Holding a mirror to ourselves: British Lifestyle migration

Published 2 July 2013 / By COMPAS Communications

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By: Caroline Oliver, Senior Researcher

Bride and Groom, Just Married, Driving Away in CarAmericans in Tuscany: Charity, Compassion and Belonging (forthcoming, Berghahn) by Catherine Trundle outlines the experiences of American women who have moved over the last 50 years to Florence, following marriage to Italian men. It documents their adoption of philanthropic giving and charitable acts by privileged Anglo-American women, giving out food and clothes to the less privileged irregular migrants in the city. The book, which will be published later in the year, is linked to a growing collection of research exploring what Benson and O’Reilly (2009) coin ‘lifestyle migration’, which reflects the move of more privileged migrants to a region to seek not only a better way of life, but as part of the reflexive turn, in some ways to find ‘themselves’ too.

Lifestyle migration
It is good to see the field of lifestyle migration reaching maturity (see the lifestyle migration hub and also In the broader study of migration, there is a risk that lifestyle migration is seen as migration-lite: an easy and unproblematic consumption-led migration: win-win for both migrant and receiving society. Yet as I argued in Betts’ collection (2010) on the global governance of all aspects of migration, the neglect of the field is not easily justified when considering numbers, geographical spread and effects (economic, social, cultural and environmental).

The study of lifestyle migration is necessary as part of a holistic picture of global movement, in which migrations are intertwined. We need attention to the ease of migration experienced by what Bauman identifies as the ‘travellers’ as opposed to the ‘vagabonds’ in the hierarchy of movers. Attention to the fact that we all move (even Brits!) is even more important these days in which ‘migration’ in the UK has become something of a dirty word.

Challenges in lifestyle migration
So what can the study of our own emigrants show us? In one sense, it enables us to look at common issues through the lens of migration, which gives new purchase on familiar topics such as philanthropy in Trundle’s work, or ageing, in mine.

Ethnographic studies of lifestyle migration document that despite the gloss – the sun, sea, sangria, or whatever shiny images prevail - a familiar element of cultural struggle and adjustment is found in these movements. In Trundle’s research, despite the women’s initial seduction by romantic ideals, they faced difficulties in gaining acceptance as part of Italian family life. In my own work (2008) the struggle was one of time and purpose; many British retirees moving to Spain had maintained busy careers or family lives in which time was not their own, but in the blank open canvas of the new life, they now faced masses of it. How to stop the weightiness of time, to embrace slowing down but not to the point of stagnation, became key questions of their lives.

Becoming visible and integration
Within both accounts, the migrants’ struggles gave rise to the development of leisure, educational or philanthropic organisations to make the communities known, to forge a space, a visibility, a purpose and a presence: a self-confident assertion that ‘we live here’. As such, these accounts highlight the limits of integration and the ways in which keeping common cultural identities alive may be important for migrants from all walks of life.

mirror held upYet rarely is a mirror held up on our own communities abroad when evaluating the ‘performance’ of our own immigrant populations. Generally, keeping a British identity, or failing to learn the local language in foreign contexts is not seen as problematic  – indeed, far from it, for the British MPs who visit the Costas to speak to the expatriate community, hopeful of securing these extra-domestic votes from those still heavily invested in their homeland.

British migrants and policy change
Attention to our own citizens within the rapidly changing immigration field also exposes the fragility of life as a migrant, exposed to policy change. Recent attention has been drawn to the way for instance that British citizens in the UK are sharing with many other migrant families the startling effects of the changing family migration rules (see On a recent fieldwork visit to Spain, I also saw many British migrants more concerned than before about the risks they faced –  in being subject to increasing rates and taxes amid the Spanish crisis, or vulnerable to all the domestic talk of closing borders and withdrawing from Europe. These show the worries of life as a migrant under governments in which they may have little stake in (or whose language they may not indeed even understand). Yet they are also vulnerable to policies of their own governments, as evident in last week’s abolition of the winter fuel allowance to British expats.

Attention to this group also sheds light on the interconnected nature of migration policies and common challenges to all nations in dealing with migration. Indeed, both the UK and Spain are united in being under investigation by the European Commission, for in the UK’s case the failure to pay social security benefits to EU citizens and in the Spanish case, the refusal of some Spanish hospitals to provide free treatments for medical emergencies for EU citizens using their European Health Insurance Card. Although in the latter case the cost is supposed to be recoverable, in practice local Spanish hospitals often fail to recover costs of treating millions of foreigners seeking the good life. Exploring the costs of our own citizens abroad is helpful and sobering when considering those same debates within our own shores.

Bauman, Z. (1998). Globalization: the human consequences. Cambridge: Polity.

Benson, M. and O’Reilly, K. (2009) ‘Migration and the search for a better way of life: a critical exploration of lifestyle migration’, The Sociological Review 57(4): 608-625.

Oliver, C. (2008). Retirement Migration: Paradoxes of Ageing. London, New York: Routledge.

Oliver, C. (2010) ‘The Global Governance of Lifestyle Migration’ in Betts, A. (eds) Global Migration Governance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Trundle, C. (forthcoming) Americans in Tuscany: Charity, Compassion and Belonging. Oxford: Berghahn.