19.12.2014 | Von:
Karen O'Reilly

Realizing a New Style of Life: "You Can Be Who You Want to Be"

The term lifestyle migration refers to the mobility of relatively affluent people who search for "the good life" and therefore move to places which offer them the possibility for self-realization or a better quality of life. Their migration is driven by this quest and not by other reasons such as career advancement or family reunification.

Landgut auf MallorcaCountry estate in Mallorca: Lifestyle migrants are often looking for idyllic rural areas. (© picture alliance / blickwinkel/I. Weber )

One clear unifying theme in case studies of lifestyle migration is that of self-realization. This is most clearly identified in the work of Brian Hoey (2005), who studied Americans moving within the United States, and Michaela Benson (2011), who lived among the British in rural France, in Mari Korpela’s (2009) work with Westerners in Goa and Varanasi, India, and in my own study of British in Spain . In most lifestyle migration case studies, the migrants portray themselves as active agents transforming their lives through migration, and their stories are peppered with accounts of new beginnings, fresh starts and making dreams come true. They see themselves as having a pioneering spirit and their migration as giving them the opportunity to be true to their "real selves" in places that have cultures and environments with which they share an affinity. They contend that by moving they are free to be the person they want to be and to live the lives they value.

However, the potential style of life that is imagined differs according to destinations. Some seek a slower and more tranquil life; they may desire to "get back to the land" (e.g. British in France, and some US-Americans in Latin America ). Some talk of escape from a fast-pace, consumption-driven, amoral West (e.g. Westerners in Varanasi ). They may see their move as escape from a crime-ridden, depressing, grey future (e.g. British in Spain). They may believe rural areas are more authentic or pure (e.g. with urban to rural Australian migration ). They often want to protect their children from the materialism, excessive consumption and insecurity of Western or other modern lifestyles . There are also lifestyle migrants who are drawn by the imaginative pull, the cultural and lifestyle attractions, of a global city such as Berlin . In this latter case, of course, the migrant is less likely to be relatively wealthy in relation to the destination country, but still has the relative wealth to choose migration for cultural rather than economic reasons. Below, I will describe three numerically significant forms, identified by Benson and O’Reilly (2009) from among a very diverse range of lifestyle migrants around the world: Bourgeois Bohemianism, Residential Tourism, and The Rural Idyll.

Bourgeois Bohemianism, Residential Tourism, and the Rural Idyll

Some migrants seek alternative lifestyles in spaces that signify what we might define as bohemian ideals. Bourgeois Bohemianism, then, seeks destinations characterized by spiritual, artistic, or creative aspirations and by unique "cultural" experiences. Jacqueline Waldren’s (1996) account of the outsiders – foreign literary personalities, artists and musicians – of Deía, Mallorca is the seminal text on these bohemian migrants. Relatedly, Pola Bousiou (2008, p. 3) describes the Mykoniots d’élection, who return over and again to the island of Mykonos, Greece, and are able to perform an alternative identity through "living, acting, working and creating in a tourist space". This form of lifestyle migration has also been examined and elaborated by Mari Korpela (2009) in relation to her study of Westerners living part of the year in Varanasi, India, in search of "the good vibes". Alternatively, many lifestyle migrants are attracted to mass tourist (often seaside) destinations, such as in Turkey, Spain and Greece, pursuing Residential Tourism. These associate their lifestyle migration destinations with sun, sea and holiday, but are not attracted by high-spending hedonism so much as peace, tranquility and freedom. The first contact many of these migrants have had with their migration destination is as tourists, and tourism socially and physically constructs places, creating physical and social spaces for leisure and pleasure. Tourism brochures, and other marketing, furthermore construct destinations in the imagination as places for certain pursuits. These migrants therefore attempt to extend tourism sojourns into a way of life. Some are seasonal migrants, but many settle permanently. They may work, but this is as a means to an end. The main goal is to get away from the fast pace of living in their home countries and to earn enough to have a good life, no more. The archetypal residential tourists are the many nationalities living in the Mediterranean, but other important flows include American and Canadian "snowbirds" (who spend a large proportion of the winter enjoying the warmer climate in places such as California and Florida), and the increasing numbers of Americans who have settled permanently in Panama, Mexico and Costa Rica .

Those lifestyle migrants in search of the Rural Idyll migrate in search of a tranquil life. Rural locations are here imagined to offer lifestyle migrants a sense of stepping back in time, getting back to the land, the simple or good life, as well as a sense of community spirit. The narratives of those who move to the countryside often stress the unique and embodied relationship that they have with the landscape. Michaela Benson (2011, p. 84) for example, says of the British in France: "(they) presented their new surroundings in a variety of ways: as the rural idyll, with its unspoilt countryside and rustic homes; as a space for leisure; but also as a place where they were able to physically engage with the land and get their hands dirty". On the other hand, for middle-class Americans "downsizing" to rural Michigan: "relocation to romanticized rural places high in natural amenities, in which they have frequently vacationed, is a moral project concerned with 'starting over' and ‘finding themselves’ through purposeful place attachment".

The Cultural Narratives and Global Inequalities That Shape Lifestyle Migration

While lifestyle migration is viewed as an individualistic search for the "good life", the places selected and the nature of the experience are shaped by wider factors. Literally or figuratively, places imply certain ways of living. Americans relocating to the mid-west are seeking places that are seen as therapeutic ; lifestyle migrants moving to rural landscapes believe they will become part of local communities that live off the land or will find more authenticity ; Westerners in Varanasi believe by moving they will come closer to their spiritual selves ; and, for some Canadians, living "off grid" in remote landscapes provides something of a metaphorical island - with stillness, quiet, and seclusion. These are not individual ideals, but shared cultural narratives, shaped sometimes by those wishing to market places, shrouded in myth and imagination, and enabled by physical geography and built environment. As Noel Salazar has so eloquently emphasized, lifestyle migration is inspired and guided by diverse social imaginaries: "culturally shared and socially transmitted representational assemblages that interact with people’s personal imaginings and are used as meaning-making devices and world-shaping devices".

It is difficult to ignore the historically-formed, global inequalities that facilitate and shape lifestyle migration in parts of the world: lifestyle migration is enabled by relative wealth. In many cases these migrants are buying second homes, or better first homes than they could afford at home. Many are living leisured lives, often living on earnings made or on capital invested in the west, or on good pensions established over decades of working in a wealthier economy. They may not be wealthy in terms of the society they left , but lifestyle migrants often benefit from the fact they reside in countries (or rural areas) with a lower level of income. In many cases, places are wealthy in relation to other places because of the global history of colonialism and resulting power and wealth asymmetries. It is no accident that many of these lifestyle migration flows follow the routes of prior colonial flows. Many lifestyle migration destinations (e.g. Malaysia, South Africa, Thailand) were previously colonies and/or had been occupied by Western powers in their recent histories, with the result that current hierarchies, in cases where migrants are from the prior colonizing county, are built on historically shaped inequalities. There are often colonial continuities, in the shape of legal regimes and possession of forms of capital, in the ways in which people are able to move to some places (e.g. visas and permits that permit travel in one direction and not another), how they are perceived and treated when they get there (the privilege that often attends a white body), and how they are even intentionally attracted by those who seek wealthy migrants as a development tool.

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

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