Trailing Spouses – Careers and Identity

Careers and loss of identity for accompanying spouses were common themes at the Families in Global Transition Conference last month. It’s a big topic, so I thought I’d share a little of what I learned through a series of posts. 

Some interesting statistics quoted by Susan Musich of Passport Career were that 90% of spouses are employed prior to expatriation, but only 35% are employed on assignment.  Now while some may choose to take a career break, perhaps to raise children, 84% said they would like to work according to a 2009 Permits Foundation Study.  What really raised my eyebrows though, was that in the same survey 36% of spouses had a Bachelors degree, 46% had a Masters or Phd and 79% spoke 2 or more languages.  These are well qualified people (85% women) and increasingly they don’t just want to work, they need to, because

  • Expat packages are not as financially lucrative as they were, so a second income is required in order to maintain their standard of living
  • Spouses are reluctant to put their careers on hold, for fear of losing ground when they repatriate.

So why are so few spouses employed on assignment?  Some of the reasons include

  • Visas/work permits may not permit spousal employment
  • Language barrier
  • Cultural differences – women or foreigners not welcome in a particular field
  • Difficulties building new local networks
  • Lack of suitable opportunities in a smaller or less developed market
  • Lack of suitable and/or affordable childcare

Accompanying partners who don’t work, even if it’s their choice, often struggle to find a new identity.  They are dealing with two major life changes at the same time – an international move and loss of their job – without the benefit of their usual support network close at hand.  Over the years I’ve seen spouses return home, overseas assignments fail and even divorce as a result. 

This article by Chantal Panozzo has a particularly good description of how she felt when she followed her huband’s career.  For me I know that people, even friends, who pointedly don’t ask me what I’m doing (because they assume I’m doing nothing apart from filing my nails) and forms which ask for “occupation” still raise my blood pressure.  As a trailing spouse I’ve moved between volunteer, freelance, part-time and full-time work and I’ve found it difficult to describe what I do in anything less than a paragraph.

It’s clear that careers and identity are thorny issues for we trailing spouses; in my next posts I’ll talk about some of the solutions.

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