Lifestyle Migration and Relative Affluence

by Michaela Benson

Almost every summer, I receive a request from a magazine, newspaper, or other media outlet to talk about why British people move abroad. This is perhaps unsurprising given my academic expertise – I have been studying a phenomenon called lifestyle migration for ten years, ever since I started my PhD research on the British residents of southwest France. The term is used to denote the migration of the relatively affluent, inspired primarily by the desire for an improved lifestyle, rather than, as in traditional migrations, inspired primarily by economic gain.

This year’s request from BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland (broadcast Saturday 4th August) was no different to normal. The presenter had recently returned from a holiday in the south of France, where the weather was warm and sunny, where the food and drink were plentiful, and had found himself asking why he had chosen to return to rainy Glasgow. I’m sure that he is not alone, particularly given the particularly bad weather that has been sweeping through the UK this summer.

It is easy to imagine, based on our holiday experiences, that we might want the life that we imagine our holiday destinations as offering. And many people choose to make their holiday destinations their homes, an action that is, in no small part, made possible by their relative affluence: affluence relative to the people living within the destination, and/or affluence in terms of their position in the global world order. To be clear, I am not only talking about financial wealth, although this may indeed play a role, but rather a combination of different capitals including cultural capital (qualifications, skills, education), social and symbolic capital. What this boils down to is that for the most part, migrants of these types have privileges which shape the nature of their migration, the ease with which they can cross borders, the conditions that lead to migration and the outcome, even those who consider that they were struggling to make ends meet before migration. And this is not only relevant to the case of those migrants considered as lifestyle migrants.

Hein de Haas recently wrote a blog post outlining how the financial crisis in Europe is leading more Europeans to move to Africa, including young people searching for work. Aside from the apparent reversal of usual migration flows, this demonstrates in times of difficulty people find unique solutions to their problems. There is a certain ease with which these people are able to try out a new life in Africa, an ease which is in all likelihood not matched by their African counterparts, trying to make their way to Europe to start a new life. And it is this ease which draws attention, once again to the role that relative affluence (or lack thereof) in the shaping of migration trajectories, experiences and outcomes.

10 thoughts on “Lifestyle Migration and Relative Affluence

  1. This is great stuff, Michaela. I have been doing skype interviews today and yesterday with lifestyle migrants living in Malaysia. Interestingly they appreciate the term lifestyle migrant because it distinguishes them from ‘corporate expats’. The people I have been speaking to have been at pains to point out that quality of life is very important to them, and something they have to continually strive for. We have also had a few survey responses and, so far, all of them suggest material possessions are of far less value than friendship and good food! But then I suppose it is easy to pursue even these luxuries when your basic needs are secured.

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  2. Hi Michaela,
    I read your post with the greatest interest as it relates a good deal to the paper I am currently working on. An interesting reflection from my interviews with Swedish retirees in Malta is that they are in general very aware of their affluent positions (in a very ‘non-Swedish’ manner). They were quite reflective of the conditions that enable them to make the move and aware of their consumption power. Though, of course stressing theit the quality of life they seek have to have other qualities than wealth (too), I was quite intrigued by their openness in discussing economic considerations as an important part of their strategic planning for a ‘good life’.

    //Ulrika

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    • Ulrika,
      Thanks for the comment. It is really interesting that your respondents are so reflexive about how they understand their migration and what made it possible. I gave seen this a little bit in the case of North Americans in Panama; faced with the visible inequalities between their lives in the destination and those of the Panamanian and indigenous population, they engage in various philanthropic activities. I wonder whether there is anything similar going on in the case of Swedes in Malta?

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      • Hi Michaela,

        Well… the case in Malta is probably not very easily comparable with the situation in Panama. There is a difference, of course, in access to resources between immigrants and the local population however it’s not that significant. A few movers engage in activities through Rotary and similar networks, but this is very limited and I think it has more to do with having access to a network than anything else.

        I have to comment also, that even though the respondents have been generous in talking about the importance of economic planning, they are reluctant to confess to economic benefits as being a primary reason to move, or a primary part of quality of life. Even if it, of course, seems to help a great deal to sustain what they do believe is quality: flexibility, independence, consumption etc.

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  3. Michaela (and others)
    I am interested to know how the audience responds to you when you talk about lifestyle migration in the media. I wonder if the response is different in different countries. From my own experience I know that in Finland, the audience tends to be very critical, even hostile. People are very quick to point out that the easy life in a warm climate is morally questionable and good tax-paying citizens stay in their countries of origin.I have heard such comments myself when talking about lifestyle migration. In addition, there have been a few Finnish newspaper articles about the phenomenon and those articles have always been followed by heated internet discussions.

