10 Reasons to Become Expat as Young as Possible.
Updated: Sep 17, 2019
'Isn't becoming expat only something for executives and senior leadership?' is a question I often hear. 'I do not know how to become expat because I am still too junior' is one of the self-limiting beliefs I have witnessed. The opposite is the case. The younger we are, the easier it is for us to make the big move. At the same time, studies have shown that we benefit the most for our lives and career when we gain international experience as young as possible. Why is that the case? Find out the 10 top reasons to become an expat as young as possible.
1. You can focus entirely on yourself, your goals, and your preferences.
Let’s face it. The older you get, the higher the chance that you will not move alone through life anymore. You might have found your significant other, adopted pets, or started a family. Moving abroad with partner and family is still possible. It just gets a lot more complicated. As long as you are alone, you can focus entirely on your career opportunities and geographical preferences. The more people on board, the more complex the venture becomes. Becoming an expat family is not like a boat with one captain that dictates how to handle things. Every family member – as soon he or she has a voice - should have a saying. Moving, in general, gets increasingly complicated when the kids reach school age. From that time till graduation from high school, (international) schooling must be accounted (and paid) for.
As long as you are single, you can decide your next move entirely by yourself.
2. You own less things.
What applies for relationships (see reason no. 1) applies equally in the materialistic world. Exceptions aside, people own fewer things when they are young. I witnessed it in my own family.
I moved to Vietnam with two suitcases. My parents live in a big house surrounded by stuff.
For the past six years, this stuff has made them regularly freak out what to do with it when they finally move into an older generation friendly domicile. For their defense, I have to say that I still store some of my stuff at their home. (Although I am convinced my share accounts for not more than 0.5% of all things). Once you own a household, moving becomes increasingly complicated, stressful, and expensive.
As long as you are young and live light, you pack your suitcases, and off you go into the next adventure.
3. Your mind, brain, and body are more flexible.
While open-mindedness is mostly a matter of attitude, we cannot deny specific changes in dynamics occurring while we age. Naturally, you begin valuing familiarity, routine and structure more the older you become — the desire to settle and put down roots in the logic consequence of a change in priorities. The younger you are, the better you can usually adapt to different environments. Learning a new language, adapting to a foreign culture, getting used to various weather conditions, or embracing foreign customs – all those aspects naturally get more difficult the older you get.
The younger you are, the easier it will be for you to adapt to your new environment. And this one of the significant requirements for becoming a thriving expat.
4. You are healthy.
This reason is closely connected to reason no. 3. For the average person, health deteriorates with increasing age. Once we pass the 30, most of us begin slowly but steadily experiencing some pinching here and there. It might not be too bad yet. But suddenly you need a particular treatment or medication that is not available in your host country. For example, I know older friends who increasingly struggle with air pollution in Asia the older they get. Psychotherapists in Vietnam are rare and expensive. Moving abroad is already a challenging stretch. Doing so in bad health might be a bit too much of a stretch.
In case you are healthy, be grateful, and use your valuable time. You can lose your health at any time.
5. You take over more responsibility than your peers at home.
The average annual cost of an international assignment is US$ 311,000. That is a considerable amount of money. It becomes even more apparent when we compare this sum to the much smaller price tag of most local staffing solutions. As a consequence, most companies follow the credo of as little as possible, as much as necessary. Thus, attractive, expat opportunities are rare. At the same time, a more significant price tag is only reasonable with a convincing outcome. In economic terms, one could argue: ‘As long as the Return on Investment (ROI) the investment itself is secondary.’ Consequently, international assignments are usually the matter of choice in critical roles that have a more significant lever on the organization’s global success.
