When I returned to Oxford after a year and a half of doctoral fieldwork in Kathmandu, the jokes began: I had chosen to study a community of western expatriates so that I could have a year or two of holiday; conducting research in bars and restaurants among expats who swanned around in SUVs and earned 40 grand a year was hardly serious anthropology; my formative experience with ethnographic fieldwork must have been really hard on me.
It was all just jestful taunting, of course. But many a truth is said in jest. The presumption my colleagues were playing off was that if you are, as the saying goes in the US, ‘free, white and 21’, then you should have nothing to complain about. Lifestyle migrants, if they suffer at all, suffer from ‘first world problems’, minor frustrations and complaints that are only experienced by privileged individuals in wealthy countries. But it may be that, to paraphrase Billy Joel, the good ol’ days aren’t always as good as they seem.
Lifestyle migration has come to encompass a range of different people who move around the world for different reasons: international students, domestic downsizers, backpackers, gap yearers, retirees, corporate expatriates, humanitarian workers, second-home owners, and people who have married across cultures and borders. In fact, many of the authors in this volume are lifestyle migrants, having chosen a foreign land for work – perhaps because we couldn’t find employment in our native countries, or perhaps because we wanted to experience a life different from home. Such people often see migration as a route to a better and more fulfilling way of life than the one they have decided to leave behind – the pursuit of the ‘good life’ (O’Reilly and Benson, 2009). Sometimes this is escapist; sometimes it is due to necessity. Across the UK and elsewhere in the global north, lifestyle migrants: international students and highly-skilled workers – foreign consultants, freelancers, expatriates and other members of the so-called ‘mobile elite’ – currently make up one of the fastest growing migration phenomenon in the world.
But while these people have typically been characterised by high levels of social, economic and geographic mobility, in recent years the opportunities for some have been slipping. Globalised, neoliberal forms of employment have made limited-term jobs and zero-hour contracts – to say nothing of that grand euphemism for free and eager labour, ‘work experience’ – the norm for many. As budgets are reduced and organisations do away with long-term investment in the people that help them function, people who once experienced stable occupational identities and social protections are now encountering novel experiences: insecurity, instability, vulnerability, precarity and risk (Korpela and Nagy, 2013). As responsibilities are shifted from public and private institutions onto individuals, the welfare and wellbeing of workers and their families, still often thought of as privileged and immune to such problems, are often ignored by states, policy makers and organisations. Precarious labour is almost always organised beyond the structures of social welfare and benefit systems. As a result, those who labour often exist outside provisioning for unemployment benefit, social security, health insurance, and mechanisms for maternity and paternity leave. Though they are frequently seen as the drivers and beneficiaries of globalisation, their relatively privileged positions may not shield them from its discontents (Standing, 2011). The ‘precariat’ thus cuts across many lines in society; precariousness no longer discriminates.
The zero-hours contract controversy that rocked many of Britain’s educational institutions in late 2013 drew attention to some of these issues. ‘Highly skilled’, it seemed, was no longer a guarantor of ‘highly paid’. In the ivory tower, of course ,‘highly educated’ rarely implied high pay, but the erstwhile prevalence of tenure track academic posts at least guaranteed a lifetime of employment, if not one of six figures. Today, however, these insecurities may force many people to significantly alter their lifestyle. It may lead foreign correspondents to moonlight as babysitters, under employed academics to work in High Street retail shops, and on-the-bench, thirtysomething development consultants to live at home with their parents as they await being flown off to Addis Ababa for a two-week secondment. Such moves show that the implications of limited work tenure and the expectations of flexibility and mobility run deeper than surface-level categorisations of people might make visible. It also elucidates some of the limitations of how human welfare is often conceived of and provisioned in modern economies. As atypical and irregular work relations such as project or product-based jobs become typical and regularised, the institutional social structures around such work require changing too.
The zero-hours debate also served as a reminder that precariousness in labour, welfare and migration has tended to be discussed in terms of lower skilled workers and low-income earners – people who are clearly also affected by neoliberal changes in society, often to a much greater degree than those who can normally command higher incomes. Still, research into lifestyle migrants and highly skilled workers comprises a unique and important aspect of globalisation that is often disregarded. Such scholarship can serve to contest common presumptions that experiences of the privileged are vastly different from those without access to education, funds or social mobility.
Is this lack of research due to the fact that precariousness among the upper classes in the global north is a relatively new phenomena? Perhaps. But I suspect it is also a result of a distaste among many social scientists for studying so-called like-minded people. Anthropologists, we know, have rarely ‘studied up’ (Nader, 1972) – or even studied ‘sideways’ (Hannerz, 1998), for that matter – and academic engagements with human welfare have often focused on those traditionally understood as underprivileged.
More research on the experiences of precarity and welfare among lifestyle migrants and higher skilled workers would raise a number of interesting comparative questions. For example, in what ways are the determinants of low and high-skill precarity similar or different? How do imagined lifestyles of migrants conflict with lived realities? How do the responses to instability vary among different types of workers across different industries? Do the vicissitudes of globalised ‘neoliberalism’ affect all people low in the labour pecking order in similar ways? And why should we care about the highly skilled anyway if they are more privileged? Considering the roles and positions of those with (perceived) privilege and power would enable us to reconsider what is meant by centre and periphery, and would allow us to better understand how our models of human welfare work. Framed within the rise in the (im)mobile precariat across countries in the global north, these questions also lend credence to the notion that there is value in research into the subjectivities of those who already have, or who once had, a voice.
Benson, M. and O’Reilly, K. (2009) Lifestyle Migration: Expectations, Aspirations and Experiences, Farnham: Ashgate.
Hannerz, U. (1998) ‘Other Transnationals: Perspectives Gained from Studying Sideways.’ Paideuma, 44:109-123.
Korpela, M. and R. Nagy (2013) ‘Introduction: Limitations to Temporary Mobility.’ International Review of Social Research, 3(1):1-6.
Nader, L. (1972) ‘Up the Anthropologist—Perspectives Gained from Studying Up,’ in D. Hymes. (ed.) Reinventing Anthropology, New York: Random House.
Standing, G. (2011) The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London: Bloomsbury Academic.