What do you think of when you think of an expat? Many people imagine someone sent abroad for work, working for a multinational and living in a bubble, largely divorced from the place they live. But the expats of today move for the lifestyle, and take their talent with them. They want to integrate – and cities are crying out to attract them.
Englishman Adam Webb is typical of a young breed of global mover. Following a career in the British Foreign Office, including a stint in Paris, he moved to Sweden with his then girlfriend. Within just a year he has co-founded a start-up, Gymgo, an idea partly inspired by the frustrations of moving to a new country as an expat.
“All the gyms would sell was monthly membership. And you always needed a personal number, address and bank account,” he says. The rules made it hard for newcomers to Sweden to use gyms, so Gymgo helps users find more flexible deals''.
After just a year, Adam and co-founder Paul Stallwood have seen the idea praised by Stockholm’s STING start-up incubator, and offers of investment have followed.
For Webb, being an outsider was an advantage rather than a drawback.
“There are lot of opportunities for expats to come over here and replicate a good idea. Gymgo hasn’t been done in Sweden, but similar things have been done elsewhere. You can bring your expertise from abroad. You see the hole in the market and implement the idea''.
Mobile, talented professionals are a growing group in Europe. Germany is home to 3.7 million people from elsewhere in Europe, Britain is home to over 2 million. About 1.5 million Brits and the same number of Germans live in other parts of the EU. And that’s before you start to look at people from other countries setting out to work here.
Over the past two years, The Local has written a unique series of articles on our sites around Europe, looking at the lives and motivations of people who have moved country, not usually because they were forced out of their home countries (the many refugees are also establishing highly successful careers naturally had very different reasons to move), but because of work or lifestyle.
What became apparent was that wherever people move out of choice, the reasons are often very similar: a sense of adventure, a sense of affinity with their chosen countries and an ambition to create something.
It was the lifestyle that attracted Jeff Zaltman a 44-year-old dual US-UK citizen, to Spain. But he’s living proof that moving for lifestyle can also lead to a highly successful career. Jeff has lived in six countries doing a variety of jobs from Naval aviation to telecoms consulting to M&A with Ford Motor Company. Now in Barcelona, he has set up a business promoting air sport events:
“My wife and I decided to settle here and we absolutely love the lifestyle and culture of Barcelona and all of Spain. It’s easy, but so true, to say that I love the food and the weather is gorgeous. But it’s more than that. The Spanish history has always held an allure for me and there’s something distinctive and charming about the Spanish sense of humour and way of life in general that is very inviting and comfortable.”
When HSBC’s annual Global Expat Survey asked how people rated living in different countries, Spain came second in the world in experience category because expats found it easier to settle faster.
Strong economies were important for expats heading to Germany and Britain, but one country was rated in the HSBC survey to be more desirable than both: Sweden. What really set Sweden apart was its quality of life for families. Sweden’s 480 days of parental leave, gender equality in the work-place and decent education pushed the country up the ratings.
Julika Lamberth, project manager at Stockholm Business Region, Stockholm City Council’s business promotion organ, puts Sweden’s reputation as a land of opportunity down to a combination the many successful new companies that have started there - like Spotify, Klarna and Skype - and its excellent reputation as a place to live.
“We’re seeing an infl ux of tech competence - people want to be a part of our tech scene and our startup scene. This is largely down to our big names. Most people I meet have either moved here to realise their own potential or the potential of their company.”
“Lots of surveys have shown how important a role quality of life has played for Stockholm’s desirability.”
This is particularly true for families: 79 percent of expat parents in Sweden said their lives had improved since moving, according to the HSBC survey.
Dean Blackburn, Head of HSBC Expat, says moving abroad today “is a lot more about experience and seeking out quality of life, rather than all being about career and financial wellbeing.”
The impression that expats are now largely moving under their own steam is supported by HSBC’s survey, which shows that eight out of ten expats in Sweden are on local contracts. The figures for Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands aren’t far behind.
This means the days of generous benefits packages for expats are all but over, in Europe at least. According to HSBC, 45 percent expats in Europe don’t perceive any benefit package at all.
“Even those that are receiving some sort of benefit, the largest of these is health and medical, then relocation allowance. It’s not housing and the sort of thing you see globally,” says Dean Blackburn.
So instead of living in cocooned by the power of a big employer, people are forced to integrate and live like locals. But that’s what they want to do, says Dean Blackburn:
“Countries rate higher on the experience league table when people find it easier to integrate with the community, learn the language.”
Lamberth agrees that expats are rejecting the idea of living in a bubble:
“We arranged a workshop to look at what made Stockholm attractive. When we suggested an ex-pat network, they said they didn’t want one - they wanted to meet Stockholmers,” she says.
But if people are moving for the experience and quality of life, that doesn’t mean they’re looking for an easy life - quite the reverse.
American Arlene Gibbs, who set herself up as an interior designer in Rome, it was a question of falling love with the place first, then working on forging a career that could take her there:
“When I visited for the first time eight years ago, it felt like home. I did not expect that to happen. I kept returning and would stay for longer periods of time to get a real sense of the city. I thought I would move when I retired, but realised I needed to stop putting my life on hold,” she told us.
Even people who move out of necessity factor in lifestyle issues.
Ambitious Spanish architect Jon-Ander Azpiazu Juaristi took off for Stockholm after the property crash in Spain made work hard to come by. The choice of Stockholm was affected by the fact that his skills were in demand, but he said the high quality of life also
figured. Once working in a Swedish architects’ firm, he was positively struck by the flatness of the organization:
“Here, you don’t feel any difference between your boss and yourself. Even if there’s a hierarchy, of course, my boss behaves just like any other team member. I wasn’t used to that in Spain,” he told us.
Of course, bringing talented new people into a country is good not only for the expats, but also for the country itself. For instance, in the UK new immigrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) between 2001 and 2011 contributed one-third more in revenues than they drew in public spending, subsidising native Britons.
Increasingly, local authorities recognise this and are competing for talent. Officials from Berlin recently headed to Stockholm to try to tempt startups to head from the Swedish to the German capital. For cities to establish an edge, it’s crucial to burnish their credentials as a good place to live.
“It’s hugely important. Stockholm needs talent to continue growing,” says Julika Lamberth. Judging by how highly expats rate it, there’s a good chance this will keep happening - but the competition for global talent is only set to get stronger.
Featured Image: plantronicsgermany/flickr.com