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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According to Robert Adams, the CEO of New Global Initiatives, the motives of relocators are almost as hard to pin down as the numbers. "The only Americans who understand what's going on are those living abroad," he says. "There is no movement, no leader. It's just millions of people making individual decisions to do it."

Now living mostly in Panama City, Adams finds that the reasons people give for moving abroad often change, particularly among those who stay overseas for any length of time. In fact, he says, those who claim they came for a specific reason—for example, dissatisfaction with American politics—tend to be least happy with what they find in the new settings. By and large, most successful Americans abroad "are running to rather than running from," Adams stresses.

A new "West." Some observers even wonder whether words such as migration, emigration, and expatriation accurately describe most Americans' ventures abroad. Today, moving from the States to a place like Panama is almost tantamout to moving from the East Coast to the West Coast 50 years ago. And the Internet, Skype, and satellite television make it easy for people to stay in touch with the homeland. "While people are looking for something new, they're not giving up their citizenship," says Adams, who prefers the word relocation to emigration.

While American relocators are in some ways typical pioneers looking for a new "West," they are also participants in a larger, international development, "a global economic shift," Wennersten writes, "that is fostering real economic growth in heretofore-neglected areas of the world, like Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia." U.S. citizens are certainly not the sole beneficiaries of this shift, but they are active players in countries where the privatizing of former state-run industries and the opening of new capital and trade markets are creating an array of opportunities. "From computer consulting firms in Hong Kong to bagel shops in Budapest," Wennersten notes, "Americans are helping to revitalize or sustain economies that are receptive to Western entrepreneurship."

Talk to some of the successful American relocators around the world and the broad generalizations about them tend to hold up—though not so much as to overwhelm the huge variety of experience and achievement that distinguishes their lives. Michael Sheren, 45, who worked for Chemical Bank in New York in his early career, came to England in 1997 primarily to apply his background in leveraged buy-outs to the European market. Now working in the London office of Calyon Crédit Agricole, a French bank, he credits his American training and drive for giving him a leg up in his work. America's image abroad has suffered during the Bush years, he acknowledges, but he finds that Europeans still value the can-do spirit of Americans. "People equate Ameri-ca with success, even now," he says.

While business is what initially drew him to England, Sheren is now deeply attached to the British way of life. That includes everything from a generous government-backed system of social supports for all citizens to a mentality that is more comfortable with leisure. "I consider the quality of life here significantly better than what I would have over there," he says.

Sheren acquired British citizenship and has at times been tempted to abandon his American one, but he attaches relatively little importance to nationality. His closest friends are an international lot, and he greatly values the freedom of movement that comes with a European passport. "I feel more like a sovereign individual," he says, using the label coined by authors James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg in their book, The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age.

Immersion. Cynthia Barcomi, a Seattle-born artist, writer, and entrepreneur who came to Berlin in 1985 to launch her professional dancing career, stresses how different the expatriate life is from that of Americans who have been sent abroad by the government or private business. To her, it involves a much deeper immersion in the new culture. Like many of the relocators that Adams and Wennersten have dealt with, Barcomi says her motive for moving was more a deep hunch than a single, clearly articulated reason. She had seen a lot of German dance while a student at Columbia University, but she calls her final leap "a blind decision." She didn't even speak German.