‘Made’ in China: The Millennials Look East for Jobs

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Lee Jin-man / AP

An American teacher gives English lessons to South Korean students at the Seoul English Village

Lauren McPhate first arrived in Asia in 2009 after losing her job as a risk analyst at an energy company. She daydreamed about moving to tropical Thailand to start over. The 27-year-old instead landed in Seoul, where an attractive salary teaching English provided an escape from the discouraging economic landscape back home. McPhate did not find happiness in education, but she did discover a new world of opportunity unmatched by job prospects in Washington. She now works for a wine importer in Hong Kong — a job she never would have considered if she stayed in the U.S. “When I left, it was for a break from the demands of having a career,” she said. “Now I’m staying because it seems my options are better here.”

McPhate is one of many young foreigners forging a career in East Asia. Raised in the relative affluence of the 1990s, the so-called millennial generation graduated in one of the worst recessions since World War II. As these young people from some of the world’s richest countries struggle to find jobs, Asian nations are filling some of the gap. “The shifting balance of global growth is making emerging economies more attractive,” explains Madeleine Sumption, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “It is turning them into receiving countries, when traditionally they’ve been sending countries.”

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Fueling the eastward migration is a generation-defining shortage of jobs. The 2008–09 financial crisis, coupled with the euro debt crisis, has hit people in Europe and North America hard. Recent college graduates and young people entering the workforce for the first time are particularly at risk. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are 75 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 struggling to find work, particularly in developed economies and Europe. The European Union youth unemployment rates span from 22% in the U.K. to more than half of 15-to-24-year-olds in Spain and Greece. Last year, more than half of Americans under 25 who hold a bachelor’s degree were jobless or underemployed — the highest in more than a decade, according to an analysis of U.S. data by the Associated Press. And while governments struggle to curb the jobs crisis amid budget deficits and austerity measures, East Asia is booming.

Though some East Asian nations still struggle with youth unemployment, the region is doing relatively well. According to the ILO, East Asia’s jobless-youth rate hovered at about 8.3% in 2010 and is projected to hold steady over the next few years. This has led to an influx of young people like McPhate. In Hong Kong, where she lives, the government reported an average increase of 26% in issuing temporary work visas to residents of the U.S., U.K., Germany, Spain, Italy and France from 2007 to ’11.

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Jacopo Pulici, 29, is another new arrival. Pulici spent three years on temporary contract with an Italian newspaper before he decided to migrate. “Every contract renewal, my hope was to sign the final one,” he says. “I worked for three years like regular staff but without holidays, sick days and for less money.” He, like many young jobseekers, believes that in Europe the odds are stacked against the young. “There are no opportunities for the young people, no chance to grow up and learn in the work environment.” Fed up, Pulici took a job as an IT administrator in Hong Kong, leaving behind his small town of Casatenovo near Milan. “It’s the best decision I’ve ever made,” he says.

Receiving countries stand to benefit from the influx of millennial migrants. In China, the world’s most populous nation, population growth is slowing, says Ronald Skeldon, a migration and geography professor at the University of Sussex. The annual population growth from 2000 to ’10 was 0.57%, or just over half of what it was in the decade prior, according to preliminary Chinese 2010 census results. Meanwhile, the population is aging. In 2010 the share of people over the age of 60 in China was 13.3% — a jump from 10.4% in 2000.

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Recognizing this shift, China is beginning to loosen its migrations rules in order to compete for migrant workers and fill the gaps in its labor market. As a part of an effort to attract high-skilled migrants, China created the Thousand-People Plan in 2008, offering competitive salaries, fast-track entry, residence rights and sometimes naturalization for overseas talent, according to Guofu Liu, a law professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology and author of Chinese Immigration Law. Last year, the government extended the plan with the Thousand Foreign Experts program, designed to attract up to 1,000 non-Chinese academics and entrepreneurs over the next 10 years. Aimed at improving innovation and research in China, the program focuses on importing academics from top-tier foreign universities.

Singapore and South Korea are also opening their borders a little, allowing certain groups of high-skilled migrants to receive permanent residency. “They’re examining who to let in under which categories and what kind of residence will be allocated to them,” Skeldon says. A recent report from the Singapore government’s National Population and Talent Division cited immigration as a crucial component to the city’s survival. The report notes Singapore’s fertility rates as one of the lowest in the world. At 1.2 children born per woman, the rate requires 25,000 new citizens per year for the population to remain stable, forcing the government to reconsider its immigration policy.

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However, not everyone embraces an open-door policy. Singapore’s government in recent years has faced a backlash of antiforeigner sentiment. Singaporeans complain that an influx of foreigners creates more competition in jobs, education, housing and medical care. In South Korea, where an estimated 25,000 foreign English teachers reside, xenophobia is often a topic of debate. McPhate, like many foreign teachers who have lived in South Korea, said local teachers were resentful that she received a bigger paycheck and worked fewer hours. “We got paid to have blond hair,” she recounts.

Not all are convinced that eastward migration will help solve the jobs crisis either. Though Skeldon acknowledges that China is an increasingly popular destination, he says most youth in his native U.K. are waiting out the crunch and looking for work close to home. He is also convinced that most of the country’s jobless youth lack the skills and funding it would take to migrate to China. “These are young people who probably have fairly limited financial resources, they’ve never been on the job ladder, there’s limited levels of education.”

For those with the skills, though, moving overseas is an attractive option. “It always seemed like this huge daunting thing to pick up and go somewhere totally different, but it’s quite the opposite,” McPhate says. Living in an unfamiliar setting forces her to be more resourceful on a budget. Pulici agrees that choosing to stay would have been the easier decision, but he is glad he made the leap. “I guess it is impossible to have [what I have here] in a country like Italy now,” he said. “Hong Kong is only the beginning.”