Senior leadership often supervises those critical roles. Even if you are still at the beginning of your career, you likely have the honor and responsibility of reporting directly to senior management. That enables you to network on a different level. One that you often would not be able to reach at the same time being based on just one location. The traditional career usually follows a defined career path: As you are promoted over time the hierarchical level of your new supervisor also increase step by step (e.g., first Team Leader, then Department Head, etc.). While approaching your career in this way can definitively lead to success as well there is the risk that although you are doing a good job, the influential decision-makers might not know you and your achievements. I have experienced those dynamics several times in my career. Having joined an international graduate program, I had the chance to network with senior leaders of the company around the globe right from the start. It helped me a lot in the medium term, and I am sure it will benefit me even more in the long run. From the perspective of your current supervisor, it might be against his/her interest to promote your abilities within the organization. That could result in more senior managers wanting you on their teams. In that case, your current supervisor would find him/herself in a weaker position and lose you as an important asset. The result? The infamous glass ceiling.
Although it is not a rule written in stone, chances are higher that as an expat you report to managers to whom you would not have access in a regular position. These dynamics put a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. The simple rules of a lever apply. If you master it, you will benefit from a promising career. If you fail to deliver you better start looking for a new role. The rules that apply for economic markets also apply for careers: Where is a risk there is a reward.
Let me share with you some personal experience. Relocating to Vietnam and driving projects all over South East Asia as well as India helped me to develop a robust network in those regions. My following role will lead me to Africa. I did not know the senior management in that region personally. The first thing I heard during my first call was: ‘Till two days ago I did not know even of your existence. But I heard about you from Mr. X. ‘
6. You can boost your career right from the start.
As we have already looked at the opportunity that comes along with more responsibility in expat roles, it is standing to reason that international assignments can act as a career booster. It is especially the case in companies, which align their Global Mobility Program with their Talent Development Program. With the increased responsibility and visibility within the company as well as excellent networking options, international roles can act as career accelerators. In some organizations, international experience is a must-have for elevating to certain hierarchy levels.
One danger lies in generalizing the chances and risks of international assignments regarding career opportunities. A job abroad is not a guarantee for faster career development. I would even go so far as to say it is not a guarantee for any career enhancement at all. International roles are simply an opportunity. In other words: They are a test to see if and how you can solve problems and overcome challenges in environments that differ from your home. A role overseas is like an empty space: if you manage to fill the space, your organization benefits. Likewise, if your organizations benefit, you will reward you.
In my personal opinion, not everybody is interested in or made for spending a significant part of his/her career abroad. And that is fine. Imagine everyone would strive for adventures abroad. It would result in a terrible oversupply, increased competition, and worsened working conditions. At the same time, I am convinced that pursuing an ambitious career in a globalized economy will sooner or later require at least one international move.
7. You can bring your English to perfection.
English is the language of the global business world. As globalization advances, this trend will continue. English will become even more critical. Various companies underline that development by switching from their native language to English as the preferred language of communication (e.g., The big German automotive company VW).
Indisputably, solid English language skills are a must-have for promising careers in any field or profession in the 21st century. But it does not stop there. Research has shown that foreign accents in English can hurt your career. Individuals with accents are perceived as having weaker political skills – an essential factor in career development. While these bias-based dynamics are certainly wrong from an ethical and moral standpoint, they define the rules of the game. Changing the rules of the game takes time and requires the collaboration of many involved parties. It is definitively worth it as it will benefit the next generations. For your particular situation, it is best to master the game with the existing set of rules. Applied to Business English, this means to do your best to soften your foreign accent in English or ideally erase it completely. Thanks to a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. It means that your brain cells can adapt and change according to how you use them. It is even possible to erase one’s foreign accent even in adult age. It becomes increasingly tricky since our neurons are most flexible during childhood, but it is still definitively possible. I witness it from my situation. Although I still have a German accent, it is way less dominant than it was a couple of years ago. Before all people I spoke to could identify my accent. Now maybe 30% get it right — a good motivation to keep going.
The younger you are, the easier it gets to perfect your English and also soften your foreign accent. Moving abroad requires you to communicate mostly in English or the local language. In both cases, this will boost your lingual development rapidly. You would never be able to make up when becoming expat at a later stage in life.
8. You are cheaper than older colleagues and still benefit financially.
International assignments are costly investments for any organization. It’s no wonder that the majority of corporations increase their efforts to reduce the overall costs of international assignments. Naturally, more senior candidates demand a higher salary. But what bloats up expat compensation packages are the allowances. Those are often included in ‘expat packages’ as additional benefits on top of the salary. They have the purpose of compensating for any hardships occurring due to the move abroad.
