The Financial Exiles

For some recent graduates, the only way to live the American dream is to move abroad.

A year ago, Molly McCloskey was doing well for herself. She graduated right on schedule with a degree in business administration. She took a job with a good salary teaching English at a public school a few months later. She wasn’t paying taxes or rent. She was even saving for retirement. She was defying the odds.

She was also living in South Korea.
McCloskey had zero teaching experience before she went abroad. "I had always wanted to travel and thought, ‘Well, I’m not graduating with any job offers, so I might as well do this,’" McCloskey says. She made a decent living by her village’s standards (about US$1,800 a month) and had a national pension plan set up in her name.
Fast-forward a year. McCloskey is back in Rhode Island and weighing her options for chipping away at $20,000 of student loan debt. The way she sees it, she can put her degree to use (easier said than done), apply to grad school, or wait tables—the kind of gig many of her former classmates have. Others don’t have a job at all. Nationwide last year, more than half of bachelor’s degree holders under 25 were jobless or underemployed, the highest rate for young college graduates in more than a decade.
As they’re confronted with crushing debt and few job prospects, many young Americans like McCloskey have suspended their plans to succeed in their own backyards. Instead, they’re biding their time abroad, working in countries where decent pay, a prestigious title, a pension, and affordable health care aren’t just wistful aspirations. Often, there’s no experience needed.
These recent grads are moving to Asia, where there is a demand for native English speakers and the pay is relatively good. Or they’re heading to war zones and developing countries where the cost of living is low and the promise of interesting, fulfilling work is high. They’re fleeing America for the same reasons their ancestors came.
The open-arms reputation of the United States is well earned: We’ve historically been the largest receiving country for immigrants in the world. Yet, there’s evidence that America’s expat population is rising. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported a 3 percent jump in the number of people from North America immigrating to selected countries between 2000 and 2009.
Meanwhile, the number of immigrants to the United States is on the decline. The economic downturn has resulted in fewer foreign scientists and engineers coming to the United States in search of work, accord- ing to the National Science Foundation. After a decade-long upward trend in temporary work visas issued to eager foreigners in specialty fields such as math and medicine, the figure dropped by 72 percent in 2009. Fewer scientists are staying here with temporary work visas after earning their degrees in the United States, too. From 2008 to 2011, the reported number of both Americans and foreigners moving to the United States for a job has been cut in half.
More people are going abroad “as a way to set them apart from other applicants and enhance their résumés,” says Tiffany Harrison,’s partnership and outreach manager. The recessiondrove up traffic to their website, which is a database for international work, volunteer, and internship positions and what they call “meaningful travel” opportunities. She says that most of their hits come from 18- to 25-year-olds—those who are struggling to find jobs, or those who studied English or business and are now clocking hours behind café counters. The prospects abroad are much sunnier: The unemployment rate for American expats with a college education can be as low as 2.4 percent in some countries. And young graduates like McCloskey are taking advantage.
Not everybody is convinced that joblessness is spurring emigration. The prospects at home for recent grads are looking up, says Bobbi Koppel, director of the office of career services and employee relations at McCloskey’s alma mater, the University of Rhode Island. Koppel theorized that more young Americans go abroad because they’re more open to other cultures, not because they’re escaping their finances.
But can you blame the ones who are escaping? On top of bleak unemployment rates, nearly a quarter of young people don’t have health insurance. Debt from student loans has risen to a collective $1 trillion, more than what Americans owe on credit cards and cars. It’s a burden that will affect the long-term buying power of the young.
For some, even a low-paying job in a Third World country is better than none in the States. One expat, 26-year-old Deanna (who preferred not to use her last name), earned a master’s in international development in May 2011 after a midrecession layoff from her head-hunting job in Detroit. Her program at Brandeis University cost more than she budgeted, and she worries she took on too much debt to work in a field that isn’t exactly known for paying well. She works in poverty reduction, and the irony is not lost on her as she strings together paychecks from one steady job and a few side gigs to pay her rent in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. “I need my poverty reduced,” she jokes.
Still, she’s finding meaningful work, which is more than some of her stateside peers can say. After spending half a year applying to more than 200 jobs in Boston, New York, France, and Southeast Asia, Deanna feels lucky to have found development work that affords her a decent lifestyle. “The cost of living is low enough that ... I am able to save and pay on my loans,” she says. She says about half of her classmates still do not have jobs.
Despite having a high-ranking position at the Switzerland-based NGO where she works, Deanna is paid close to that of a local staff member in Cambodia. She accepted the job knowing the experience far exceeds anything available to her in the United States. But these days, Deanna is looking for a position in a place like Afghanistan or Somalia. Salaries for aid jobs in war zones can add up to more than $8,000 a month—mostly tax free. (Foreign earnings under about $95,000 are not taxed by the U.S. government.) “I find myself looking for jobs in unsafe areas because I know they have high hazard pay,” Deanna says, referring to the extra money that workers earn in dangerous places, even as she admits she went into development work to do good, not to put herself in harm’s way or make bank.
Either way, she’s not eager to return home, where “people are getting desperate and taking jobs that are not in their field or something they are overqualified for.” She also worries about fitting in again—finding a place to live and starting a life in her late 20s with shallow roots after years away. “I don’t own a house, so where do I go?” she says. “I can’t go back to my parents at 28.”
Tina Lam, who’s 34, is avoiding a home- coming for as long as possible. After earning her master’s in counseling, Lam was a high school counselor in Los Angeles until the state budget was cut and she was let go. She spent a year applying for the few jobs left in her field. But when her colitis put her in the hospital for a week—without insurance— Lam piled up $10,000 in medical bills on top of her student loan and credit card debt. It was time to make a drastic move. So Lam did the same thing her parents did decades ago when they moved from Vietnam to the United States. She rolled off her friend’s couch and jumped ship for Gyeongju, South Korea, in search of a better life.
She easily landed a job as a university professor teaching English to adults. “I have a master’s and here that means I qualify,” says Lam, remembering how useless her advanced degree seemed during her futile job search in the United States. Now, she’s busy hacking away at that U.S. debt with her South Korean currency. She has four months of paid vacation every year, plus a pension and health insurance. And even without the insurance, Lam could actually afford to be sick in South Korea, paying just $70 a night in the hospital compared to the $1,000 a night she was billed in the United States. She’s well paid, secure, and professionally fulfilled. Lam is living the American dream in Gyeongju.
McCloskey misses the freedom and excitement of her life in South Korea. “My social life there was better,” she says. “Even though I have friends in places like Providence, and it isn’t that far, gas is expensive, and so is just getting a drink.”
Still, despite her financial advantages abroad, she was ready to come home. She had the option to stay in South Korea and keep saving money, but that kept her thousands of miles away from her boyfriend and family. Besides, she reasoned, her inter- national adventure looks good on a résumé. “I felt that if I stayed I would be delaying the inevitable fact that I needed to come home and find a job,” she says.
Those who can’t come home to their childhood bedrooms are sticking it out. Lam has only been in South Korea for five months and yearns to move back to Los Angeles. “I am missing the water, the beach, and I miss the diversity,” she says. But, she admits, she’s “here for the money,” choosing homesickness over unemployment.
It would take a lot for her to move back: “Basically what I have here—a good job and medical coverage.” With her dream of returning to Los Angeles looking less and less likely, where is she considering for her next move? Dubai, where she’s heard the pay is four times what it is in Korea.