The changing nature of expatriate demographics

Recent research suggests that the profile of international assignees is changing. Younger, single assignees are replacing the traditional expatriate family demographic.

Recent research suggests that the profile of international assignees is changing. Younger, single assignees are replacing the traditional expatriate family demographic. In addition, it can be expected, with an ageing workforce, that older workers will also engage to a greater extent in expatriation in future. Sue Shortland explores the implications of changing expatriate demographics for international assignment policy design.

According to Cartus, the under-30s expatriate age group comprised 29 per cent of the expatriate workforce in 2010 (up from 19 per cent in 2007). Single assignees now make up 42 per cent of the expatriate workforce (up from 29 per cent). This trend towards young, single expatriates represents a dramatic change in the composition of a typical international assignee profile. It is also interesting to note that research by Brookfield indicates that the proportion of expatriates with accompanying children is falling: less than half (47 per cent) now have accompanying children (set against a historical average of 56 per cent).

These data suggest that the expatriate demographic profile is well suited to the increasingly popular ‘flexpatriate’ styles of international mobility. As Cartus notes, the young and single profile potentially reflects the changing nature of international assignment types, as we see a shift from the use of traditional long-term assignments towards increased use of commuter assignments and extended international business trips.

Policy design implications

However, before relocation professionals begin to review their international assignment policies to reflect this new dynamic, it is important to consider other demographics which have a bearing on policy design. For example, married status remains the majority, making up around 70 per cent of expatriates. Although expatriates are recorded in some research as being ‘single’, this does not mean that they are ‘alone’. So, for example, while Brookfield reports 23 per cent of assignees as single, it notes that 7 per cent of expatriates have ‘significant others’.

Employees’ married and partnered status has clear implications for policy design. Even if the proportion of assignments that are carried out on single status is increasing, this does not mean that the assignees undertaking them are able to do so without thought for family concerns.

Dual careers and eldercare responsibilities may apply regardless of marital status, and flexibility in policy may be needed to balance home-life responsibilities with expatriation. This may influence policy design in respect of travel frequency, airfares, flight allowances and home leave trips, for example, to address home responsibilities while working on single status abroad. Indeed, it appears that the proportion of assignees who are married or partnered who leave their spouses behind is increasing. Around a fifth of assignees who are married/partnered undertake single-status expatriation.

Gender issues

The gender composition of the expatriate workforce is also a changing dynamic. Although female expatriation has fluctuated around the 19–20 per cent mark for a few years, the proportion of women assignees now appears to be falling; it currently stands at around 17 per cent.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when women comprised only single-figure percentages of the expatriate population, they were, typically, single. Today, however, this is less likely to be the case. For example, in Brookfield’s 2010 survey, of the women expatriates reported, 7 per cent were married and 1 per cent had partners. This compares with the percentage of single women, at 6 per cent.

This is a particularly interesting statistic for those involved with policy design, because women expatriates who have dual-career relationships face particular difficulties on expatriation, owing to the lack of support systems and assistance with employment opportunities for their male partners.

In reviewing policy design, focus is, therefore, necessary on how support offered can aid both male and female spouses.

The ageing workforce

A further consideration in policy design concerns the ageing workforce. Although recent survey data appear to indicate an increasing proportion of young people taking up expatriate roles, this is not the case in all industries.

Previous economic recessions have meant that organisations did not take on graduates/school leavers, and these ‘gaps’ are now working their way through, such that the typical expatriate age group (mid 30s to mid 40s) lacks sufficient personnel. Although young newcomers present an option, they may not have sufficient experience, and older generations (who are past the child-rearing years) present a cost-effective, experienced expatriate resource.

It is interesting to note, given that expatriation is usually undertaken to fill skills gaps, train local people and transfer corporate strategy, knowledge and culture, that over 90 per cent of expatriates are drawn from existing organisational staff (that is, they are not new recruits), and yet a similar proportion have no previous expatriate experience.

Organisations may be staking a lot on young and lessexperienced personnel, given the cost and importance of the outcomes of an international assignment. Although the trend appears currently to be to use younger personnel (perhaps they are thought to be less expensive, as they receive lower salaries and expect fewer benefits), older workers may prove more cost effective through the knowledge and experience that they can bring to a position.

Given that, in many of the newly emerging economies where expatriation is increasing (for example, in countries such as China), age is revered, older workers can bring added status and respect to an expatriate role.

In terms of policy design, remuneration and benefits, issues valued by older workers tend to differ from those of younger employees. Older workers place greater emphasis on healthcare, medical facilities/insurance and pension issues compared with the younger employees, who tend to be more motivated by salary uplifts and gaining a foothold in housing.

Addressing different needs

It is debatable whether changing demographics drive assignment types or whether it is employers’ changing assignment rationales that influence the composition of the expatriate workforce. Most likely, both factors play a role.

What is important, though, is that policy design keeps abreast, if not ahead, of the changing demographic profile by remaining sufficiently flexible to respond equitably to the needs of different employee groups.

When reviewing and redesigning international assignment policy, it is important to consider the implications for all employee groups and to ensure that any policy design creates an efficient and effective talent management framework, both to support expatriation today, and to ensure a responsive approach to demographic changes as they arise.

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