A decade or so ago, the evolution of global communications – from video conferencing to ‘webinars’ – and the growth of new technologies were predicted to reduce the need for overseas assignments, amid expectations that many future operations could be managed remotely.
In fact, the opposite has turned out to be the case, according to an analysis by consultancy ECA International.
“Various studies indicate that the number of expatriates has continued to grow over the last 20 years,” says the ECA report.
“Over the last 20 years we have seen continuous growth in the number of employees sent on assignment. On average, well over 50 per cent of companies have increased the number of assignments in any given year.
“Although there have been numerous economic shocks – such as the Asian financial crisis of 1998, the economic downturn following September 11 and the global recession of 2008 – that have slowed the growth of expatriate numbers, the effects have proved temporary. The decreases predicted by companies at the time rarely occurred to the extent forecast and have all been followed by a return to significant increases in expatriate numbers.”
There have, however, been some significant changes in the traditional expatriate socio-demographic profile of the typical overseas assigness and in the tasks they are asked to perform.
The majority remain mainly male and aged between 35-50 but, while the average expat worker 20 years ago would be from Western Europe or North America, they are now just as likely to originate from Asia.
And instead of lengthy assignments lasting, typically, three years overseeing a local operation, the tasks these days are just as likely to be project-specific and last only months. This, in turn, has led to an increase in singles’ assignments, when spouses and children do not move abroad.
“As well as the total number of expatriates increasing we have seen that there is growing complexity in terms of the number of home and host countries involved in an assignment, with expatriation from Asia driving a lot of the overall growth in numbers,” said the report.