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    • Mari, this is a really interesting topic. I have to say that I have never come across such antagonism, although there is often a kind of ‘so what’ attitude about it. I remember when my book came out, there was a post about it on a living in France blog. It had literally reproduced the press release that my institution had sent out to the media. The one an only comment that I have seen was a short and sharp reply, which said that the reader thought that in their opinion the research had been a waste of money and she couldn’t believe that a university was funding a project like this (BTW I funded my research in France out of my own pocket …) Maybe we need to have a discussion on the blog about the reception of research about lifestyle migration and public perceptions. It would be good to share experiences.

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    • Hi Mari,
      I have not really studied this in Sweden, but my impression is that there are certainly similar discourses here. The “Swedish mentality” is to be a good citizen, pay your taxes and not have a too extravagant life. Maybe this is also a reason as to why my respondents are so eager to point out that lower taxes is not their main motivator, and that they have other “purer” motives to leave Sweden. Although, one respondent clearly stated as a reason to leave that he was tired of the “little Swedes”.

      Will have to look into this, thank you for taking it up!
      //Ulrika

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  4. Great question Mari and I think this is something that is worth considering. It would seem to me that this cuts to the heart of the phenomenon in more place specific/localised fashion. For instance, how people in certain parts of Canada respond may well be quite different to other parts of Canada – so it’s not simply international but can also be within the nation state also.

    In Australia we see this a bit. In certain pockets of the country, there is a big resistance to the lifestyle migrants. We have called them ‘seachangers’ here but I believe that idea has now lost traction. People no longer leave their middle class lives behind to ‘shack it’ up and live a somewhat less materialistic lifestyle. I remember one ‘seachanger’ who was like that lamenting about the ‘new’ breed that were arriving in the BMWs. Of course, there’s a level of cynicism in the way they approach these newcomers – and often they are treated as ‘outsiders’ for a long time.

    But in other locations, dependent on the development of the place as a lifestyle migration hotspot – there is a tendency to view newcomers with a level of indifference. What I mean by that is there’s no reaction against or for them. It’s almost like in some spaces, the city ‘culture’ remains in force. People just live out their lives in relative individualised manners.

    And then there are those places which embrace new lifestyle migration. We have mainly coastal areas that have become completely gentrified and high middle class locales. Places like this have certainly become warm and friendly to newcomers looking to escape the city – mostly because the more traditional (not indigenous though) members of the community have either moved on or are benefiting commercially because of the newcomers. These are really quite interesting places to me, because these are the ones that are also demonstrating quite high and rapid growth in housing costs and producing a level of deep inequality between those who have and those who are pushed out into surrounding townships.

    On a related note, the question of ‘second homes’ is something that has built significant traction here in Australia. We have a tradition of beach shacks that have been used predominantly for weekenders over the years. However, in more recent times these beach shacks have become quite elaborate, costly and mostly empty during the week. The promises of economic gain for allowing second home ownership in small coastal communities has been unmet – but what is more intriguing is the problem of ’empty houses’ syndrome. People can easily live in a locale and not see their neighbours either side or across the road for a number of days – until they escape away from the city for the weekend. Interestingly, there are places like Philip Island (nearby Melbourne) which have approximately a 80% second home ownership rate. Obviously these aren’t poor folk who acquire these properties – but one thing the councils are really wanting to know is, what is holding them back from staying and secondly, when they do come eventually (if ever) what are the expecting resources wise. We have a dilemma building in our small coastal councils when the baby boomers begin to arrive to live our their days by the sea. In places that have minimal services already, it’s going to prove to be difficult to meet their needs in health, retail and lifestyle.

    The problem for us as researchers is that it’s very difficult to find statistics on it as well as find these people in general. The laws of the state here mean that we cannot simply use local councils to contact these ratepayers – there’s a privacy concern there.

    Anyway I’ve rambled on too long and gone beyond your question!!! 🙂

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  5. In my experience many countries are coming up with clever ways to attract such second homeowners (special visas, relaxed planning regs, tourism offices working hand in hand with promoters) but are not really thinking through what might happen if these become permanent migrants. The social, cultural, economic, and environmental impacts are just not considered as they chase the individualist’s dollar.

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  6. Thanks for all the comments. I see that the discussion is going to two directions now but those are interlinked. In Finland, the ethos seems to be that since the welfare state educated its citizens and kept them healthy, they need to be loyal to the state (that is, working in Finland and paying their taxes there). It seems to be considered morally wrong to leave the country in search for a more relaxed life in a pleasant climate abroad. Karen and Nick are writing about the destinations here; it is interesting to think what kind of moral obligations do lifestyle migrants face there. I also find it very interesting to elaborate on why lifestyle migration has such a negative image in Finland whereas in some other countries the response is not that hostile.

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