Unveiling the Complex Layers of Expatriate Partners' Career Identities

Text by: Kate von Knobloch

Discover key findings from a new study that looks at how expat partners manage their careers while living abroad. This information is important for anyone thinking about moving overseas and for companies that want to support their international staff.

Reference Box: Study Spotlight

For those interested in a scholarly perspective on the career identity transitions of expatriate partners, this blog post is informed by the study titled „The Career Transitions of Expatriate Partners and the Effects of Transitions on Career Identities“ by Kaisu Kanstrén. The study was published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management in 2019 and offers an in-depth look into the complexities and challenges that accompany career transitions in a global context.

To read the full study, you can access it here.

Breaking Down the Complexity of Expatriate Partners' Career Transitions

Navigating the professional landscape as an expatriate partner is no easy feat. While exciting, relocating for a partner’s career opportunity can significantly impact your career trajectory. This struggle has been explored in a seminal study by Kaisu Kanstrén, published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management. The study shines a light on the complex interplay between career transitions and the reconstruction or maintenance of career identities for expatriate partners. It serves as a guide for identifying where you might fall on this career identity spectrum, thereby shaping the kinds of support you need. As someone who helps expatriate partners adapt to new beginnings through my New Roots Program, I can’t emphasize enough how crucial these insights are for long-term career success and personal well-being.

"Career identity among expatriate partners is not solely dictated by the length of time spent abroad but is a complex interplay of individual factors, assignment type, and self-management skills."

The Four Career Identities: A Guide to Self-Reflection

What makes this study truly compelling is its categorization of expatriate partners into four distinct career identities: Stable, Emerging New, Threatened, and Lost. Recognizing your career identity can offer a roadmap to better navigate the challenges and opportunities in this new chapter of your life. So let’s get to it—where do you fit in?

1. Stable Career Identities: The Fortunate Ones

These are individuals who, despite moving between countries, have managed to maintain their career paths. The key to their stability often lies in their professional „calling“ and the security of repatriation benefits. For example, in the study, most participants with stable careers were healthcare professionals who had arranged leaves of absence, ensuring a smooth transition back into their roles when returning home.

2. Emerging New Career Identities: The Adaptors

Partners in this category typically see the expatriate experience as an opportunity for growth and transformation. They are willing to pivot, whether it means pursuing entrepreneurship or accepting lower-level jobs to climb the ladder eventually. Sandra, a participant in the study, for example, leveraged her time abroad to pivot her career towards a more fulfilling venture.

In the context of our study, let’s consider Sandra as a quintessential example of someone with an „Emerging New Career“ identity. Sandra used to work as a marketing manager in her home country. When her partner was offered an overseas assignment, she found herself in a foreign land with different customs, languages, and career opportunities.

Sandra initially struggled with her career transition. She found that her previous work experience was not directly transferable to the job market in her new country. For the first couple of months, she took up freelance digital marketing projects but felt a lack of direction and purpose. During this time, she stumbled upon a local community organization that needed help with public relations and decided to volunteer. Through this, she discovered a new-found love for community outreach.

Leveraging her marketing background, she started creating campaigns for the organization, which led them to receive more funding and increased community participation. Energized by this work, Sandra decided to pivot her career towards non-profit community management. She took up online courses, attended local seminars, and networked with professionals in the field.

Fast forward a year, and Sandra is now a full-time Community Outreach Manager for a reputable non-profit organization. She still uses her marketing skills but in a way that is deeply fulfilling and aligned with her new career identity. Sandra’s story is a vivid illustration of how expatriate partners can evolve their careers in an unfamiliar setting, forming an „Emerging New Career“ identity through exploration, skill adaptability, and a bit of serendipity.

3. Threatened Career Identities: The Strugglers

This category is marked by individuals who feel their careers are jeopardized due to relocation. Hannah from the study expresses this succinctly: „I will just be Hannah, a mother. What is that worth? Nothing.“ The absence of work permit options, coupled with other regulatory restrictions, often exacerbate their anxieties.

Hannah was a high-flying corporate lawyer in her home country, and her identity was significantly tied to her professional status. When her partner was relocated for work, Hannah found herself in a new country with stringent requirements for practicing law, including re-qualification exams and language barriers.

