Why is this interesting? The Death of the Expat Edition

On multinationals, cushy gigs, and globalization

Colin here. One of the casualties of globalization, hyper-connectedness, direct flights, rising levels of nationalism, and a global pandemic is most certainly the plum expat gig. 

It’s not only a job but an aesthetic of sorts. The lifestyle is perpetuated mostly by large multinationals (think finance and insurance) and characterized by cushier-than-normal living. Twenty years ago, if you were a New York-based banker that moved to Hong Kong for work, your very nice housing on the Peak was paid for, as was your children’s private school, and exclusive club membership. In many ways, these types of expats lived in bubbles where they mostly engaged with their own kind—the country they were parked in was little more than window dressing. 

It was also a lingering vestige of colonialism—and all of the negative airs of superiority that implies. Many of those living this lifestyle followed a similar route to the one their countries had taken: Brits into Hong Kong, the French to Southeast Asia, etc. And, like earlier colonial caricatures, expat living was generally a bubble designed to cushion “hardship” assignments far from the comforts of home. The world has obviously changed a great deal and many of those countries once looked at as adventure assignments are better operated and more sophisticated than an expat’s home country. 

Why is this interesting? 

One of the most frequent landing pads, Singapore, is in the middle of a revolt of sorts. With a slowing economy, high-paid expats are becoming mini-pariahs, and as unemployment rises among nationals, there’s quite a bit of tension. Bloomberg reports

The uncertain job prospects, online commentary and stricter conditions risk making Singapore a less welcoming destination just as the city-state needs foreign investment the most. And as workplaces clamp down on hiring it could further limit the options for expats who have long seen a stint in Asia as an important and lucrative experience.

The Singapore government has added to their angst by taking steps to promote local hiring, raising concern that it will come at the expense of expats. Earlier this month, it put 47 companies on a watch-list for suspected discriminatory hiring practices. The list includes banks, fund managers and consulting firms that may have pre-selected foreigners for jobs or not given Singaporeans a fair chance. This adds to the 240 companies already under scrutiny. The names of the firms weren’t disclosed.

This was predictable in the short-to-medium term. As “emerging” economies surge and improve, and education levels across all sectors (not just finance and business) rise, there’s less need to port in talent from abroad. In addition, pressure on the balance sheets of multinationals means that some of these excessive packages to executives have been pared back. Hong Kong isn’t exactly Yemen or a diplomatic hardship post where you need to pay far above market to get someone to go. Should a modern company be paying for a driver and household service for someone on a two-year stint in a modern Asian city? 

The one thing that will keep the expat archetype around (though perhaps with lesser creature comforts and fewer drivers) is the need for executives to get their ticket punched: launching products in new places, or understanding market fit with a different consumer class. It is hard to think that brands like LVMH or L’Oreal won’t be still doing that 20 years into the future. But their social circles gathering in exclusive clubs will surely be smaller. Which is probably a good thing. (CJN)

Column of the Day:

We are missing the NY Mag column from friend of WITI Chris Black. He did the Q&A slash product recommendation column with wit and a lot of taste. There was always something rock solid and egalitarian in terms of a recco, and something outlandish with a bit of a wink. His voice was perfect for the page (and the conversational/affiliate play the Strategist is trying to do) and we hope it returns pronto. Here’s a fun one: Ask Chris Black: Can You Find Some Understated Briefcases for a Soon-to-Be Public Defender? #bringbackblack (CJN)

Photo: Eric Chakeen

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