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Expat Insider - The World Through Expat Eyes

Working Abroad: Present Facts & Future Trends

Expats around the world talk about their career and their working conditions. They also provide insights into how new working arrangements (e.g., remote work) are changing their working life and what they would like to see in their ideal work environment.


The The Future of Working Abroad report is based on data from the Expat Insider 2021 survey. The survey was conducted online — responses not being limited to members of the global InterNations community — and ran from 7 January to 31 January 2021. In total, 12,420 expats representing 174 nationalities and living in 186 countries or territories participated; the general Expat Insider report and an overall country ranking based on their responses were published in May 2021.

This report, however, uses mainly data sets from expats who are currently doing any kind of paid work abroad. Responses from retirees, stay-at-home parents, volunteers, etc. were not taken into account for the most part. Around the world, 8,313 survey respondents match this definition of “working expats”. They are spread across 175 destinations and represent 166 different nationalities.

The respondents currently working abroad answered questions to describe their working life, such as their field of work, their employment status, their average working hours, and what they especially appreciate about their job. These questions provide some insights into the status quo of working abroad, but the survey was also aimed at finding out more about how COVID-19 has been transforming the workplace — especially the rise of remote work — and how expats envision their ideal work environment.

Lastly, the questionnaire also included two rating questions on the topic of “New Work” — the new way of working in the global and digital age, with values such as freedom, autonomy, creativity, and self-fulfillment being considered increasingly important. Respondents were asked to rate how important such values are in the business culture of their host country and how their current country of residence compares to their home country in this regard.

Who’s Working Abroad?

Expats working abroad are on average 43.1 years old, and the gender ratio is a fairly even split between male (53%) and female (46%) expats. Overall, they are well-educated, with four in five either holding a postgraduate degree / master’s degree (47%) or a bachelor’s degree (33%). Another 8% have a PhD, followed by 6% with qualifications from commercial/technical/vocational training. Just 5% have only graduated high school, and 1% have no degree at all.

Close to half the working expats (47%) state that their career was also their most important reason for relocating to another country: they either found a job on their own (17%), were recruited internationally (15%), or were sent by their employer (13%). Just 2% moved abroad to start their own business. When asked about their intended length of stay, one in five respondents (20%) doesn’t know yet, while around one in four (24%) plan to stay in their current host country for two to five years. More than half even want to stay longer than five years (22%) or possibly forever (30%).

When it comes to their current employment situation, 30% are in a senior/specialist position, followed by lower/middle management (17%) and top managers / executives (13%). More than one in ten (11%) are self-employed / a freelancer, 9% are teachers/professors, and 7% each either work in entry-level jobs or have their own business.

Common Fields & Income Ranges

The most common fields expats around the world work in are education (12%), IT (11%), and finance (8%). Other frequently mentioned fields of work include manufacturing & engineering (7%), healthcare (6%), and advertising, marketing & communication (5%).

About one-third of working expats (33%) have a gross yearly income ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 USD. Four in nine (44%) make 50,000 USD or less, while 23% make more than 100,000 USD.

Work-Life Balance & Career Options

While the vast majority of expats works full time (82%), the share has slightly decreased by four percentage points since 2015 (86%).

The changes in the way they work become even clearer when it comes to expats’ working hours: in 2015, the average number of working hours per week — for full-time and part-time workers combined — was 42 hours; in 2021 it is just 39.9 hours. This seems to have had a positive impact on personal satisfaction: 70% of working expats are happy with their working hours in 2021 (vs. 64% in 2015), and 68% rate their work-life balance positively (vs. 63% in 2015).

While the satisfaction with working hours and work-life balance has slightly increased since 2015, expats are less happy with their local career opportunities: less than half the working expats (49%) are satisfied with this factor in 2021, compared to 60% in 2015. On the other hand, expats rate their job security better now, with 67% saying they are happy with this factor (vs. 60% in 2015). Overall, 73% are happy with their job in general, which is five percentage points more than in 2015 (68%).

Where Is the Concept of New Work Considered Most Important?

Close to three in five working expats (58%) say that factors like autonomy, freedom, creativity, personal development, and self-fulfillment are important in the business culture of their host country. These values are closely related to the concept of New Work, which describes the new way of working in the global and digital age.

The top 10 countries where expats rate the importance of New Work in the local business culture the highest are the USA, the UAE, Finland, Estonia, the Netherlands, Bahrain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Sweden. For example, 74% of working expats in the USA say that New Work plays an important role in the local business culture.

When asked to compare the importance of New Work in their home country and their current country of residence, 49% of working expats say that New Work is more important in the business culture of their host country than in their home country. Working expats from Mexico (74%), the Philippines (65%), Turkey (61%), India (60%), and Italy (59%) see the biggest difference in importance as compared to their home country.

In fact, their home countries do not rank particularly well when it comes to the importance of New Work in the local business culture, as rated by expats living there. Mexico is the best out of these five countries, landing on 33rd place out of 55. It is followed by the Philippines (40th), while Italy (49th), India (51st), and Turkey (52nd) even end up among the bottom 10 worldwide.

Overall, Japan (55th out of 55), Egypt, South Korea, Turkey, India, Kuwait, Italy, Spain, France, and China (46th) are the ten destinations where expats rate the concept of New Work as relatively unimportant in the business culture. For example, 40% of expats in Japan say that New Work is not important in the local business world, compared to 18% globally.

Is Remote Work on the Rise?

One aspect of New Work is already an everyday occurrence for many working expats: close to four in five (78%) are able to work remotely in 2021. However, while 62% say that they can work remotely, 16% add that they can work remotely but usually prefer not to. Another 16% are unable to work remotely due to the nature of their job, and just 6% cannot work remotely because their employer does not allow it. Overall, 65% enjoy working remotely: more than a quarter (28%) even like it very much, while just 3% do not like it at all.

Close to two in five expats able to work remotely (39%) are fully remote, while the second-biggest share (18%) works remotely for more than 15 days per month. This figure is followed by two to five days (14%), one day or less (12%), six to ten days (10%), and 11 to 15 days (8%).

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a clear impact on the world of work, with working-from-home job ads on the rise and employers introducing hybrid working plans. Expat employees have also seen an effect on their remote work policies: nearly three in ten (28%) are now able to work remotely more often than before, while another 20% say that remote work has been newly introduced and is here to stay for them. Only for around one-quarter (26%) have their employer’s remote work policies not changed in the long run, while another 26% do not know yet what their employer will decide in the post-pandemic future.

Current Values vs. Future Careers

When asked what they like best about their current job, working expats most frequently mention the opportunity to work remotely / from home (32%), a good work-life balance (32%), and flexible working hours (29%).

“Unfortunately, what working expats enjoy about the job they have is not necessarily what they envision for their future career. Businesses all around the world will have to offer other aspects that are related to the concept of New Work, such as having creative tasks. But this is not everything expats ask for,” says Malte Zeeck, InterNations Founder and Co-CEO. “Despite a growing desire for self-fulfillment and personal development, hard factors such as a good salary remain extremely important for expats in a business context.”

In fact, the top 3 aspects that would be especially important to expats in an ideal work environment are a good compensation and/or good benefits (54%), a good work-life balance (49%), and creative/interesting tasks (29%). At the moment, just 28% are happy with their compensation and/or benefits, and only 21% benefit from having creative/interesting tasks at work.

Expats even seem to be willing to trade off some of the factors they currently enjoy: with just 28% of expats citing flexible working hours and 22% mentioning the opportunity to work remotely / from home as part of their dream job, these factors do not make it into the top 3 aspects for an ideal work environment.

Further Reading