19.12.2014 | Von:
Karen O'Reilly

British in Spain: the Archetypal Lifestyle Migrant

The term lifestyle migration refers to the (cross-border) movement of relatively affluent people to places where they hope to find "the good life". These migrants are able to put quality of life reasons ahead of other considerations such as work or safety.

Yachthafen von Puerto Banus, Andalusien, SpanienYacht harbour in Andalusia, Spain. (© picture alliance / Eibner-Pressefoto)

There are almost certainly antecedents to the phenomenon of lifestyle migration, for example colonial migrations, expatriates, artists, backpackers and other middle class travelers who settled long-term in their destinations, but lifestyle migration arguably became a modern mass phenomenon during the 1990s with the migration of British (and later German, French, Italian, Swiss, Swedish and other North Europeans) to Spain’s coastal areas.[1] British started settling in Spain’s coastal areas in large numbers from the 1970s and numbers grew throughout the next decades reaching a peak of over a million home owners and 750,000 settlers in 2005.[2] They became something of a media phenomenon during the 1990s, with a television soap opera, Eldorado, based on their supposed lifestyles, and with numerous other soap operas, dramas and news reports portraying British criminals on the run, or British people running bars, and restaurants, and retired British living stressful lives working in the hot sun.[3] The British in Spain are now seen as the archetypal lifestyle migration trend.

While, for many, lifestyle migration follows a positive trajectory, for others it can lead to social exclusion, health problems, and financial hardship.[4] Many of these migrants seek a tranquil retirement, but eventually face difficulties associated with leaving their homes and family behind and starting a new life somewhere they cannot speak the language, have no roots, and find themselves lonely and alone as they get older.[5] On the other hand, they continue to celebrate the freedom, warmth, and relaxation of their new lives.[6] Many lifestyle migrants in Spain are also younger, single or with families. These seek self-employed work running a bar, or an estate agency (for examples), or work on their own account doing anything from hairdressing to nail painting. Here are people who are taking huge risks with their futures and their children’s futures by following their dreams and attempting to carve out new lives for themselves.

Diverse Flows

North Europeans living in Spain have continued to attract academic interest because it is such a conspicuous and numerically significant migration. Europeans living in Spain far outweigh the number of any other immigrant group there.[7] But since the late 1990s and on into the 21st Century academics have become increasingly aware of similar migrations in other parts of the world. There have been case studies of Westerners in Varanasi, India[8], North Americans in Panama and Mexico[9], Japanese in Malaysia[10], and French in Morocco[11] to give just a few examples. Over time, it became apparent that these diverse flows shared many themes in common and that, despite attempts to employ them, existing typologies or conceptualizations were inadequate. These are not (only) elite migrants, counter-urbanites, amenity-driven, or retirement migrants. The sine qua non of lifestyle migration is the ability to privilege the search for "the good life". The term lifestyle migration is thus a theoretical lens through which to examine the similarities and differences of these trends. It draws attention to the singularity of a phenomenon the elements of which share several things in common, albeit with different threads:
"Lifestyle migration is a complex and nuanced phenomenon, varying from one migrant to another, from one location to the next. It holds at its core social transformation and wider processes; it is at once an individualized pursuit and structurally reliant and it is a response to practical, moral and emotional imperatives."[12]

This text is part of the policy brief on lifestyle migration.


Casado-Díaz (2006); O’Reilly (2000; 2012a).
Sriskandarajah/Drew (2006).
O’Reilly (2001).
O’Reilly (2007).
Hardill et al. (2005).
O’Reilly/Benson (2014).
O’Reilly (2012b).
Korpela (2009).
Benson (2011); Croucher (2009).
Ono (2009).
Therrien (2014).
O’Reilly/Benson (2009), p. 11.
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