Why Aussie expats who come home are going again

What makes an Australian expat go to the financial and emotional expense of moving back home, only to pack their bags again after a few years?

It’s an interesting question with so many current stories of Australian expats, ‘expatting’ again – but before we shriek ‘brain drain!’, this trend could be more normal than we think. And something in Australia’s best interest to embrace.

In our Australian expat survey in 2022 we asked expats who had come home if they had repatriated at least once before; 42% of people said they had.

If we project this percentage across the one million Australians based overseas at any given time, we get a picture of constant movement.

There are a number of reasons expats “expat” again and understanding these reasons can help both Australians and employers get comfortable with the idea that good talent will move – and come back. Potentially more than once.

Overseas born partner and kids

According to our 2022 survey, 62% of expats have an overseas born partner and many are balancing dual career households. If a partner of an expat struggles to find meaningful work, challenged by international credentials and experience, this can mean that after a period, the expat and their family return to that partner’s home country or a country who will recognise their skills.

This was the case for Michael Waite, who came home to regional South Australia with his American wife and three kids for what they had hoped for many years in Australia however after two years, they have returned to the US.

“When Australia blocked every practical way to recognise my wife’s ability to practice as a paediatrician it didn’t really give us much of a choice. We explored state and federal pathways to see if anyone could help clear a pathway, but the only option offered was to do six years of training which was absurd.”

For others, the reason to go back overseas is less about their partner’s career and more about the experience the Australian expat wants to give their kids. Senior HR director Nicole MacDonald has repatriated back to Australia twice and is now on her way back overseas for life in the Hague with her overseas born husband and two kids.

“Our return to Australia and our subsequent decision to relocate again, has similar drivers to what took me overseas in the first place like adventure and challenge, but with the added benefit of providing this global experience to our children.”

Career opportunity

For others, a new opportunity overseas emerges – often too good to refuse.  This was the case of a senior HR leader I recently worked with who came home from China in 2020.  After a few years back home in Brisbane, in her words, “recalibrating”, she has taken a new role in Singapore. While she was happy to work in Australia, she knew she had another big role in her and actively pursued overseas roles as part of her next career consideration.

Coming home often gives people the clarity they need to assess whether they ‘could or would’ go back overseas.  Returning expats have the big advantage is that they know what they are getting themselves into moving overseas.  This means when they come home, they actively pursue 2nd or 3rd moves or, if offered an international opportunity, find the decision quite an easy to make. 

The role career plays in the decision again fluctuates with age-and-stage and lifestyle considerations.

“Career options and quality-of-life considerations have been key factors. I do think the calculation varies at different phases in your life, so it is an ongoing consideration,” Michael Waite says.

Is this you?

If you are a returnee who likes the idea of another overseas move, the key message I have from the executives I work with is – keep your overseas networks warm. Many of the opportunities I hear executives going back overseas for, come from their networks.

If you are prepared to take the leap again, and no doubt you are across this already, but be aware of tax and residency implications. 

I think all expats never truly get their wanderlust out of their system.  And while no expat I know would dispute the value the experience an overseas career brings them, I really hope Australian employers see the value that Australians who are prepared to move can bring to organisations. And the big bonus they often bring – a highly skilled partner!