Additionally, expat allowances intend to maintain a similar standard of living as in the home country. Those additional benefits serve the purpose of incentivizing top-performing employees to leave their home primarily for the good of the company. Those allowances include but are not limited to:
Housing and Utilities Allowance
Location Premium (Hazard Pay)
Home-Return Allowance (e.g., airfare for visiting family and friends in the home country)
In all of the Allowance mentioned above categories, younger expats require a way smaller allowance package. The win-win aspect of this is that even more junior expats get smaller allowance packages this does not influence their overall compensation. As long you are not married and do not have a family, you are okay with a nice one or two-bedroom apartment instead of a villa with four bedrooms. Not having children means you do not have to worry about costly fees for international schooling. Without any considerable household, you do not have to find an expensive solution for long-term storage or shipping. Without a spouse or family, you do not need several plane tickets but only one. All those aspects add up and make you a more economical solution for the employer while it does not affect your overall compensation and lifestyle. You still benefit from an attractive salary package and an allowance package that suits your individual needs.
Differences in the overall costs of potential candidates for international assignments do not play the primary role in the decision-making process. The eligibility of the candidate for the role is always the most crucial factor. If the position includes leadership and profit & loss responsibility, a senior manager with a well-established track record will always be the preferred choice despite his more significant price tag. Assignment costs can turn the scale when it is a draw in all other aspects. Being aware of this might help you in negotiations someday.
9. You can build your financial freedom faster.
Depending on your financial goals and lifestyle preferences, this might be more or less important for you. I do believe it is crucial to understand the dynamics. It allows you to understand the consequences and choose your way of living and priorities.
In the common understanding, financial freedom means that you have sufficient regular income to maintain your preferred lifestyle without the necessity to work on a ‘time for money’ basis. To achieve financial freedom through multiple income streams your income in the form of a salary or compensation for freelance work is an important starting point but not the final goal. Increasing your salary does not automatically lead to financial freedom. Actually, in most cases, it leads to quite the opposite. People tend to follow a phenomenon called lifestyle inflation. It means people spend their increased salary (e.g., from a promotion) on liabilities like a bigger apartment, a faster car or technological gadgets instead of investing their increased income. Welcome to the rat race! For achieving financial freedom most significant is how much of your income you invest in assets such as stocks, funds, or real estate, among others. Well diversified, those investments will increase in value over a long period. Additionally, they will earn you regular cash flow in the form of dividends, interests, or rental income, which does not depend on your time spent working.
Achieving financial freedom is simple. It is not easy but simple. It is simple because it is not Rocket Science. The required background knowledge and skill set can quickly be built up using the limitless ocean of learning called the Internet. It is not easy because it is a marathon that requires decades of dedication, focus, and a strong will to delay gratification. We all know the examples of unicorn entrepreneurs, celebrities, or athletes that seem to be overnight successes. Although their wealth and fame might have raised after they have been ‘discovered,’ they are no overnight successes. They all invested a lot of time, efforts, and resources in year-long training, education, business ideas that failed, and other means that ultimately lead them to success. The same rules apply to the average person. If you want to achieve something extraordinary, you have to put in the time and efforts. Developing skills or businesses that generate your financial wealth and using your income to invest it to achieve the same is six of one and half a dozen of another. It requires similar mindsets and a high level of self-control.
Thanks to a financial phenomenon called compound interest every dollar invested at a young age is worth a lot more than multiple dollars invested a couple of years later. Let me give you an easy example: We all have those daily indulgences we love. Let it be the Starbucks coffee, the milk tea, the fancy cocktail in the upscale bar, the cigarettes or the protein/wellness sports drink. Let’s assume we spent five US-Dollars on those a day. Not that much, is it? Now imagine we would invest the same amount at a realistic annual growth rate of 10% for 40 years. That is the average return rates for the S&P 500 index, which acts as a suitable representation of the US stock market. Since its inception in 1926, its growth has been 10% annually on average, including the big regular crashes. After 40 years our investments equal to a daily coffee brings us 807,000 US-Dollars (before inflation and taxation). Not bad, right? If you would just have saved the money without investing it, you would have only 73,000 US-Dollars as shown in the graph below.
