A Growing Trend of Leaving America

Written by US News &World Report

Dressed in workout casual and sipping a soda in one of the apartment-style rooms of Los Cuatro Tulipanes hotel, Matt Landau appears very much at home in Panama. One might even be tempted to call him an old hand were he not, at age 25, so confoundingly young. Part owner of this lovely boutique hotel in Panama City's historic Casco Viejo, he is also a travel writer (99 Things to Do in Costa Rica), a real estate marketing consultant, and editor of The Panama Report, an online news and opinion monthly. Between fielding occasional calls and text messages, the New Jersey native is explaining what drew him here, by way of Costa Rica, after he graduated from college in 2005. In addition to having great weather, pristine beaches, a rich melting-pot culture, a reliable infrastructure, and a clean-enough legal system, "what Panama is all about," he says, "is the chance to get into some kind of market first." Landau cites other attractions: "There is more room for error here," he says. "You can make mistakes without being put under. That, to me, as an entrepreneur, is the biggest draw."

Long a business and trade hub, Panama has been booming ever since the United States gave it full control of the Canal Zone in 1999. But as Landau says, it is precisely because so much of Panama's economy has been focused on canal-related activities that opportunities in other sectors, from real estate to finance to a host of basic services, have gone largely untapped. And among the many foreigners coming to tap them-as well as to enjoy the good life that Panama offers-are a sizable number of Americans.

These Yankees, it turns out, are part of a larger American phenomenon: a wave of native-born citizens who are going abroad in search of new challenges, opportunities, and more congenial ways of life.

In his recent book Bad Money, political commentator Kevin Phillips warns that an unprecedented number of citizens, fed up with failed politics and a souring economy, have already departed for other countries, with even larger numbers planning to do so soon. But that may be putting too negative a reading on this little-noticed trend. In fact, most of today's expats are not part of a new Lost Generation, moving to Paris or other European haunts to nurse their disillusionment and write their novels. Some may be artists and bohemians, but many more are entrepreneurs, teachers, or skilled knowledge workers in the globalized high-tech economy. Others are members of a retirement bulge that is stretching pensions and IRAs by living abroad. And while a high percentage of expats are unhappy with the rightward tilt of George Bush's America, most don't see their decision to move overseas as a political statement.

Southward trend. Europe still draws many of these American emigrants, but even more have relocated in Canada and Mexico. Others are trying out Australia, New Zealand, or one of the new economies of Asia, while a growing stream flows southward to Central and South America. John Wennersten, author of Leaving America: The New Expatriate Generation and a retired historian who has taught for many years abroad, says Panama is the "new new thing" for those who are part of what he calls "a long-term trend."

Exactly how many people are part of this trend is hard to say. Precise emigration figures have never been easy to come by in the United States. "It's been an implicit assumption that people come here to stay, not to come and go," says Mike Hoefer, head of the Office of Immigration Statistics at the Department of Homeland Security. The government's last trial effort to count Americans overseas, in 1999, was deemed inordinately expensive. Elizabeth Grieco, chief of immigration statistics at the U.S. Census Bureau, puts it bluntly: "We don't count U.S. citizens living abroad."

But if the government is not counting, others are. Estimates made by organizations such as the Association of Americans Resident Overseas put the number of nongovernment-employed Americans living abroad anywhere between 4 million and 7 million, a range whose low end is based loosely on the government's trial count in 1999. Focusing on households rather than individuals (and excluding households in which any member has been sent overseas either by the government or private companies), a series of recent Zogby polls commissioned by New Global Initiatives, a consulting firm, yielded surprising results: 1.6 million U.S. households had already determined to relocate abroad; an additional 1.8 million households were seriously considering such a move, while 7.7 million more were "somewhat seriously" contemplating it. If the data collected in the seven polls conducted between 2005 and 2007 are fairly representative of the current decade, then, by a modest estimate, at least 3 million U.S. citizens a year are venturing abroad. More interesting, the biggest number of relocating households is not those with people in or approaching retirement but those with adults ranging from 25 to 34 years old.

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.