I was unusually bothered by this Mark Manson article, Why Young Americans Should Work Overseas. It’s unusual because I chose to work abroad for the similar belief that emerging markets are a great opportunity.
Emerging markets are an excellent investment of blood, sweat, tears, and offspring in the long term. But Manson’s depiction of it is all wrong. So in response to Manson’s reasons to work abroad, these are my reasons NOT to work abroad.
Reason #1 – Your market value is NOT higher elsewhere
In the US, there are simply no longer enough quality jobs for everyone with a university education …
Is he only talking about college grads? If you didn’t attend university you can stop right here, because he’s not talking to you. And your market value is certainly not higher in Latin America. Mechanics, pipefitters, electricians, welders, landscapers, carpenters, restaurant workers, firefighters, machinists, letter carriers – your market value is definitely NOT higher in emerging markets. In fact, most of those are close to minimum wage, which in Latin America means washing your laundry by hand and eating meat only on weekends.
Meanwhile, you have massive emerging economies in Asia and South America that are desperate for college grads and especially for western-educated college grads.
It’s simple supply and demand. There aren’t enough jobs in the US and Europe anymore for young people. There aren’t enough highly educated people in emerging countries. Put two and two together, and your market value is much higher elsewhere.
In fact, western-educated employees are valued so highly in many parts of the world, that companies will deck you out, covering everything from your expenses, housing, transportation, as well as benefits, just to get you to come over.
After finishing school and still drunk off the World-is-Flat kind of journalist thinking that fuels Manson’s analysis, I searched for a corporate gig anywhere in Latin America (I even applied to a job in Venezuela). Despite significant corporate experience, I learned that companies are definitely NOT desperate to hire Western-educated gringos.
From my experience of five years in Peru and Colombia, only a tiny number of gringo expats are getting “decked out” by multinational or local companies. Those few expats had skills that are very rare in the Latin America: IT, computer programming, and the most difficult of engineering fields. If you don’t have a highly technical background in the land of siesta and fiesta, it’s a burden to hire someone who doesn’t speak the language and would need a visa sponsorship.
So you’re a Communications/Marketing/Branding charlatan who can speak English and manage Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube? Your Latin American market value is $45 per nine-hour workday. If somebody hires you. That’s how it is in Latin America.
I doubt they pay top dollar for engineers and computer programmers in Asia, which is not known for siesta and fiesta, but nerds. Any given market pays top dollar for what they don’t produce well at home AND what it’s not easy to import. That’s why English teachers can make six figures in Saudi Arabia, where your wildest party will be tea with the guys from class.
To nail home why your market value is NOT higher abroad, consider the common phenomenon in every expat community in Latin America. Guys and girls grudgingly say goodbye to their expat pals when they go back to the United States because they have to EARN DOLLARS.
Usually this happens when they have a family to support, which happened to me after knocking up my Peruvian wife. It’s inevitable for almost all expats who start families. They go home to make decent money. If your market value were higher abroad, suffering dollar-earning sabbaticals would never happen, and I wouldn’t be typing this from St. Louis.
Reason #2 – The quality-of-life/cost-of-living ratio is NOT higher elsewhere
Manson’s second argument is “the quality-of-life/cost-of-living ratio is now much higher elsewhere.” The obvious assumption in that argument is that your earnings are the same. And to go back to the point I just made, you are not going to make more money abroad in absolute terms. In fact, you are going to make less money in absolute terms.
Your cost of living will certainly fall, but if your earnings also fall, you haven’t necessarily improved your quality of life. “Quality of life” depends on what you value. If you want $5 grams of cocaine and a whorehouse in every neighborhood, your quality of life will improve in Colombia despite halving or even quartering your income.
If “quality of life” is determined by the lifestyle your money buys irrespective of what deviant behavior is allowed in your new country, you will still need to be a top-tier earner in your target society. And doing that on local salaries is extremely difficult. Otherwise the expat communities would be much bigger than they are.
A quick glance at Mark Manson’s site leads me to believe (and I may be wrong) that he makes his living selling dating advice to gringos for US dollars. His income in absolute terms is the same no matter where he lives, so obviously his quality of life will rise as you can buy more shit in a country with huge populations of destitute people.
If your income is location-independent, then obviously your quality of life/cost-of-living ratio is better in a developing country. But is location-independent employment really “working abroad?” Manson is physically “abroad,” but what part of selling dating advice to gringos for dollars is “abroad?” The market, the currency, the supplier, the legal environment, the language – there is no international component anywhere in the business.
