November 20, 2011

American Migration

More Americans are looking to live and work elsewhere. Not those who are seeking citizenship elsewhere, the migrants, but those who are leaving to live and work elsewhere, the relocators.

Since 2005, IBOPE-Zogby (formerly Zogby International) has surveyed statistically-valid samples of the American people on the subject of relocation outside the US on nine occasions. The survey was structured to remove those relocating for reasons of government service, either civilian or military, or as a result of private sector employment. The sole interest was in those voluntarily relocating by their own decision. There are several different levels of interest and commitment to relocation, but this focuses on only group: those who have decided to relocate and have moved beyond interest to the planning stage.

The seventh survey in mid-2007 found the number to be consistent with the average of the prior six surveys – about 1.4% - equivalent to roughly 1.6 million households, more than 3 million Americans. An eighth survey in 2009 demonstrated a substantial drop-off to .8%., unsurprisingly. This drop-off resulted from a loss of financial resources that made relocation impossible or simply too risky. But the ninth survey in 2011 shows something else. The number has shockingly soared to 2.5% - close to 3 million households and more than 6 million individuals, nearly 80% more than in 2007 and triple the results of 2009.

If those who were relocating for reasons of service to the public and private sectors, the results would be higher, but not as instructive. And if those who were “seriously interested and likely to relocate” were included, the results would have been much more dramatic. The survey results are at

At a time of great financial stress when the US seems so self-absorbed with its own self-inflicted wounds, the decision to pack your bags, sell your home (if you have one) for what you can get, and set off to live in a foreign nation is not lightly taken. It is posited that many of these people are “risk-takers,” the sort of people who challenge the status quo and help move a nation forward.

Why are they doing this? Is the debacle underway in the US and Europe reason enough?
In his 2007 book, Leaving America: The New Expatriate Generation, author John R. Wennersten argues that “many people these days, from college students to retirees, are uncertain or ambivalent about what it means to be an American.”

These misgivings, maintains Wennersten, combined with world-shrinking technology such as Skype, Google Docs, and Apple’s FaceTime, have “encouraged a new generation of people to respond to the pull of global citizenship.” However, according to John Sternal, vice president of communications and research at, economic distress trumps existential anxiety for many lessees jettisoning their cars and moving abroad.

“Up until 2007, our business was all about the upgrade,” Sternal says. “Then, when cracks in the housing market started to appear and everyone’s adjustable rate mortgages were adjusting, we started seeing people downsizing. When oil prices spiked toward the end 2008, we saw a wave of people getting rid of their Hummers and SUVs because they couldn’t afford five-dollar-a-gallon gas. It was right around this time we saw the first wave of customers turning in their cars and leaving the U.S.” Sternal says he was not altogether surprised; for many people, the economic upset was “tremendous.”

“We’d sit there and say, ‘Okay, this is drastic, but once the economy gets out of technical recession mode, things will get back to normal,’” recalls Sternal. “Now, here we are, almost four years later, and the number of people ending leases and moving elsewhere has about doubled since then. That’s what’s shocking to us.”

In fact, LeaseTrader’s data projects that 6.2% of this 2011’s “lease escapes” will be leaving the country -- more than twice the 2.5% who left in 2007.

Some escapees are returning to where they originally emigrated from, with the top-five destinations being Brazil, Israel, India, the U.K., and Asia. “Some people are sort of ‘going back home,’” Sternal explains. “It’s not really happening for them in America anymore, so they leave. Others have been unemployed for two, three, four, five years. The system no longer works for them. These folks are basically saying, ‘There are different places in this world I can flat out move to and resurrect my financial situation.’”

While no reliable data exists as to the total number of American expats out there, Elizabeth Grieco, chief of immigration statistics at the U.S. Census Bureau, once told Jay Tolson of U.S. News & World Report, estimates place the figure somewhere between four and six million, although I think the number is actually much larger just based upon the current survey’s numbers.

As far as intent to leave the country, statistics compiled by consultant Bob Adams of America Wave, Inc. reveal two fascinating insights:

One, 40% of Americans aged 18 to 24 are seriously interested in relocating outside the US.

And two, it’s not only the wealthy who plan to leave.

Adams’ stats show people earning less than $50,000 per year are 2.7% more likely to leave the country than those earning between $50,000 and $75,000, 4% more likely to leave than those earning between $75,000 and $100,000, and are almost twice as likely to move elsewhere than those earning over $100,000.

“Yes, having more money is helpful for many things, relocation among them, but it is not the determining factor,” he writes.

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