Deen, who blogs at 'Diary of a Serial Expat'. After ten years in the UK, she felt a pressing urge to move on, first to post-revolution Libya, then to Saudi Arabia. But unlike the trend among other 'global nomads', who follow the work; for her, the experience comes first.
"There comes a day when everything around you is just noisy; there's no more excitement. It's the same old thing, the same old faces… When you settle too long, everything becomes routine. But when you move somewhere you've never been before even the smallest thing becomes exciting. Go to the supermarket in a country where you don't speak the language—it becomes an adventure."
Our whole lives fit in a few suitcases now. Since leaving the UK, we've sold virtually everything we own. Home is wherever we unpack.
Deen has been so long removed from her home of France, she feels like she doesn't have a "home country", and nor would she go back, she said. "Our whole lives fit in a few suitcases now. Since leaving the UK, we've sold virtually everything we own. Home is wherever we unpack."
It's a common response from expats who move around a lot and are forced to pare down their belongings to be able to relocate easily. Experiences take the places of the ‘stuff’ that so often defines a home. Just as with Mike Spencer Brown, home for the modern global nomad is found in a bag. But as he will gladly tell you himself, that isn't such a bad thing.
Calling all expats!
Be a part of this year’s results and compare with expats around the world. If you’re living abroad, take the 2016 Expat Explorer Survey.