travel collage illustration
Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare


Witnessing an exodus of thirtysomethings can feel unsettling

Marisa Bate’s friends are booking one-way tickets and moving abroad. What’s sending them away, she wonders – and when can she join them

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By Marisa Bate on

From here on in, I shall be known as Marisa-no-mates. Or Marisa-sans-mates, if I were trying to feel less bitter and sound more continental. Not as continental, however, as all my friends who have actually moved, or are about to move, to various actual continents, including South America, North America and Europe. Once upon a time, you’d look around one day in your thirties and realise all your friends were pregnant and living in Surbiton. Now, I look around and realise they’ve all bought a one-way ticket to somewhere else in the world.

“How?” is always my first question when anyone up sticks, so I’ll be honest. There is one wealthy couple who, between them, have an American passport and a job offer in NYC. Then there’s the single French woman who had enough of her career in advertising, saved up (possible in high-paying sectors, or so I hear) and is now in Florence, studying interior design (I’m not joking. French women just are better than us. Move on). There’s the couple who can speak Spanish, work remotely and who have just fixed up a studio in Barcelona. Then there’s one of my best friends, who has always had the magical skill of saving money on a small salary, plus she’s a natural linguist and is heading to South America. There’s my Finnish friend, who is contemplating Denmark, and there are my uni friends who moved from Brighton to Toronto via a six-month trek around East Asia.  

And, no, we didn’t all meet on a Lonely Planet internet forum in the early 1990s. All of these people have different jobs, with different salaries and different outlooks on life. So, why do I feel like I’m witnessing 2,000 small birds take flight from the Sahara, off on some migratory journey I didn’t get the memo about?

The echoing thud of Brexit has caused the scattering of hundreds. Or so say the statistics. Since the referendum, according to one survey, the number of young people who have wanted to leave the UK has doubled. Another survey, by the British Council, published in September, found that 56 per cent of British young people (in this instance, 18- to 30-year-olds) hope to work abroad in the future. And my friend who’s flying to Spain with a one-way ticket at the end of next month supports that. When I ask her if Brexit had anything to do with her and boyfriend’s move, she told me: “Yes, definitely. It made us realise how lucky we are, being European, with the ability and freedom to live and work in so many different countries and cultures, and that that privilege might all be taken away from us soon, so we better make the most of it while we can.”

We are the first generation to watch the world get a bit smaller. We are the generation of Skype and Facebook, of never truly being alone as long as there’s a wi-fi connection

I don’t think it’s only one last hurrah at being European – whatever being “European” means right now – that’s causing so many of us to leave the UK, however. I think we are the first generation to watch the world get a bit smaller. We are the generation of Skype and Facebook, of never truly being alone as long as there’s a wi-fi connection. We can see what’s happening in the cities we’ve left behind; we can work on the homesickness with WhatsApp groups. We are also the children of globalisation – we have an international outlook. At 15, my school sent me to Vancouver, obviously not to learn a language, but just to experience another part of the world. We can get flights cheaper than train tickets. We’ve holidayed in Europe as kids. We buy things off the internet from China and Mexico. As I’ve recently written, we’re a restless, hot-homing generation, for whom ambition isn't security and a solid plan (because those things don’t exist any more) – ambition is adventure and change and new possibilities. And we know we can adventure with the safety net of FaceTiming our mum every Sunday. So, why wouldn’t we up and leave?

I lived in Amsterdam for two years and one of my favourite things to do was to cycle along the canals at night, looking into the tall windows of the tall thin houses. The Dutch know a thing or two about design, and the many open curtains and just-so lighting is entirely intentional. I’d slow right down to glimpse inside the lives of these aesthetically talented people. I’d catch a painting or a bookshelf or a perfectly positioned mid-century dresser. I’d stop and wonder who lived there, waiting for a silhouette to move across the light. And that is the experience of living abroad – you are permitted to look inside the lives, the culture, the ways of being of others. It’s all there for you to see and watch and get lost in. And my friend is completely right – it is a privilege. Of course, perhaps our craving to look to the lives of others is also about turning our backs on what we see in our own. These days, a St George's flag is shorthand for fascism, MPs are displaying worrying signs of McCarthyism and, yes, there’s Brexit and all the anti-immigration rhetoric that comes with it. So, let’s instead look at the lives of others; let's instead slip into a country or a culture that makes us wide-eyed and feel alive. Let’s learn about the ways of strangers and end our selfie-centred culture. Because living abroad is like putting on 3D glasses or seeing something in technicolour for the first time – somehow your heart beats faster, sunrises are more radiant, rainy afternoons are more poetic, cafes are full of more philosophising. Somehow all the clichés are wonderfully true.

My quasi-socio-economic theories on why my friends are all buggering off are really, however, to mask one very simple thing: jealousy. More than investigating their adventures, I very much hope that soon I’ll be writing this column from a small flat in a strange city somewhere very far away.


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Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare
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