There's Plenty of Career Opportunities for Millennials ... Just Not on U.S. Soil

A millennial is, roughly speaking, a human being born between 1982 and 1992 who has been called everything under the sun. They are accused of being sex-crazed, or sex-deprived, or if you’re lucky, just sex-positive. They are called infinitely marketable, yet they are often impossibly indebted. They are digital natives who just can’t seem to, like, actually talk to one another. And, the latest, they are citizens of the world and the fact that so many of them work abroad speaks to a freedom, perhaps even a flippancy, not afforded to any previous generation.


In reality, what’s happening around 20- and 30-somethings traveling across borders for employment is not the Eurotrip pleasure tour. The truth is that Generation Y and millennials are more likely than Gen X was to seek employment abroad because there simply are no jobs to be had in the land of the plenty and the free.

According to the International Labour Organization, the rate of unemployment for young people worldwide is three times that of adults. In the US, 5.6 million 18- to 34-year-olds are looking for work, but haven’t yet found any and another 4.7 million are underemployed. These young people who are unemployed constitute 45% of all unemployed Americans. The numbers are far worse for Latinos and blacks—25% and 50% higher unemployment, respectively.

A recent Gallup poll tracking global migration patterns found that desire to move abroad increases with education level everywhere in the world, except in Australia and in North America, where 13% of those with primary education or less, 11% of those with secondary education, and only 9% of those with a college degree want to move abroad. An even wider gap exists for the poorest 20% and the richest 20% of North Americans.

The generation that was entering the job market, or maybe just taking out student loans, during the financial crash of 2008-2009, is also hampered, no matter where they may roam, with crippling debt. The average member of the class of 2012 strolled off campus with $29,400 in unpaid student loans, a number that has steadily risen by 6% every year since 2008.  

Given such bleak prospects is it any wonder the number of Americans ages 25 to 32 who are planning to move abroad has quadrupled in the last two years? Or that 40% of genuine millennials, ages 18-24 express interest in moving overseas (in 2007 that number was 12%)? As Madeleine Sumption, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute told Time in 2012, “The shifting balance of global growth is making emerging economies more attractive…. It is turning them into receiving countries, when traditionally they’ve been sending countries.”

“Emerging markets” are part of the equation, and the larger part is a lack of opportunity—not enough benefits let alone jobs—in the U.S.

“In the past, Americans often took foreign jobs for the adventure or because their career field demanded overseas work. Today, these young people are leaving because they can’t find jobs in the United States. They’re leaving because the jobs they do find often don’t offer benefits such as health insurance. They’re leaving because the gloomy atmosphere of the American economy makes it hard to break through with a new innovative idea or business model,” writes Emily Matchar for the Washington Post.

Many of the jobs Americans are taking abroad are in teaching or tech, in Asia, South America and Africa, in particular. In 2009, Reach to Teach, a company that places English-speaking teachers at schools in South Korea, China, Taiwan, Georgia, and Chile, received twice as many applications in 2009 as it had in 2008. The same year, Japan Exchange and Teaching received a 15% boost in applications from the U.S.

Let's face it: Going abroad is about finding work and opportunity for many millenials, as much as they might like to dress it up as an exercise in leisure.

In 2012, Jane Olin-Ammentorp wrote for PolicyMic, “Growing up in an age of globalization, we have been exposed to international developments that shaped the way we perceive the world: on a global, rather than local, basis. With relatively cheap flights to take us to the ends of the Earth (physically), and Skype to keep us grounded (emotionally), these days it’s pretty simple to spin a globe and jet off to wherever your finger lands.”

First, going to the ends of the earth is a metaphorical exercise, not a physical one. Second, and more importantly, a surplus of opportunity is not the reason millennials are booking those flights. In the list of “7 Reasons Why Living Abroad is a Key to Success for All Millennials” that follows Olin-Ammentorp’s remark, not a single one is directly linked to financial necessity.

In 2008 Rachel Nolan wrote for the The New York Times about how exhilarating it was for her to move to Germany to complete the spate of internships that would one day allow her to become a journalist. The article mentioned how cheap an apartment in Germany could be, but didn’t address such economic realities as how much those internships paid or how she was able to travel from Manhattan to Berlin,

I don’t want to devalue the experiences of those young people who went abroad to find success, personal growth and adventure. Such stories are hopeful and often self-reflective. But they are also perhaps not as objective as they could be about the real motives in play. Just as the stories that make out student debt to be “good debt” are beginning to melt away, so too must the myth that for millennials finding a job overseas has more to do with discovering expanded cultural horizons than it does with jumping a sinking ship.

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