Thanks to decades of hard work of committed researchers, authors, speakers, voices and communities in social media, and the sheer power of individuals sharing their stories, what the world knows today about expatriate (expat) life and the globally mobile family is increasingly moving out from under the shadows of stereotypes.
The population of expats or global nomads, estimated to be 220 million by Pico Iyer in his 2013 TedGlobal Talk, is not a homogeneous group. Global nomads represent a variety of backgrounds and are more than just the face of pampered global citizens glamorously living in exotic lands.
- The sense of dislocation in defining, “Where is home” and finding where you belong
- The struggle to explain your identity and “where you come from“ in a world that only justifies rigid identities and is impatient with grey areas
- The urge to move frequently or need to withdraw, which can be dismissed as mere negative or irresponsible personality traits by non-TCK’s
- The compatibility of TCK’s and non-TCK’s or First Culture Kids in relationships
- The question of whether or not TCK parents should raise a new generation of children as TCK’s, knowing the challenges that come with it
The Elephant in the Suitcase
Yet there is a journey that not many global nomads have begun to speak about: the life stage that includes aging, sudden health or mental health related disabling conditions, and dying.
It is uncomfortable, morbid, and intrusive, and seems rudely inappropriate or cold. However, it is absolutely necessary to discuss to avoid negative experiences for everyone due to lack of preparation. Why? Simply because we, as a tribe of global nomads, have already come to understand the importance of healthy goodbyes.
The experiences of expats leaving aging parents behind or suddenly repatriating to care for them may be familiar to my readers who are expats, especially the women. It goes even deeper. Now, we are living in an age when there can be two generations of expats above the age of 55. Seniors are living longer (see these recent articles from Australia and the U.S.). The proportion of seniors are also about to increase. While there are 600 million people aged 65 and over today, according to an article with United Nations statistics, by 2035, that number will increase to 1.1 billion. With these trends, it is necessary to get deeper into the picture of what expats go through as expats themselves age or retire. (Please see links below)
A globally mobile past can make for difficult and complex decisions surrounding caregiving support, place of residence for retirement, and death and burial planning, especially when adult children are still relocating. Even more complex issues arise when health or mental health related disabling conditions happen at a younger age than expected.
With the extreme disparities in the cultural expectations, economic status, safety net for retirees, and other factors among the expats’ host countries, expats can experience aging differently from one another. Certain populations of global nomads can easily fall through the cracks without sufficient social support, financial backing or the mental preparation for the stage of life that non expats struggle with as it is.
It is an uncomfortable topic, but a high ranking diplomat, for example, can experience a sudden plummet in his or her socio-economic status if faced with a sudden health crisis around the time of retirement. If that diplomat serves an economically poor country, chances are the retirement pension cannot provide adequate support to recover from any sudden crisis. Military veterans, retired missionaries, corporate expats and other global nomads are not exempt from this. No matter how much one saves or plans financially, a perfect storm of unexpected events may quickly wipe it all away because a crisis can be just the beginning of a tough road. Suddenly, the whole family and potentially three generations can become drastically impacted by what would otherwise be mostly affecting the elderly.
Despite the misconceptions and stereotypes about expats and Third Culture Kids, social workers, counselors, psychologists, faith-based ministries, teachers, human resource staff and others must recognize this reality: Expats have a wide range of genuine needs distinct to individuals and families with a current or dormant globally mobile life, and the life stage of aging or sudden disability is a significant transition.
The juncture at which converge the decision on which country to live for retirement, policies regarding government benefits intended for nationals with a long work history, and the timing of possible migration for family reunification is very complex and unique to baby boomers who are globally mobile. Because of this, the journey of aging and retirement can be one of the most drastic life transitions in an expat’s life.
This also has implications for one of the most discussed topics addressed in the existing literature on Global Nomads or Third Culture Kids and Cross Culture Kids thus far: unresolved grief. Unresolved grief, has had a dramatic impact on the lives of expats and the global family who did not have the proper support through the multiple life losses that come with an expat life. The life stage of aging and retirement, with all its final goodbyes, is one that individuals and families with either an active or dormant globally mobile lifestyle, must be well prepared for. Those who are left behind at this life stage need to prepare to grieve with hopefully the least regrets as possible. Those who are departing must rebuild the “RAFT,” coined by the late author David C. Pollock and co-author Ruth Van Reken, needed for the final goodbye.
For all these reasons, I hope to be able to join the ranks of those who have come before me and add my contribution using my own personal story. My other blog posts will focus more on specific topics and insights. After years of serving the global nomad community through TCKid: A Home for Third Culture Kids, I hope now to also offer my insights from watching my expat parents age, one parent’s life end, my son’s struggle as a 3rd generation TCK and my own TCK journey as a caregiver with obligations to stay when I felt itchy feet the most.
My goal is to help other families prepare and make the most of their time together in this journey where there is no turning back.
Until our next hello,
Photo: “Last Call” by Juangiahui, used with Creative Commons license1 – “A Third Culture Kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ passport culture(s).” The experience includes “frequently build(ing) relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.” 2 – “A Cross-Cultural Kid ( CCK) is a person who has lived in—or meaningfully interacted twith—two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during developmental years.” Source of definitions: Pollock, D. and Van Reken, R.E. (2009) Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
See – UN World Population Aging 1950-2050, and UN World Population Aging 2013 ; how Australians are living longer but suffering more from chronic diseases, and how elderly in the US are living longer.