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Australia’s young expats: mobility aspirations and pathways in the pandemic

Australia’s young expats: mobility aspirations and pathways in the pandemic

Young people are re-shaping their life plans beyond traditional pathways


When the COVID-19 pandemic took off around the world in March, the Morrison government told Australians overseas to come home as soon as possible.

Just recently, the government tightened restrictions again for returning Australians, amid suggestions “they should have come home earlier“.

Many are desperate to return. But our research shows this is not a straightforward decision for many young Australians. 

Australian youth are characterised as the worlds’ travellers par excellence.

A large proportion of our (approximately) one million-strong diaspora are in their twenties and thirties, with over 200, 000 people in this age group departing Australia in 2018-19 alone.

Why do these young Australians emigrate, and how have their aspirations been affected by COVID?

As recent media reports show, the great Australian dream has shifted for many millennials from the ‘big house and backyard’ to the ability to travel widely and live and work anywhere.

Our current research, with 2,000 transnationally mobile youth moving in and out of Australia, bears this out.

It also shows the remarkable diversity that belies the stereotype of the young Aussie working and partying in London.

Our sample includes Australians who have moved across the globe to run their own businesses; explore their cultural heritage; live with their foreign partners; and join family abroad, or even support family back home.

While the pull of global city lifestyles and new experiences have long been important drivers for young travellers, the lack of housing affordability and precarious domestic work have also contributed significantly to the rise in youth transnational mobility as an alternative way to create economic opportunities. 

Also emerging from our research is how young people look to mobility to re-shape life plans and adulthood beyond a traditional pathway from school to higher education and then a job for life; from family nest and parental dependence to a mortgage on a quarter acre block and partnership and children of their own.

Disrupted by widespread social and economic change, these milestones are increasingly elusive, unaffordable or undesirable, and so living abroad emerges as an alternative way to make an adult life.

While travel has conventionally been seen as an activity for young people to undertake prior to ‘settling down’, it is now becoming a legitimate process of ‘settling’ in itself; a process we call ‘mobile transitions’. 

As Sara, a 25-year-old business manager and entrepreneur based in Bali, told us: 

“People who don’t leave […] they end up getting a job, getting a boyfriend, marrying them, having kids and […] getting a mortgage, which is completely fine.

“But anyone who’s travelled or lived abroad will tell you that it completely changes your idea and breaks through the fact that that’s what has to be done, and you know that there’s a different way and a different life.”

Oliver, also 25 and a pilot based in Hong Kong, uses his mobility to flip the conventional milestone of owning his own home.

Image of a house

Although he sees owning property as a true sign of adulthood, he is finding a different way to achieve this goal alongside an ongoing lifestyle of commuting between Hong Kong and Australia. 

“My long-term goal is to get a house for mum and dad […] So that would be my first house that I would get, and then from there I’ll probably just invest.”  

With mobile transitions such a critical part of young Australian dreams, the impact of COVID on their goals becomes a compelling question. Our research shows mobility aspirations remain high.

Although frustrations emerge from lives ‘on hold’, there is also a strong sense of hope, and strategic workarounds enable a sense of forward motion and purpose in efforts for a mobile transition to adulthood. 

Several young expats we have spoken to have no intention of returning to Australia, particularly those who have been living overseas for some time, because their work, lifestyle and opportunities to become successful adults on their own terms are much greater abroad.

Even those in industries directly affected by COVID are, for now, planning to adapt or ride out the changes. 

Sara has ceased management of several Airbnb properties since tourism has dried up in Bali and has temporarily closed down factory production for the footwear company she runs with her partner.

Instead, she is planning to set up a yoga studio, switching focus to marketing, administration and branding.

Oliver was more concerned about automation than the coronavirus in terms of the impact on the aviation industry, but also has a backup plan to move into management.

Anjali, a 22-year-old working in digital marketing in Southern California, reports she has not been impacted because, “it’s a remote job anyway – you have that freedom of being able to work anywhere.”

Holly, a third-generation Italian-Australian living with her Italian partner in Calabria, also has no plans to return, despite the lack of secure jobs locally.

The cost of living in regional Italy makes freelancing and planning future small business ventures possible, and she is enjoying a more relaxed lifestyle than the nine to five grind she had in Melbourne. 

Earlier research has shown that young expats typically intend to return when they are ready to ‘settle down’ permanently, resulting in the positive economic and social outcomes of ‘brain circulation’ rather than ‘brain drain’.

The pandemic is likely to result, at least temporarily, in the return of a significant proportion of young expats, in particular those at an early stage of their sojourn abroad, like Isaac, who ‘came home’ just six months into his stay in Italy as he felt he didn’t have the necessary supports to remain as long as originally planned.

But will permanent return hold the same promise when settling down itself has become a precarious business for Australian youth, with no guarantees of home ownership, secure employment or affordable living back home?

Anjali describes herself as open to staying on the move, now she’s learned in life that “you’re not limited to one specific place.” And Isaac “can’t wait to leave again.” 

Our preliminarily findings suggest that expat youth are developing dispositions of ongoing mobility rather than a ‘leave and return’ mentality, but only time will tell.


Are you aged 18-30 and living abroad? Add your voice to the Youth Mobilities, Aspirations and Pathways survey

Anita Harris is a Professor from the Alfred Deakin Institute

Shanthi Robertson is an Associate Professor from Western Sydney University.

Loretta Baldassar is a Professor from the University of Western Australia.

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