Older expatriates: When maturity becomes an advantage

Common sense would suggest that these days, younger people are more globally minded than before. Referring back to my post on generational differences in expats, Generation X and Y employees are much more open to living abroad, more adventurous and internationally oriented compared to previous generations. Thus, when considering international assignments as ‘going global’ experiences, shouldn’t younger expatriates be more suitable and successful in terms of cross-cultural adjustment and communication than older professionals?

Drawing from several personal stories of older workers, a recent BBC article proposes a different perspective to the relationship between age and expatriation. For example, older professionals have an advantage in experience over the young and adventurous. While being adventurous may ease the decision of whether to accept an expatriate assignment on very flexible conditions, ambitions and family-related requirements may turn out to be challenging to satisfy. In this sense, older employees can be even more flexible expatriates than the younger ones. In the words of one expat cited in the article, older people can have more freedom to move: “The advantage is you don’t need money. You have your house, car and money in the bank, retirement income, and your children are grown up.”

Further, although being young and internationally minded fits the ‘globalist’ role, it cannot substitute for the invaluable knowledge, steady temperament, calmness and confidence of more mature assignees. The latest Brookfield Global Relocation survey indeed suggests that the average age of migrating professionals has been rising over the last two years, which may imply that companies start acknowledging the value of older workers. According to Brookfield GRS’ Michael Gorski cited in the article, “[i]t is also often the case that they have a very strong people-skill set, as they come from a time when those skills were more polished than they are often today.”

This latter notion is also echoed in an academic study by Jan Selmer (2001), which examined the relationship between the basic personal characteristics of expatriates, such as age, gender and marital status, and their ability to adjust. Based on 343 expatriates residing in Hong Kong, the study results clearly showed that age was positively associated with both expatriates’ sociocultural and psychological adjustment. In other words, older employees in the study turned out to be better off in their ability to ‘fit in’ to the host country, they had better practical social skills, and stronger feelings of well-being in relation to the adjustment process. Based on these results, Selmer proposes that ‘companies may find it advantageous to consider age as a proxy characteristic for maturity and hence balance this criteria against other requirements of a particular expatriate deployment’ (p. 1228). Although a decade old, the study’s results and practical implications seem very relevant for today’s companies that, for less apparent reasons, seem to prefer young employees over older ones.

Further reading:

Jan Selmer, J. (2001).’Expatriate selection: Back to basics?’ International Journal of Human Resource Management, 12, 8, 1219-1233.

One thought on “Older expatriates: When maturity becomes an advantage

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