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How to Be a Successful Expat Family

Article Summary:

More and more families are taking up the lifestyle of an expat family, but if they are to become successful in this new endeavor it is often dependent upon the failure or success of adaptation of all family members.

Photo Credit: Telegraph UK

Original Article Text From Financial Times:

Expat life succeeds if the kids are all right

When the Beijing school year ends, many foreign families will go home, never to return.
A recent Financial Times report said expatriates had had enough of the toxic smog which, on some days in January, had reached levels nearly 40 times higher than the limit considered safe by the World Health Organisation.

“It seems a lot of people, particularly families with small children who have been here a few years, are reconsidering the cost-benefit equation and deciding to leave for health reasons,” said Chad Forrest, North China general manager for Santa Fe Relocations.

Once, expatriate managers, especially British ones, did not worry about children adapting to foreign climates because they left them in boarding schools at home.
But the business of sending managers abroad has changed. Families now matter. And, often, they refuse to go.

First, the person the academic literature calls the “trailing spouse” (usually, but not always, the wife) often now has a career of their own.

Michael Harvey, of Mississippi University and Australia’s Bond University, points out that a 2005 survey found that both partners worked outside the home in 70 per cent of US professional families, compared with 60 per cent in 1995.
All expatriates run the risk of being forgotten at head office and having to return, eventually, to less elevated positions. For the partner not being moved abroad by her own company, those risks are greater, if, indeed, she can even find a job in the new country.

Then there are the children. Most parents now prefer to have their offspring living with them. For a family, moving to a new country can be an adventure, one that gives the children a cultural adeptness and even another language.
Children and the “trailing spouse” sometimes establish better local friendships than the parent working in the company does.

On the other hand, a foreign posting can be a disaster. Whatever family strains already exist can be exacerbated by a move away from family, friends and the educational and cultural knowledge of home.

And then there is the children’s health. As Prof Harvey says, many of the big job opportunities are in emerging markets, where crime can be high, infectious diseases common and the air impure. While expatriate parents may be prepared to make compromises, “child safety is not one of them”.

What can companies do? First, they should change their thinking about who goes abroad.
Many companies look simply at how good the candidate has been at home, assuming the same qualities can be transferred elsewhere.

Others look at language abilities and the likelihood of making the cultural adjustment. While an increasing number of companies offer assistance to the rest of the family, research cited by Prof Harvey suggests this is largely done in an ad hoc rather than a systematic way.

Yet several studies have shown that “the failure of spouse or family to adjust to foreign environments is the number one reason for expatriate failure”, he writes.
These failures are expensive for the company and can damage the career of the expatriate.

How can companies avoid them? They could send managers abroad before they have children. Many female professionals start families later anyway and may welcome the chance to work somewhere else and advance their careers. With people working longer, companies can also send managers abroad once their children have grown up.

Finally, companies can rethink the colonial-style model of sending managers from developed countries to emerging ones. The pace and scale of international migration means large companies are often staffed by people from all over the world.

Companies can post their foreign-born managers back to their home countries. They speak the language and know the culture, while understanding how the company works. Their children sometimes have adjustment problems too, but there are more likely to be grandparents and other family members around to help.

In China a few years ago, I visited the local arm of a US multinational. The subsidiary was run entirely by Chinese managers who had been to US universities and had worked their way up the American company. Of course, if Chinese managers go back to Beijing, they have to be prepared to submit their children to the pollution too.

Link to Original Article:

From Financial Times

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