U.S. Emigration

ONE AND A HALF MILLION U.S. HOUSEHOLDS are preparing to move out of the U.S. The vast majority of émigrés are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. And some may never return.

No, we are not talking about the next major deployment of National Guard units to the Middle East. In fact, none of the emigrants are government workers or corporate employees leaving for temporary overseas assignments. This is a group of malcontents and adventurers. They consist entirely of private citizens and their families packing up and leaving the good ol’ USA solely at their own initiative.

This news comes from a Zogby International poll of 115,000 Americans conducted over the past two years. Bob Adams, CEO of New Global Initiatives, commissioned the poll when he realized that no reliable database tracks the movement of Americans out of the country.

A recent Barron’s article, written by Bob Adams, breaks down the Zogby/New Global Initiatives data as follows:

  • 1.6 million (U.S. households) have already made the decision to leave
  • 1.8 million are seriously considering and likely to leave
  • 7.7 million are somewhat serious about leaving and may do so
  • 3 million are seriously considering purchase of non-U.S. property
  • 10 million are somewhat serious about purchase of non-U.S. property

Adding it all up, some 10% of all U.S. households are looking to leave the country, while another 11% are considering living outside the U.S. at least part time.

“That Can’t Be Right”

“Incredulous” is the word that best describes the reaction of people when they hear Adams’ conclusions. I brought the subject up the other night while eating barbeque and drinking beer with some American business people I know here in Bangkok. Even this well-traveled group greeted the poll results with skepticism. They asked, “How did he get this data? Who did they interview?” Maybe I was missing something, so I decided to give Bob Adams a call.

I reached Bob one evening at his home in Panama. “It’s happening,” says Adams when asked about this new wave of emigration. “And we really can’t say exactly why.”

While Adams’ survey includes destinations anywhere in the world, his personal area of interest is in Panama. While there has always been a permanent American presence in Panama, Adams says the recent immigrants are different from previous ones. Ten years ago, the typical American ex-pat in Panama was likely to be a retiree who had previously been in the country. Perhaps they were on a military assignment or with the Canal Zone administration. These folks tended to live in “American only” enclaves for social and security reasons and had fairly little interaction with the local population. These older ex-pats frequently used the words “tropical paradise” to describe why they moved to Panama.

Regarding the type of immigrants arriving in Panama, a change has occurred in recent years. Adams says today’s immigrants tend to be a lot younger, professionally employed and more likely to meld into the international community than earlier transplants. When asked, these folks generally say they moved to Panama for adventure, a lower cost of living, or to escape the growing intrusiveness of the American or European political and legal systems.

Adams’ interest in the topic of American emigration is the result of serendipity. Having lived and worked overseas for four decades, Adams decided it was time to settle down. He identified Panama as the best candidate. As he was preparing to move, he noticed the poor quality of Web sites catering to potential immigrants to Panama. So he set up his own site, RetirementWave.com. He intended to create an impromptu guide to assist likeminded people in the decision to move to Panama. But it quickly turned into an unpaid job responding to inquiries from interested parties worldwide. Adams realized he may reach an audience that extends beyond Central American real estate investors.

Why Do People Emigrate?

Why do people leave home for strange foreign lands? While a handful might claim to leave for political or religious reasons, most seek greater economic opportunity. All of my grandparents emigrated from Germany or Lithuania in the early 1900s. My wife’s Chinese grandparents emigrated from China to Siam in the same generation. None came because of a burning desire to be “free.” They all came because they wanted to make more money and thus enjoy a better life.

Google the word “emigration,” and you’ll mostly get sites that detail the emigration from Europe to the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th century. Google “American emigration” and you get a link to Adams’ New Global Initiatives Web site and not much else. Most economic-oriented sites only discuss the effects of legal and illegal immigration into the U.S. It’s hard to find any thoughts about the economic, political and demographic effects of younger Americans leaving for greener pastures overseas.

“Talk About Something No One’s Talking About”
— Erin Burnett, CNBC anchor

CNBC anchor Erin Burnett recently interviewed Adams. “In the last 10 years, the amount of pasture accessible to Americans has greatly increased, and it’s a lot greener than it ever was,” said Adams. A replay of this interview is available on the New Global Initiatives Web site. Adams thinks emigrants can help the U.S. economically by introducing American consumer products and services into new markets. One reason Adams commissioned the Zogby survey was to create a data source that he might market to companies interested in selling to overseas Americans. To date, however, only real estate investors have shown strong interest in Adams’ work.

If people emigrate to find economic opportunity, might Adams’ survey portend bad news for the U.S.? Current U.S. GDP is $44,000 per person versus Panama’s $8,000. It seems unlikely that people are leaving for immediate financial gains. Still, Panama is a young country demographically, with a median age of 26. Panama’s GDP grew at an 8% clip last year. It doesn’t have the U.S. baby boomers’ $55 trillion unfunded pension liability. Neither is it involved in difficult, expensive Middle East nation building. There may be quite a few 20-40-year-old Americans willing to sacrifice current income for future opportunity in countries like Panama. Only time will tell…

Mike Muehlesk
February 20, 2008