December 16, 2012

COMMENTARY: Young people find American Dream overseas

Emily Matchar

After applying for 279 jobs over two years, my husband finally got the offer he'd been hoping for: a well-paid position teaching philosophy at a respected university. We should have been thrilled. There was just one little thing.

The job was in Hong Kong.

"I feel like we're being deported from our own country," my husband said.

"It'll be an adventure," I replied, trying to sound game.

"I wasn't looking for an adventure," he said. "I was just looking for a job."

We didn't know we would be part of a wave of educated young Americans heading overseas in search of better employment opportunities. According to State Department estimates, 6.3 million Americans are studying or working abroad, the highest number ever recorded. What's more, the percentage of Americans ages 25 to 34 who are planning to move overseas has quintupled in two years, from less than 1 percent to 5.1 percent. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 40 percent are interested in moving abroad, up from 12 percent in 2007.

In the past, Americans often took foreign jobs for the adventure or because their career field demanded overseas work. Today, these young people are leaving because they can't find jobs in the United States. They're leaving because the jobs they do find often don't offer benefits such as health insurance. They're leaving because the gloomy atmosphere of the American economy makes it hard to break through with a new innovative idea or business model.

"This is a huge movement," says Bob Adams, president and chief executive of America Wave, an organization that studies overseas relocation.

Stories like ours are everywhere.

When Liz Jackson, 31, earned her Ph. .D in educational policy from the University of Illinois, she hoped to find a job as an assistant professor. She applied for about 50 jobs in 2010. But U.S. colleges and universities were shrinking; layoffs and hiring freezes were rampant. Jackson's only nibbles of interest came from the Middle East and Asia.

She ended up taking a position as an administrator at a university in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. There, in addition to a tax-free salary of $45,000, she was given a three-bedroom, three-bathroom apartment to live in rent-free, plane tickets for her and her husband to visit the United States every year, 44 annual paid vacation days, an $8,000 moving allowance, and a promise to help find a job for her husband, who's a physicist.

Plus, there was great health insurance, with no co-pays, dirt-cheap drugs and free dental coverage. This was a major draw for many of Jackson's friends, almost all of whom are fellow Americans.

"We can pay off our student loans in the next six years," Jackson says. Together, she and her husband owe about $200,000. "That would be impossible in the United States."

Jackson estimates that half of her graduate school classmates in the United States are underemployed or employed in jobs far different from professions they trained for.

Still, her family has a hard time understanding why she and her husband chose to live abroad. "They didn't believe us when we said we can't get a job" in the United States that's competitive, she says. "Not only can we not get jobs in the U.S., but even if we did, we'd be taking a serious pay cut."

After a year in Abu Dhabi, Jackson did a second job search in the United States. Once again, no bites. She's now happily employed as a tenure-track assistant professor in Hong Kong, and her husband is a science instructor at the same university.

Even for those fortunate enough to find work in the United States, there's still the sense that the best opportunities -- the best quality of life -- are far from New York or Silicon Valley.

(Continued on page 2)

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