Now image which financial levels you can reach if you invest more. I invite you to play with the numbers yourself using this free compound interest calculator. One critical parameter when it comes to compound interest is time. It makes a hell of a difference. Look at the graph above again. The massive difference between your contributions (the amount you put aside for investments, blue line) and the value of the investment (red line) starts developing between year 30 and 40. That is the case because you get interest on your previous interests. This effect to kick in requires a considerable amount of time and patience. Let’s assume you would only begin cutting back on your daily Starbucks coffee in the last ten years of your career. You would only have investments worth 29,000 US-Dollars. The difference between your contributions and the value of the investment would only be 10,000 US-Dollars (see chart below). Not that impressive is it? All good things take time. Financial wealth is no exception. You might ask yourself what all of this has to do with becoming an expat as young as possible? Let’s find out in the next paragraph.
Becoming expat at a young age can boost your financial standing and can be a massive facilitator to reach financial freedom. How? Find out the six main reasons below:
a) Depending on your expat contract you can benefit from high salaries and additional allowances as compensation for moving abroad. Learn about expat contracts and what to look out for in my book The Thriving Expat - Master Your Life and Career Abroad.
b) You can take advantage of lower living costs depending on the host country. You can enjoy a good lifestyle and still invest the most significant chunk of your income. Fact is that you can burn all your income wherever you live no matter how high (or low) or income is. If you make 50,000 US-Dollars a month but begin driving around in a Bentley, eating out in the best places in town every day and flying First Class, your money will burn fast. It is all about self-control. Not matter if you make 500 US-Dollars or 50,000 US-Dollars a month.
c) Due to the complexity of taxation in international assignments, many companies handle the tax burden. That often results in you having a considerably higher net salary after all deductions. In combination with point one and two, you have much more dispensable income to your availability. It allows you to burn through the cash and spend it on a lavish lifestyle or invest the money to reach financial freedom. Guess what my recommendation is…
d) When you move abroad at a younger age, it is more likely that you do not have your own family yet. As discussed before, this means you have fewer liabilities to finance and worry about. You can focus on building financial wealth without occupying your mind with kindergarten or international schooling fees, spacious cars, child-friendly (and costly) living environments among many more aspects. Let me give you an example: Your income with a successful career at age 45 will be much higher than at age 30. Nevertheless, the younger you can invest more money than your older one. Responsibilities create liabilities, which feed on your dispensable income. At a younger age, it is easier to keep your (financial) obligations at bay and invest as much as you can. That is what Robert Kiyosaki, the famous author of the personal finance bestseller Rich Dad Poor Dad refers to as ‘pay yourself first.’ Find out more in my book recommendations under Personal Finance.
e) The younger you are the earlier you can benefit from points 1 – 4. Due to the compound interest effect, every single dollar invested at a young age will bring you tenfold (and much more) return over an extended period.
f) As we have already learned, can international experience act as a career boost. In many globally acting companies, it is even a requirement for reaching senior-level positions. An elevating career increases your income. If you continue living below your means and avoid lifestyle inflation, you will be able to build incredible wealth over time.
10. You fail forward.
I genuinely believe that life is about trying out things, experimenting, and learning about yourself, others, and the world. Living and working abroad throws you into an unfamiliar environment that pushes you precisely in that direction – outside your cozily padded comfort zone. It throws you into the deep end, forcing you to swim and grow on the job.
“I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can't read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”—Bill Bryson
I have the privilege of experiencing precisely what Bill Bryan describes daily. I have been living in Vietnam for two years. No day passes by where I do not experience those little moments of astonishment, wonder, excitement, or irritation. Stepping out of the door and diving into the metropolitan jungle of Saigon never stops being an adventure. My senses are triggered continuously by different colors, smells, and sounds, which puts me into a constant state. I call this the Expat High. I am talking about a state of mind that keeps your energy level, creativity, and love of experimentation elevated continuously. Created by emotions, reinforced by experiences and sustained by your mind, the Expat High triggers the same rewarding brain regions as some drugs. The only but vital difference is that one has an intrinsic origin while the other is externally initiated through the (ab)use of substances.
