Every six months, I meet up for a coffee and a chat with a gorgeous friend of mine. I’ll natter about university, work, my latest exciting recipe or purchase, and in return she’ll modestly regale me with tales of saving rainforests in Brazil, internships in Geneva, orphans in Madagascar and hot summers in New York. If she wasn’t so fantastic and genuinely interested in my tales, I’d feeling a bit self-conscious saying things like ‘Oh yes, well when the soup started to turn blue….’ or ‘You should have seen me work that photocopier’ amidst comments like ‘When we were tearing through the Amazon….’
An academic scholarship has allowed this NZ born and raised friend to have her university education in the States, and to be exposed to some amazing places and opportunities. To her credit, she still talks about returning to New Zealand at some stage to work, but no one would hold it against her if she did not. Overseas education or not, as one of our best and brightest she would always have been likely to leave New Zealand shores for better pay and a more international career. The ‘brain drain’ maybe a passé term, but it’s anything short of an outdated issue.
Apparently there are over 700,000 New Zealanders living overseas at the moment.* Many of them probably headed off on a traditional ‘O.E’ (or ‘Overseas Experience) to London or similar, got caught up in the bright lights, pubs (and gutters) of England and woke up somewhere along the line having acquired ‘real’ jobs, partners and maybe children in a country half a world away from here.
The Sunday Star Times ran an article a couple of weeks ago (‘Great Expectations, 23/01/2011), which suggested the O.E. was no longer about having fun and ‘seeing’ Europe whilst hung over on a bus. Today’s O.E.ers, it was argued, view their travels as ‘some sort of aptitude test, a challenge’ to be endured as a way of proving themselves, in order to get ahead in their careers back home. Go west, my son. Prove you can survive grey skies and bad coffee, and you’ll make ya mother proud. The article emphasised that the actual work undertaken whilst away wasn’t really important because ‘all that matters is that it’s done overseas.’
I’m not entirely convinced of this idea. It seems a very outdated cultural cringe notion that anything done in Mother England or Papa America is automatically more enriching and skill-developing than something done in New Zealand. The O.E. shouldn’t be seen as an Obligatory Endurance, but undoubtedly travel and different cultural experiences do broaden the mind, and a provide a better understanding of New Zealand’s place in the world. I have been lucky to combine studying with travel, and got my ‘O.E.’ of sorts whilst studying in England as part of my NZ degree. My time in England was overall very rewarding and enriching. I had challenging times too, including learning the hard way never to cross angry Chavs when packed in a train for several hours. What such an article about modern OEs is overlooking is that so many of the very people we need and want in the New Zealand workforce- intelligent, educated, young people- are never boarding that return flight.
Mike Moore, current NZ Ambassador to the United States is quoted as saying ‘Every New Zealander who leaves home suddenly becomes patriotic.’* This may be true, but it’s a kind of patriotism which sees them cheering for the All Blacks on couches in Sydney suburbs, or celebrating Waitangi Day en masse in Westminster Square, but come the next day they’re still getting up and going to work in the Australian or British economy.
In the words of this year’s New Zealander of the Year, Sir Paul Callaghan ‘It’s bloody hard to be world-class and take on the world from New Zealand.’* We need more support for those who do choose to stay here, and still want to be global players, rather than just world-famous in New Zealand. Without such a focus on retaining skilled workers, New Zealand runs the risk of becoming an ‘Empire of the Mind.’ Not ‘mind’ as in the overused ‘knowledge economy’ phrase, but an kind of fantastical Atlantis of golden beaches and amazing bushes, which exists only in the memories of the increasing number of Kiwis who now call somewhere else ‘home’.
*All references to The Sunday Star Times, 6th February 2011.