A Growing Trend of Leaving America

By some estimates 3 million citizens become expatriates a year, but most not for political reasons.

American voters at a polling station in Ajijic, Mexico. Expats also voted by fax and Internet.

American voters at a polling station in Ajijic, Mexico. Expats also voted by fax and Internet.

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PANAMA CITY, PANAMA—Dressed in workout casual and sipping a soda in one of the apartment-style rooms of Los Cuatro Tulipanes hotel, Matt Landau appears very much at home in Panama. One might even be tempted to call him an old hand were he not, at age 25, so confoundingly young. Part owner of this lovely boutique hotel in Panama City's historic Casco Viejo, he is also a travel writer (99 Things to Do in Costa Rica), a real estate marketing consultant, and editor of The Panama Report, an online news and opinion monthly. Between fielding occasional calls and text messages, the New Jersey native is explaining what drew him here, by way of Costa Rica, after he graduated from college in 2005. In addition to having great weather, pristine beaches, a rich melting-pot culture, a reliable infrastructure, and a clean-enough legal system, "what Panama is all about," he says, "is the chance to get into some kind of market first." Landau cites other attractions: "There is more room for error here," he says. "You can make mistakes without being put under. That, to me, as an entrepreneur, is the biggest draw."

Long a business and trade hub, Panama has been booming ever since the United States gave it full control of the Canal Zone in 1999. But as Landau says, it is precisely because so much of Panama's economy has been focused on canal-related activities that opportunities in other sectors, from real estate to finance to a host of basic services, have gone largely untapped. And among the many foreigners coming to tap them—as well as to enjoy the good life that Panama offers—are a sizable number of Americans.

These Yankees, it turns out, are part of a larger American phenomenon: a wave of native-born citizens who are going abroad in search of new challenges, opportunities, and more congenial ways of life.

In his recent book Bad Money, political commentator Kevin Phillips warns that an unprecedented number of citizens, fed up with failed politics and a souring economy, have already departed for other countries, with even larger numbers planning to do so soon. But that may be putting too negative a reading on this little-noticed trend. In fact, most of today's expats are not part of a new Lost Generation, moving to Paris or other European haunts to nurse their disillusionment and write their novels. Some may be artists and bohemians, but many more are entrepreneurs, teachers, or skilled knowledge workers in the globalized high-tech economy. Others are members of a retirement bulge that is stretching pensions and IRAs by living abroad. And while a high percentage of expats are unhappy with the rightward tilt of George Bush's America, most don't see their decision to move overseas as a political statement.

Southward trend. Europe still draws many of these American emigrants, but even more have relocated in Canada and Mexico. Others are trying out Australia, New Zealand, or one of the new economies of Asia, while a growing stream flows southward to Central and South America. John Wennersten, author of Leaving America: The New Expatriate Generation and a retired historian who has taught for many years abroad, says Panama is the "new new thing" for those who are part of what he calls "a long-term trend."

Exactly how many people are part of this trend is hard to say. Precise emigration figures have never been easy to come by in the United States. "It's been an implicit assumption that people come here to stay, not to come and go," says Mike Hoefer, head of the Office of Immigration Statistics at the Department of Homeland Security. The government's last trial effort to count Americans overseas, in 1999, was deemed inordinately expensive. Elizabeth Grieco, chief of immigration statistics at the U.S. Census Bureau, puts it bluntly: "We don't count U.S. citizens living abroad."

But if the government is not counting, others are. Estimates made by organizations such as the Association of Americans Resident Overseas put the number of nongovernment-employed Americans living abroad anywhere between 4 million and 7 million, a range whose low end is based loosely on the government's trial count in 1999. Focusing on households rather than individuals (and excluding households in which any member has been sent overseas either by the government or private companies), a series of recent Zogby polls commissioned by New Global Initiatives, a consulting firm, yielded surprising results: 1.6 million U.S. households had already determined to relocate abroad; an additional 1.8 million households were seriously considering such a move, while 7.7 million more were "somewhat seriously" contemplating it. If the data collected in the seven polls conducted between 2005 and 2007 are fairly representative of the current decade, then, by a modest estimate, at least 3 million U.S. citizens a year are venturing abroad. More interesting, the biggest number of relocating households is not those with people in or approaching retirement but those with adults ranging from 25 to 34 years old.