Third Culture Kids starting careers

I recently had the pleasure of hosting a pot luck dinner for a bunch of young adult Third Culture Kids.  Alaine Handa and her dance company were in town, performing at the Toronto Fringe Festival and they came together with several others connected with the local TCK community.

As we chatted the conversation naturally turned to these young people’s careers.   All were at some stage on the path to establishing themselves in the working world and several were living outside their home country or not in the same country as their parents.  Anyone with a 20-something child knows how difficult it is these days for young people to get a start.  Getting any job is hard, and there are often many false starts and changes of direction.  From my own family’s experience I know it is hard when kids can’t tap into their parents’ network of contacts, friends and colleagues.  Many TCKs haven’t held part-time jobs through high school and trail competing candidates when it comes to local work experience.

Watching my own son look for his first job, together with my own job search upon repatriation, was an eye-opener for me on how much the working world has changed in recent years.  Internships and contract work are the norm, as are many more part-time jobs with evening and weekend hours than used to be the case.  Employees, even freshly minted grads, are expected to perform “out-of-the-box,” with little or no training and flexibility is key.

While TCKs may lag their contemporaries when it comes to contacts and experience, many of the common characteristics of TCKs will stand them in good stead in this new environment.

  • The ability to adapt quickly to new situations
  • Willingness to relocate
  • A sense of urgency (let’s do it now, before we move again)
  • Self confidence and independence
  • Observational skills
  • Fluency in more than one language
  • Cross cultural skills
  • A global network of social contacts (which may eventually turn into business contacts)
  • A big picture view

Far from being at a disadvantage, I suspect that today’s TCKs have a significant advantage over their stay-at-home counterparts.  Certainly these particular TCKs seem to be taking it all in their stride.


13 thoughts on “Third Culture Kids starting careers

    • Yes, if you think it’s hard for spouses of expat to find work, then pity their children! Expat kids often lead very sheltered lives and if and when they do repatriate for university it makes the transition that much more difficult.

  1. I think what was difficult is that once TCKs end up in University, they find their peers have already held multiple part time jobs while in school so have a head start in the job skills department regardless of the position.
    However, TCKs that I’ve met growing up were resourceful and will find work to gain skills quickly through volunteer positions in their host country or home country, unpaid and paid internships, etc. during their summer holidays. We were very lucky to live in Singapore where the American school employed high school students to be teaching assistants in the summer program (I did this once as a high school – ironically, I came back a few years ago to teach as a regular teacher and had a high school student assistant), the American Club employed students, and there was even an organization that places expat children over 16 in part time jobs in offices, retail, or restaurant industry.

  2. Thanks Alaine for some really useful suggestions. I agree volunteer work can be a great substitute if visa restrictions or local job market conditions make paid employment impossible. After all, you don’t have to mention on your resume whether you were paid or not …. 😉

  3. Thanks so much for this nice post. Good to see a list of the advantages of being a third culture kid (TCK). I do think TCKs might need a little extra help to discover these advantages and to find a career in which they can use these characteristics to the full.

    • I totally agree that TCKs often need the advantages of their upbringing pointing out to them. Let’s face it, we all tend to focus on our problems rather than our strengths. This is why I’m always saying to those I meet, “Ah, so you’re a TCK?” (even those who are now adults) as I still meet so many who haven’t heard of the term or read much about it and don’t appreciate the implications of their childhood.

  4. What a great post. I was born a TCK (half English, half Egyptian, born in Dubai) … I married a Canadian who is also a TCK (mix of Italian, Chinese, Canadian) and we now live in France … I don’t even know what I should call my daughter as she is a REAL mix.

    Both my husband and I found ourselves starting our own businesses at quite an early age – it just seemed to make more sense than fighting corporate cultures. We are definitely more adaptable and do look at the world in a different way. We’ve worked in several different countries and adapt quickly in new situations.

    I do think it’s hard for TCK’s to fit in with expats to be honest – the notion of being homesick or missing something from home is a non issue – where is home? It’s a double edged sword … as much as I crave to be in one place for the rest of my life, 2 years in I get itchy feet. I personally don’t feel I ever belong anywhere and I don’t fit with expats groups and crowds even though I do try!

    • Thank you so much! It sounds like you and John have really leveraged all the strengths of your TCK upbringing in a very positive way. So often we focus on the challenges for TCKs, it’s nice to hear a success story. 🙂

  5. Being a TCK in the more extreme sense (11 cities, 10 countries, 4 continents in a span of 25 years), I can only agree with what has been written in this article.

    Unfortunately, regarding the comment that we (TCKs) are at an advantage when it comes to job searches only holds true when the HR recruiter or hiring manager recognizes the added value we have in an organization.

    As for me, personally; I have yet to see evidence of this as I am searching for jobs and am not even being contacted or asked for interviews despite the following:

    -Bachelors degree at the best hospitality management university in Switzerland
    -Masters degree with great honours at the best business school in the BeNeLux region
    -Internships in Japan and Dubai (6 months each)
    -1 year of work experience in Geneva
    -Fluency in four languages


    The big disadvantages that I can see, have partially been noted by the author such as the lack of “deep” local knowledge in any country. Furthermore, I am beginning to wonder if anyone even understands my CV at all?! I mean, how do you make sense of the following:

    -European nationality
    -Born in South Africa
    -Currently living in Switzerland
    -Parents living in the US
    -Studied in Switzerland and Belgium (university)
    -Studied in Japan (high school)
    -Worked in Switzerland, Dubai and Tokyo
    -Lived in South Africa, Belgium, Singapore, Jakarta, Sydney, Atlanta, Tokyo, Lausanne, Dubai, Geneva and Oberstdorf
    -Skiing instructor in Germany

    and now the cherry on the cake….. looking for work in: ANYWHERE

    I don’t blame HR people for being confused but I do blame them for being too lazy to try to figure out the “story behind it all” (which is incredibly interesting) and instead resort to the standard reply “unfortunately, at this time we cannot take your application any further………” or “we had many applicants who match the profile better…..” when the job:

    A) Is for a multinational
    B) Requires international experience
    C) Requires willingness to travel
    D) Requires fluency in 3 of the 4 languages I speak!

    Come on, give me a break!

    My 2 cents

    • Hi Frederick: I’m sorry you’re having such a tough time. While *I* certainly see the advantages of your international life I also know how difficult it can be to convince others of its value from my own job search here in Canada. You obviously have tremendous resilience and initiative, judging by your experience so far, so I can only urge you not to lose heart, but hang on in.

  6. Pingback: The Third Culture Kids | International Relocation, International Moving, Expat Life | Move One InMotion

  7. As an adult tck I had originally moved a few times before hitting twelve. I remained in boarding school till I graduated.

    I have moved countries four times since and within each country an average of four times. It’s a significant amount of movement. It’s costly too. Not just financially, personally and it affects career trajectory too if you are not diligent.

    I’ve often wondered if my constant moving as an adult is an attempt to try and find a home. That or possibly the fact that I find it too easy to move on if things just don’t suit me.

    Enough is said about the benefits of being a tck but not enough is said about how to negate some of the less positive sides if being a tck.

    It can certainly be hard that’s for sure.

    • Matt, I’m married to an adult TCK and it’s been interesting for both of us to look back on his life and speculate on how much it’s been influenced by his upbringing overseas. He too has the restless spirit, but that’s pushed him to try new opportunities which have been to his benefit. I agree, though, that although there are many positives, negatives do exist and finding solutions and support for those is important.

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