Exploring different expat generations

In my latest Fact or Fiction entry, I posted a question whether there are significant differences between expat generations.

Referring to the workforce in general, the ‘Boomers’ ‘Xers’ and ‘Ys’ are familiar terms that reflect popular beliefs of significant differences among employee generations. However, contrary to the popular press, scholarly publications tend to discard such generational stereotyping. For example, a recent investigation by researchers from the Korn Ferry Institute (2010) states that most of the reviewed research studies find little or no support for generational differences. Moreover, the authors argue that there appear to be many more similarities than differences across generations in the workplace. Thus, in regards to the general workforce, the statement that there are significant generational differences in work-related values, attitudes and behaviours is rather tenuous.

Yet, what about expatriates? Although being part of the general workforce, expatriates can be still viewed as a separate cohort: they are the ones going abroad, adjusting to different cultures, and becoming more international. Given the continuous trends for globalization, expatriates of the 20th century may indeed differ from the ones of the 21st. While there is no scientific evidence yet supporting the generational differences of expats, some anecdotal comparative evidence might be worth a review.

An online article by The Global Relocation Management Company HRC is a relevant example. The HRC professionals explore the different expat generations, starting with Traditionalists and concluding with Generation Z, looking at their past experiences, the key influences for each generation, and their present-day state.

The authors argue that Expat Traditionalists (born between 1900 and 1945) are the oldest generation alive today, who were there to see the changing face of global mobility practices. The working expats of this generation were used to a self-service approach abroad. Specifically, they were given very little support in terms of different services (such as Cross Cultural Training) provided today. However, to compensate for this lack of support, the Traditionalists were given large budgets, and their generous remuneration packages seemed to be the solution to any difficulties. Finally, the article states that by being brought up after the war years, the Traditionalists worked incredibly hard, saved their money, respected authority, and believed in the strong link between the efforts made and the benefits earned.

The next generation of the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), whilst being brought up by the hard-working Traditionalists, also witnessed and participated in various social revolutions that proclaimed greater freedom and independence. Lacking work-life balance, the Baby Boomers emerged as being more independent, focused on success and driven by achievement. Similar to the previous generation, this generation believes that hard work leads to subsequent promotions and benefits. Growing older and seeing the changes in global mobility, the Baby Boomers also requested more support in relocations, especially in regards to the accompanying partner and family issues.

Expat Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) consists of those individuals that are close to reaching the peak of their careers and represent the most common form of working expatriates today. The HCR professionals argue that these expats are highly educated, motivated and eager to grab the chance of a new assignment in a new destination. As this generation is also most likely to be accompanied by their partners and/or children, the demand for support practices of international mobility has further increased, including educational assistance or working-partner support. Expat Generation X are more ‘internationally minded’ than the preceding generations.

The Generation X is followed by the Expat Generation Y (born between 1981 and 1994), who are the young, ambitious and adventurous. Being the first generation to experience travelling as a world trend, these employees are eager to go abroad with less consideration of its long-term impact, but rather seeing it as a desired international experience. Given their young age and lack of experience, Generation Y expats are the most common cohort for developmental assignments, as opposed to major global projects ran by the Xers or Baby Boomers. At the same time, the authors consider the Generation Y expats to be the most flexible candidates for fitting the company needs of global expansion.

Finally, the article also provides some discussion on the future expatriate generation, namely Generation Z (born 1995-2010). The authors propose that although little is known about this generation, its differences may in fact be bigger than ever before. This assumption is closely linked to the technological era, implying that this generation grows up with increasingly advanced technology from a very young age. Thus, Generation Z is seen to face the future of relocation assisted by advanced technology and relocation services that will substantially ease bridging the gap between home and host countries. Yet, apart from all these benefits, the authors also highlight the negative aspects of the global financial crisis that might influence the nature of global relocations in the future.

Despite these differences, an important commonality across these different generational groups is that they were and will only be effective if they develop sufficient cultural awareness that enables them to learn from their host cultural counterparts while also reflecting on their own cultural origins.

One thought on “Exploring different expat generations

  1. In Europe, educated young people have had more and more experiences abroad as they went though their cursus (Erasmus for EU). English is more and more the global business vernacular language.
    So new generations are more prepared than BB and Xs.

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