I have worked for both Peruvian and Colombian companies, I have marketed products to Peruvian and Colombian consumers, I have worked in Spanish, and I have worked for the glorious Nuevo Sol and Colombian Peso. Take it from me – it is a GRIND. It is an excellent experience, and I certainly recommend working abroad from a development standpoint. But it is not the quality-of-life/cost-of-living scenario Manson portrays. It’s going to be amazingly difficult both before and after you ask yourself if you made a huge mistake.
After five years of trying different businesses, I still haven’t had even moderate success with Latin consumers. My best-paying business markets Peruvian products manufactured by a Peruvian company, but my customers are gringos paying U.S. dollars. I would never write a ridiculous article biting the hand that feeds me because Latin American markets have never provided better than Uncle Sam. I know who butters my bread.
The vast majority of gringo expats truly working abroad – marketing to Latin American consumers in Latin American currency – are selling English classes. And they make $1000 per month. Of the few gringos who make good salaries abroad, most are embassy/politico employees or corporate warriors who bring huge experience in their respective industries. To the few gringos launching their own businesses aimed at local markets in local currency, my hat truly goes off to them (to the ones making impressive money, not the ones teaching English with a sabbatical coming soon).
Here’s more Manson on Reason #2
When I started traveling the world in 2009, almost every place I went to blew my expectations away. I expected to show up to a dirt heap and get my kidneys carved out, and what I got was an amazing quality of life for my money.
Similarly, when my girlfriend, who is Brazilian, began traveling around the world a few years ago, she had the exact opposite reaction: every place she went was not nearly as nice as she expected. Why? She grew up in Brazil and assumed that the US and Europe were technological and social paradises, light years ahead of her native country. She was wrong. Over and over again, wrong, wrong, wrong.
The “technological paradise” and “light years ahead” comments are worth an article by itself, because going back and forth between the U.S. and South America is like travelling through time. But that will be another article.
Reason #3 – The Jobs Aren’t Coming Back, but that probably doesn’t affect you
I actually can’t argue with Manson’s point that “The Jobs Aren’t Coming Back.” I agree that many low-wage, manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back, and employment will not return to be as it was understood in the 20th century.
But those who don’t/won’t have jobs will be the most unemployable of the country. Have you been to your local Social Services office to request unemployment benefits? If you have, then you have a good idea of what “unemployable” is, and you realize that you’re not unemployable. If you’re willing and able to work, you’ll always find work as I did immediately upon returning.
Reason #4 – It’s time for America to focus on the homefront
Whether or not I agree with Manson that “It’s time for everyone to grow up and become global citizens,” you probably don’t. According to the statistics, you probably agree that it’s time for the United States to focus on its own problems. According to the Pew Research Center, most Americans want to mind their own business these days, which is obvious considering how things went in Iraq and Afghanistan. But how do you feel? Is it time to be a “global citizen?” Or is it time to focus on the domestic front?
Who Should Go Abroad?
If your income is location-independent – eLance all-stars, ‘webpreneurs’, retirees, and pensioners – definitely go live wherever it’s cheap and fun. Because thanks to the internet and ATMs that spit out local currency from your domestic bank account, you can live abroad without having to work abroad.
You only want to do a year. It’s not such a grind if it only lasts a year. You can say you lived in your preferred emerging market for a year and that you have “international experience.” Then you can get a job back home where you might make a comfortable living.
If you’re willing to suffer the trials and tribulations of working abroad, if you’re willing to sacrifice a better income back home, if you’re willing to suffer the intricacies of the consumer market of your destination, the legal environment, the management style, the mañana culture. If you’re willing to SUFFER to gain expertise in your chosen market, by all means the most urgent thing you need to do is get down there and work.
The State of Emerging Markets
I still believe in my career strategy of emerging markets. But after five years of immersion, I’m more realistic about it. It wasn’t just that 60% of the world lived under some form of socialism or protectionism – these countries are poor for a reason. They have fundamental weaknesses. In Latin America, there is a mind-blowing inefficiency. It’s part of the charm. Inefficient government and industry. Disturbingly unequal societies. Corruption. Weak legal environments. Political risk. Street crime and narcoterrorism.
Different emerging markets have different problems. China and Russia don’t lack the engineers and computer programmers, but they haven’t embraced democracy and political pluralism as well as Latin America.
Emerging markets were the rage after the Global Financial Crisis because Western governments dumped huge amounts of money into their domestic economies. With effective interest rates at zero, private investors had nowhere to go for a decent return. So there was a wave of investment in the emerging markets of Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. But as Western economies recover and opportunities for safe returns come back home, the money also comes back home. The boom is probably over, which is why the foreign currencies and housing markets are feeling pressure after years of growth.
Emerging markets are still a great career move, since globalization and neoliberalism have largely won the day. These societies have a lot of catching up to do and you can capitalize on that. But it’s not easy. It’s not the picture Manson painted. It’s a grind. Your payday is not next week, nor next year.
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