What could be so much better about another country that so many North Americans willingly relinquish familiar surroundings?

Best Places in the World to Retire recently published the study Expats: Expectations & Reality, which provides significant insight. The study was completed at the end of April and had a margin of error of +/- 5%. More than 400 expats participated in the survey. The first item asked them to "Check all the things you THOUGHT you could achieve by moving abroad." Here are the top six responses: 

  1. Lower cost of living: 86.6%
  2. A simpler, less stressful life: 82%
  3. Better weather: 73.8%
  4. A less materialistic, or more meaningful life: 55.6%
  5. A more romantic, exotic or adventurous life: 42.4%
  6. Be more engaged in charitable activities / help others: 31.4% 

The most popular response, "Lower cost of living," is unsurprising, given that, according to 2010 U.S. Census data, retirement age Americans, many of whom are still working, had a median income of just $2,146 per month. It's also not surprising that many expats choose to retire where there is better weather. 

The popularity of the remaining four reasons, however, was surprising. More than four in five respondents wanted a simpler, less stressful life. That almost matched the percentage who were seeking a lower cost of living. It underscored expats' desire for a better quality of life. The fourth, fifth and sixth most popular reasons also supported this trend.  

What caused these expats to feel that they needed these things, and that they had a better chance of achieving them in other countries?

There are several reasons. Among the most prevalent is that the Baby Boomer generation now retiring was fortunate. Their parents' generation created great material prosperity after World War II. That has meant that many Baby Boomers haven't had to worry about their basic needs. The result: Boomers have had more time to think about leading more meaningful lives. As boomers start to retire, many of them have found that this part of their lives has remained unfulfilled. Like a tsunami of delayed midlife crises, they are seeking an out.

Why would so many feel that they would be more likely to satisfy their quality of life desires by living overseas as opposed to staying in their home country? One big reason is that they believe it will cost less in other lands, and as a result, they will be freed from the stress, worry, and time constraints of struggling to pay bills. As a result, they will have the time, resources and freedom to pursue a more meaningful life.

"There are opportunities abroad that you cannot find at home to make your life exactly the way you want it to be," said Daryl Ries, who divides her time between New York and Coronado, Panama. "This includes better conditions for your health, better standard of living for less, and the ability to create a new vision from a new point in the world." 

There was also dissatisfaction about how life in North America had changed. Many North Americans moved overseas partly to recapture the North America that they remembered of their childhood. A 65+ year-old married American female living in Panama said, "The local people, in general, are wonderfully helpful. It's like living in the U.S. in the 1950's. People stop for you on the road if you look like you need help. Older women are especially respected and helped with carrying things or given a hand for support in walking over rough terrain, etc. Doctors give you as much time as you need during appointments. They give you their cell phone number and usually appointments can be made with little or no waiting time."

Many expats want to have new experiences and recreate themselves.

Elizabeth Worley, an expat from the U.S. now living in Panama, wrote, "I wanted a place to recreate myself, live more adventurously, learn a new language and culture... grow."

Why is it easier to recreate oneself in a foreign country?

Some expats hoped that the novelty of living across borders would make it easier to see things in a new way and to respond differently than in the past. They saw these moves as an opportunity to change and grow. 

They also believed that they would be freed of expectations of how they they should behave based on precedent and relationships. These expats felt they could explore new groups with different views on life. The change in surroundings, a new language and absence of peer pressure would allow them to grow into the people they had wanted to be. 

The survey showed that expats seek a better life and lower cost of living. Yet whether they succeed remains up to them.





This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.