Another Expat Survey – But Does It Tell Us Anything Useful?
InterNations have this month published their Expat Insider 2017 Survey, an annual survey of the global expatriate community. An annual expat survey which they have published since 2014, this seeks to reflect the lives of expats globally in a number of key countries which are popular destinations for foreigners, whether they are migrating there for work, studies or retirement.
Germany comes out of the survey in a relatively positive light, certainly in comparison to some of its European neighbours. Out of a rank of 67 countries (which I assume InterNations have chosen based on them being the most common expat destinations), Germany comes in overall at number 23, but down 6 places from its 2016 rank of 17.
For anybody who doesn’t know they are, InterNations is a Munich-based company which has been extremely successful with a business model of bringing expats together through meet-ups in an informal setting, usually with a focus on networking and in a fairly upmarket meeting place. Think of them if you will as an expat networking site, with elements of MeetUp, Match and LinkedIn baked into their concept. They charge a fee for either being a member or going to one of their events, as opposed to generating their main source of revenue through advertising or sponsorship.
It is important to understand this because it has a reflection on the slant they bring to the data they are presenting. This is not just a survey of top executives such as bankers, diplomats, lawyers and CEOs, but at the same time is also not a demographic exclusively made up of students, digital nomads, freelancers and accompanying spouses. All of the above were probably interviewed among the people they sampled.
Does It Paint A True Picture?
So, is this an accurate reflection of expats’ happiness, lifestyle and concerns?
First of all, let’s have a look at how they get their data. They are interviewing actual, real life expats in the countries which they are surveying, which is a good start. Some of the other surveys which are out there don’t do this and just look at socio-economic and environmental factors and then use an algorithm to come up with the results.
If, like me, you have seen the surveys and rankings from HSBC, the Economist Intelligence Unit or Mercer Consulting and shaken your head thinking “where do they get this crap from?”, I can certainly say that the rankings and criteria used to come to these scores seems to be more reflective of the general list of nice-to-haves which my expat network of friends and contacts seems to hold in high esteem.
Let’s be honest, regardless of how good the schools or social system are in Finland or Norway, unless you’d met the love of your life or were earning €100k per year, how the hell could Helsinki or Oslo give you a better lifestyle than somewhere with plentiful sunshine, laid-back locals and a low cost of living?
InterNations looks at countries rather than cities, which is also another major difference. What we’re really interested in here though is how did Germany get its score and how does it fare compared to other European destinations? And does it accurately reflect the likes and dislikes of the expat community here, compared to the completely unscientific methods of my random surveys of LiveWorkGermany’s Twitter followers? Which reminds me, if you haven’t done so already, head across and follow us! You’re missing out on endless banter, as well as the odd useful article and retweet.
How Did Germany Score?
Germany’s rank of 23 (out of 67 countries) comes in above its powerhouse European neighbours of France (38) and the UK (54), and also beating the other German speaking countries of Austria (28) and Switzerland (23). Top European destinations by comparison were Portugal (5), Spain (10) and the Czech Republic (11). It certainly seems that the weather, friendliness of the locals, ease of settling in and cheap cost of living are heavily weighted in these numbers.
Where Germany scores positively is in the Quality of Life and Working Abroad categories, ranking in the top 10. Germany also scores high in areas such as job security (where Germany is ranked second overall), health & well being, transport & transportation and safety & security and political stability. Despite what anyone thinks about Angela Merkel, political stability is something which Germany has been a beacon of in recent times. This also echoes the strong personal view I have that Germany is a great place to be an employee (stability, high salaries, competitive jobs market) but not such a great place to be an entrepreneur (regulations and red tape) or self-employed (fewer tax perks).
Other areas where Germany scores above average are for family life, especially in the area of cost of childcare and education, where Germany comes in the top 10. Perhaps the high quality of education leaves many expats content with not having to send their kids to a private or international school.
Germany scores poorly in the category of Ease of Settling In, coming in the bottom 10 and which is primarily down to two areas where respondents scored the country negatively: Namely that expats struggle to learn German and to make friends with the locals. On a personal level, I have some empathy for struggling to make friends with locals. I speak the language fluently, am well integrated and nevertheless, it took me a long time. Even now, after 11 years, I only have a few close German friends. Maybe it’s because I live in a city with a large international community and I tend not to plan my social life as far in advance as Germans seem to.
On the language learning front, this is where I don’t get it. Yes, learning a language is hard, but unless you are just here on a short-term assignment, why WOULDN’T you learn German, other than just being plain lazy? The “everyone here speaks English” argument is weak and unconvincing. You are an immigrant in somebody else’s country and it is your duty. It’s not like learning Chinese or Arabic, which genuinely are difficult languages. The US Foreign Service Institute rates German as being comparatively not so difficult to learn for native English speakers, so no excuses boys and girls…
So, on balance, whilst Germany has dropped a few places in the rankings compared to last year’s position of 17, it still comes out relatively favourably compared to its European neighbours. I was personally surprised that the high level of personal income taxation and social security contributions did not come into play as a negative factor but, then again, perhaps this is offset by comparatively high salaries and low cost of living when compared to Germany’s main European competitors. From my own personal experience, I would rate the leisure and recreational opportunities in Germany in a more positive light than the survey suggests. OK, so you can’t go to the beach every weekend, but the infrastructure available for spending your free time doing activities other than going to the pub or watching TV more than makes up for it, at least from my own personal viewpoint.
What else struck me as an outlier? Perhaps that Germany came out in the survey fairly well in the category Family Life. Everyone I know who has kids complains about lack / difficulty of finding kindergarten places and the fact that German schools finish for the day at around lunch time, meaning that it is difficult for both parents to work full time in demanding careers. Perhaps it’s even more difficult in other countries, or that the quality of state education and vocational training is very good in Germany and this helps to offset this and bumps up the score. I also don't see Germans as being particularly child friendly, especially when compared with southern European countries.
What Should Would-Be Expats Take From This?
By InterNations’ own admission, the size of the samples for this particular expat survey were relatively small. Quoting from InterNations themselves, they say “for a country to be listed in any of the indices and thus in the overall ranking, a sample size of at least 75 survey participants per destination was necessary. The only exception to this rule is the Family Life Index, where a sample size of at least 40 respondents raising children abroad was required”.
In conclusion therefore I would say that it is a useful guide, and something which should be taken into consideration for sure if you are considering a move to Germany. However, the small sample size and the relative subjectiveness of the answers makes it difficult to consider this any more than as just a barometer of opinion amongst a relatively small sample size of the expat population.
Consider an expat survey as part of your research and yes, in fairness, many of the scores in InterNations' Expat Insider 2017 Survey reflect a reasonably accurate subjective perception of life in Germany, even though this is a constantly changing picture and that attitudes change from year to year. Just look at the scores of the UK and the US from 2016 to 2017, following the Brexit vote and Trump’s election. Media quite possibly influences us more than we realise. Bear in mind though that surveys are just that and that everybody is different in their reasons for pursuing an expat life. Make your decision independently. Often trusting your gut after doing your research and evaluating your options is the best thing you can do!