On my expat journey, I feel increased levels of positivity, optimism, curiosity, and motivation. It helps me to look at life from different perspectives and experience the same in its many dimensions. I have never had more energy and motivation to tackle projects and work towards the best version of myself.
Trying and testing many new things comes along with failures and disappointments. The secret lies in failing forward as leadership guru John C. Maxwell puts it. As long as you learn from your mistakes, every failure brings you one step closer towards your goals. The younger you are, the less severe are the consequences of failing and the societal punishment for it. Nobody judges a toddler for not being able to eat correctly with cutlery. If you are not able to do so at the age of ten, you (and your parents) will be judged. The same principle applies in later stages of life. Let me give you an example: When you work abroad in a more junior position, people will not expect you to get everything right. That provides you with an environment to grow through feedback, training, and experience. If you are already a senior leader within your organization, moving abroad without any cultural sensitivity, the consequences will be much more severe. The same goes for your private life. We all make mistakes in relationships – from treating people wrong over choosing the wrong partner or not being aware of what we want. That is all part of learning about ourselves, others, and interpersonal relationship dynamics. The majority of us will not marry their high school sweetheart. (Sorry, real life is not similar to a Disney movie). Being successful with the first shot is basically like a lottery win. It requires a substantial portion of luck. Mistakes in (romantic) relationships at a young age might get you burned and break your heart for a while. But the emergency exit door is always in close reach and once you step through you find yourself in a new world with no need to turning back. When you are married and have kids, house, mortgage, and pets, consequences will be more severe.
Being a young expat allows you to fail forward faster in many different dimensions in life while still having newbie protection. It is like the Wild West in PG-13: a lot of action happens, but nobody has to die.
Having learned more about myself and the world than I could have ever imagined, I want to encourage and support like-minded people to start their international journey to discover the richness of our planet. I hope these ten reasons for becoming an expat as young as possible have stirred up your desire to start your expat adventure. My book The Thriving Expat – Master Your Life and Career Abroad will help you to become not only a better expat but a better person. Whichever stage of your expat journey you are at this moment, The Thriving Expat will help you evolve to the next levels faster and with fewer detours.
 Exceptions confirm the rule.
 PwC and Cranfield University School of Management: Measuring the Value of International Assignments, p. 7
 Brookfield Global Relocation Services, 2016 Global Mobility Trends Survey, p. 17. Retrieved from: http://globalmobilitytrends.bgrs.com/assets2016/downloads/Full-Report-BGRS-2016-Global-Mobility-Trends-Survey.pdf (2019, April 23)
 Brookfield Global Relocation Services, 2016 Global Mobility Trends Survey, p. 12. Retrieved from: http://globalmobilitytrends.bgrs.com/assets2016/downloads/Full-Report-BGRS-2016-Global-Mobility-Trends-Survey.pdf (2019, April 23)
 That does not mean that financial free individuals do not work. Most of them actually do as following one’s passion and dedicating oneself to a higher course than oneself is highly rewarded. It creates purpose of existence which creates good feelings. The main difference is that financial free people do not have to do something they are not passionate about on a regular basis since they are not depended on the income of work they do not enjoy.
 You can do the same by using any other index, e.g. the German DAX, which is slightly lower with around 7% annual return. To have a realistic understanding about the net value of money we can hold in our hands we have to account for inflation (around 2%) and taxation (depending on individual situation) as well. The important take away is not the exact figure but the fact that long-term investment instead of short-term spending and indulgence rewards you with a lot of money.
 The average amount of years people work after getting their education before they retire.
 To keep it simple we will use the same dollar values although it is likely that a Starbucks coffee will cost way more than five USD in many years due to inflation.
 PwC – Measuring the Value of International Assignments, p. 8. https://www.pwc.fi/fi/palvelut/tiedostot/pwc_measuring_the_value.pdf (05.07.2019)