What are we looking for?
Nothing in particular
Overwhelmingly, the interviewees left NZ, at least the first time, with no particular outcomes in mind. They spoke of having no real plan and simply being grateful that they had the opportunity to go and explore the world. This meant that they left with both, an open mind and, an adaptable spirit, both of which would prove useful when navigating their new life in a new place. Where they were able to articulate their motivations for leaving, these were more to do with pursuing a range of experiences, rather than achieving any specific goal.
Exploration & Adventure
The big OE is a cultural rite of passage in NZ so it’s perhaps not surprising that most of the interviewees had headed off, at least the first time, with the desire to simply travel and see the world. For many, London made an ideal base, given its convenient connections, and cheap flights, to both Europe and the rest of the world. London also offered the opportunity to connect with fellow adventurers, who were also interested in exploring, which meant, that even if the person had gone to London on their own, they soon made friends who were similarly inclined.
For some the desire to travel was fuelled less by a desire to go to a lot of different places and more by a curiosity about how people lived in different parts of the world. This led some to base themselves in a few places, each for a significant chunk of time, so they could immerse themselves in local culture and, learn more about the local people, than would be possible on a weekend away.
For those who had grown up in NZ, and not travelled a lot as a child, going away was seen as a way to broaden their world view. One interviewee spoke of her amazement at discovering the existence of South Africa because she’d never heard of it before. She was so intrigued by the stories she heard about the place that she went to check it out and ended up living there for 18 years!
In contrast, those who had grown up moving around, spoke of feeling like they were reconnecting with themselves. That getting back to a life on the road – the dynamism and constant change – felt a lot like coming home.
A little romance
Pursuing a romance, to see where it went, was named by many as a catalyst for leaving NZ at a particular time or, staying away for as long as they did. A couple of interviewees had connected with a foreigner working in NZ and followed them home. Others had started a relationship in a third country and decided to both move to London and see what happened. Several had fallen in love in with a local, married and stayed until the marriage ended. And a couple had been doing the long distance relationship thing with someone living abroad and, then decided to join them after a while.
For those going to the UK, the sense was more that London would offer up better or, at least, more career opportunities than would be possible in NZ. This was particularly so for those working in some of the new industries such as tech, web design and social enterprise. For others the scope and size of the jobs available or, the size of market meant (in theory) a greater number of opportunities to pursue.
What do we find?
Travel is addictive until it isn’t
Almost everyone spoke of how much they valued the opportunities to travel that had come from living abroad. Travel continued to be a priority for many, even when circumstances reduced their financial means and meant they had to reprioritise their spending, or choose cheaper destinations, to stay within budget.
But the nature and type of travel they enjoyed did seem to shift for many over the course of their time abroad. For example, they might start off going away every weekend, taking every opportunity to book a cheap flight and cross as many places off their list as possible in a single year.
But over time, the desire or ability to keep up such a frenetic pace would wane and the travel schedule would reduce to once a month or even just a couple of times a year. Some, who had done a lot of travel, even spoke of losing this desire to constantly be on the move as a clear signal it was time to come home.
The other reason that many noted a reduction in the desire to be away all the time was, that they became more embedded in their local community so, the pull to stay home at the weekend was stronger than the desire to be constantly away.
Careers don’t always go according to plan
No one in the group, who went with an explicit career plan in mind, ended up doing what they originally intended. Several experienced arriving in London just after a catastrophic event (September 11th) or in the midst of the Global Financial Crisis which meant that the jobs they had planned to get had simply disappeared.
In every case though, the person had committed to staying and adapted to take whatever job they could find. Eventually, they figured out an alternative plan which, over time, led on to, perhaps, even more professional success than they would have achieved if their original plan had panned out.
Even those who arrived at a boom time often found that, even though there were plenty of jobs, strong competition or a lack of local experience, meant they also had to adapt their plans. Ditto for those who got the dream job, only to find they hated it, so had to explore other options before finding a job they actually liked.
Contracting, taking the first job, being more open minded and experimental in your approach, rather than holding out for the perfect job, were cited as ways the interviewees adapted to the circumstances they faced. This led a number of them down a career path they would not have envisaged for themselves when they first headed off.
Why do we stay away?
Away time is play time
There was a strong sense that ‘away time is play time’ and that living your twenties, thirties or even forties abroad is akin to enjoying a prolonged adolescence in many ways. Renting, rather than owning, spending all your disposable cash on travel and eating out, constantly meeting and making new friends rather than sticking to the ones you know, were all examples of how the interviewees felt they were still in exploration (rather than settling down) mode.
Change is both addictive and scary
Others spoke of becoming addicted to particular aspects of the lifestyle, especially those who were more ‘expat’ than ‘emigrant’ in their approach. The constant change and dynamism of moving around and meeting others who were living in the same way, was seen as exciting because it connected the person to the wider world. Something many felt they would be giving up if they moved back to NZ.
For those who had more of the ‘emigrant’ experience the concern was almost the opposite. Having lived most of their adult lives in one other place, they had put down deep roots and, had a strong sense of belonging to their local community. Many could remember how difficult the first few years of living in the new place had been and how long it took to feel ‘at home’. This meant careful weighing up of the cost of what would be lost by moving to NZ vs. what they expected to gain.
Love, marriage, kids, mortgages
Interestingly even though many interviewees reported feeling like they were living a life of prolonged adolescence, many of them had actually ticked off quite a few of the markers of traditional adulthood – getting married, buying property or having children – which entrenched them to some extent in the other country.
For some, the catalyst to come back to NZ came when the relationship came to an end – to start again and create a new life for themselves. For others, the decision was made to transplant the partner (and kids) back to NZ and enter a new phase, one in which they consciously chose to ‘grow up and settle down’.
Not quite ready for the Kiwi lifestyle
Many interviewees made regular, often annual trips back to NZ where they stayed for several weeks or, even months. Sometimes this took place over several years until the person felt the time was ‘right’ to start planning the move home. There was a strong sense that NZ offers a specific set of lifestyle choices which you have to really want in order to make moving here worthwhile.
In particular the issue of distance and isolation from the rest of the world was particularly unappealing for those still struck with the travel bug. For others it was a fear of losing touch with the diverse network and broad world view that comes from constantly meeting those who live and think differently from you. This was particularly strong for those who had left NZ many years ago and carried around a memory of a culturally homogenous population, all sharing the same parochial world view.
Opportunity kept knocking
Being away, being adaptable and willing to try whatever came your way meant that many of the interviewees had said yes to opportunities that then led onto other things. Over time, this process had gained its own momentum and, before they knew it many years and several countries had slipped away. For most in this situation, the catalyst for deciding to return to NZ was an opportunity coming to an end meaning that for the first time, in years, they actually had to decide what they really wanted to do.
By Tricia Alach
Tricia Alach is a freelance consultant specialising in leadership development, talent management and OD.
She has recently returned to live in NZ after 12 years as a glomad living in the Netherlands, the UK and the US. She is also the author of How to have a Happy Homecoming blog, which tells the stories of Kiwis returning to live in NZ.
Feel free to connect via LinkedIn.