Despite her extensive experience and success, she felt isolated and undervalued in the new environment. Job searches were discouraging, and she found herself increasingly disconnected from her professional identity. Hannah’s network was back home, and her qualifications seemed less relevant here. She felt as if her career was not just stalled but actively regressing. The loss of her professional status weighed heavily on her, causing emotional stress and a sense of identity crisis.

To transition from a „Threatened Career“ to an „Emerging New Career,“ Hannah should embrace her challenges as opportunities for growth. She can explore alternative roles in her field, upskill to meet local requirements, and invest in robust networking. Emotional and psychological support is crucial in this journey, something that my coaching services or the New Roots program can offer through tailored career transition guidance, mentorship, and well-being resources.

4. Lost Career Identities: The Disillusioned

The individuals in this group often feel like they’ve hit a career dead-end. They may experience feelings of stagnation and pessimism, as captured by Sofia’s lament in the study: „I have stagnated.“ Extended periods abroad without meaningful career engagement contribute to this sentiment.

In the „Lost Career“ identity, individuals like Ethan often struggle with an overwhelming sense of disillusionment and loss of professional purpose. Uprooting from their native countries has not only severed ties with their original career paths but has also eroded their confidence and identity as professionals. Ethan, for example, used to be a high-flying consultant but found no immediate opportunities in the host country to continue in the same capacity.

Despite his best efforts to network, attend interviews, and even consider alternative fields, Ethan couldn’t secure a position that remotely aligned with his skills and experience. Over time, this took a toll on his self-esteem and sense of identity, leading him to question his professional worth. The prolonged phase of unemployment or underemployment contributed to his feeling of having a „lost“ career.

The challenge with a „Lost Career“ is that it’s not merely about a lack of job opportunities; it’s about a severe emotional and psychological toll that threatens an individual’s entire professional identity. While it is a daunting task to recover from this stage, it is not impossible. Programs like New Roots can offer a lifeline to individuals with a „Lost Career“ by providing them with the resources, mentorship, and psychological support to reevaluate their skills, rekindle their passions, and re-enter the job market with renewed confidence and direction.

"Expatriate partners with stable career identities often benefit from professions viewed as a 'calling,' easy job re-entry upon repatriation, and career-oriented support systems."

Essential Insights for Navigating Career Transitions

The study unveils pivotal findings that serve as a guide for expatriate partners going through career transitions:

  1. Understanding Career Identity is Crucial: The first step toward managing a career transition is understanding where you stand. Are you an Emily, a Sandra, a Hannah, or an Ethan? Knowing your current career identity can help you make informed decisions.

  2. Adaptability is Key: Especially for those in the „Threatened“ and „Lost“ categories, adaptability can be a lifesaver. It’s about finding new ways to apply your existing skills or learning new ones to fit into your new environment.

  3. Support Systems Matter: Whether it’s a corporate support program or a personal mentor, having a strong support system can make a significant difference. For those experiencing a „Threatened“ or „Lost“ career identity, external help can provide the emotional and practical guidance needed to navigate the career transition successfully.

  4. Self-Reflection Leads to Self-Discovery: Periods of career transition offer a unique opportunity for introspection. You can discover new career paths, interests, or opportunities you hadn’t considered before. For those in the „Emerging New Career“ phase, this can be particularly enlightening.

  5. Take Action: Inactivity tends to perpetuate the problems associated with negative career transitions. For those in the „Threatened“ or „Lost“ career identities, taking proactive steps can be a game-changer. This could be as simple as reaching out for professional advice or as substantial as enrolling in a skill-enhancement course.

Each of these insights offers a distinct pathway to manage the complexities that come with changing careers in a new country. By recognizing the importance of these key takeaways, you set the stage for a smoother, more fulfilling career transition.

And speaking of support systems, I’d like to introduce you to our New Roots Expat Partner Support Program. Designed to help you through these intricate transitions, New Roots provides the tools and resources you’ll need to find your footing in your professional journey.

I hope you found this blog post helpful for your current situation. Let me know if I can be of any help! I offer the opportunity for free 1:1 discovery calls to discuss your situation! 

Kate from Share the Love, expat, expat wife, expat life

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Ebook for the accompanying partner

Quitting your job and joining your partner abroad does not need to end your professional career. Learn what options you have and how to define what you really want during your time abroad. Make it to your own personal journey and get the most out of it!


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