A city of Peter Pans?

When I learned that a friend of mine is moving to one of the remoter parts of Africa, it did not come as a surprise to me, as she is hardly the first person moving out I got to know in the time I have now lived in an international environment. However, knowing her a bit better, it made me realize how much the unruly lifestyle of many young and youngish internationals is linked to fear of accepting their own mortality.

This is especially true for Geneva, this city of young and ambitious NGO and United Nations staff, which promises exciting lives somewhere between Africa’s refugee camps, peace negotiations in Geneva and advocacy press-conferences in New York to those who survive the struggle for intern, consultancy and staff positions. However, there is an air of self-delusion and few seem to be aware of the fears underlying their motivations. Carpe Diem is the popular rallying-cry but is such the general fear of having lost out on an opportunity at the end of their days, that little heed is paid to a different interpretation; to enjoy the day.

It is difficult to know what one wants of life, many people, not only internationals, do not know until the end of their lives, and often also find that their goals change over time. Fear of death is also widespread, the general obsession with youth and beauty testifies to this. So what is it, in international life that is so particular about it?

I think that the answer is that working internationally tends to reinforce a tendency in people that otherwise would be more strongly balanced. The fact that mobility and flexibility is highly appreciated lets many people think less about what else they want of life, and what is rendered very difficult by their current circumstances. Love and a stable social circle are obvious candidates for losing out in the highly mobile and individualistic environment the international arena is. Indeed it can be readily observed that the uncertain job situation in the international arena is often accompanied by unstable relationships. This seems logical if we think of professional success and social needs as goals opposed to each other, this is, pleasure can only be taken out of one, but not from both. We can then see how there is a reinforcing tendency. Since flexibility is so highly rewarded and having stable friends and partners rendered difficult, the only solution for many could be to seek satisfaction or oblivion in the professional career.
But as we dig deeper down, another explanation looms. Rather than one being the consequence of the other, professional and intimate instability are both themselves consequences of the fear of getting trapped in a commitment with no means of escape. Commitmentphobia, exemplified in the popular saying according to which the grass is always greener on the other side, manifests itself in the pursuit of opportunities, both of the romantic and professional life, to the detriment of a balanced life.

To understand better what is going on, it seems that we first need to look at internationals and how they tend to get into the international situation. Maybe this will shed some light on if internationals are lovers manqués due to the job, or runners-away from serious commitment.

An international career typically starts with a year abroad during school or university, followed by one or more internships in humanitarian or international organizations. During these stints, interns meet their peers, who (un)surprisingly wield similar impressive curriculi, pressuring everybody to try even harder, if one is to fulfil her goals. This is where a gradual process of alienation often starts, which consists of the neglect of a close social network and stable relationships to the benefit of high mobility and success at the workplace

In Geneva this can be observed quite well. Every day there are many goodbye picknicks at Perle du Lac, where people abound whose nervous similes barley hide the fact that they hardly know the people with who they are here with, notwithstanding their intimate knowledge of each others professional curriculum, acquired over countless lunch appointments. Good friendships are certainly forged during exiting times abroad, but it is a fact of life that these friends are constantly left behind, as people scramble for new assignments. Many people speak of their good friends in no matter which capital of the world, but are in reality without any friend in the place they live in.

Intimate relationships also frequently suffer. For all the loneliness, Geneva is a city of singles, but fear of being left behind and the knowledge that one might soon leave again, makes many wary to make an emotional commitment in the first place, or become frustrated in long-distance relationships. Faced with their individual prospects and a more uncertain emotional attachment, many chose their career. For woman this situation must be particularly challenging, since they tend to think about founding a family at an earlier age. Yet it is above all, single, woman who populate today’s international workforce. Not that men are immune; numerous are the memories I guard of lone men sitting in bars in exotic countries in the evening. I always had to wonder how to square “he loves his job above everything else” with their long departed wives and children.

The other day I read an article that related that women increasingly “freeze their eggs to wait for Mr. Right”. One of the motivations that was given there was concern about the career, which often needs to be interrupted just as others start to lift off. The character of the young and dynamic aid-worker, to be encountered above all in NGOs such as Medecins Sans Frontiers, who hops from assignment to assignment, one duty station more challenging than the other, is sort of a stereotype, but can readily be met in bars around Geneva. Once on home leave, so it is reported, women in different cities are visited, reminiscent of ancient sailors, who are said to have harboured a woman in every port. I remember a friend’s book recommendation. “Emergency Sex”, a book mainly known for its reporting of alleged UN corruption, but which also talks about the link between romantic and professional relationship in a high-mobility, high-stress environment. Last but not least, there is my friend. Faced with a personal choice between two men, she avoided to chose and throws herself into her career.

There seems to be an air of noncommittment around the internationals we have met above, but an alternative explanation is that these are only a consequence of international circumstances.

The question is thus if international turns people into lonely opportunity seekers or conversely, of if it only attracts people having such traits and chases away everybody else? Does international life appeal above all to those who give less consideration to their stability needs in the same way banking tends to attract greedy egoists? Or is the professional pressure on internationals such that they just put op with having a complicated social life, in the same way a bankers apprentice learns the rule of the game. Is it interest in culture, the nature of the work or the benefits that motivate people to go international? Or is it the lifestyle, everywhere, Rio, New York, Tokyo, and nowhere at the same time?

The answers will help us with our initial investigation which was interested in shedding light onto the question if instable relationships are a consequence of the highly unpredictable job situation or if the noncommittal nature of the international labour market and the unsteady relationships are both symptoms of a deeper tendency to avoid commitments. If the former was the case, the situation would seem less serious. Once at a point where one wants a commitment, one could simply head for a different lifestyle. In the case of the latter, no such straightforward solution presents itself, since the endless seeking is basically wanted. The couch seems to best place to head for.

At this point in the investigation I notice that it is worthwhile to stop, rethink and qualify. First, it seems to me that it is impossible to lump together everybody in one schema. Myriad are the reasons that attract people to the international life. I am here interested in those who both have unstable professional and romantic careers and thus inherently limited to only a subset. My conclusions thus have no general character. However, they might give some insight into a mindset that is frequently encountered internationally. I see that there seem to be two main traits. First, the noncommittals, who find in the international arena a ready environment that suits their tendency to refrain from committing themselves. The work situation seems to provide a ready pretext for refraining from personal commitment. Second, the careerists, who, faced with the international dilemma, opt for career first at the expense of their social life. In practice a bit of both certainly lies behind everybody’s motivation.

As my mind is coming back to my friend, I see myself. How did I get here after having lived tranquilly in Bavaria for so long? Similar to many others, my year abroad rouse my interest in other cultures, but the pivotal event for my unrest was love. Once faced with a choice between love and the world, I chose myself. As my mistake dawned on me but the error proved impossible to mend, I told myself that if it was not that, I would at least see the world. Noncommittment has since then helped me avoiding the difficult truth that I was unconsciously looking for something I had already found but what my travels were not making any easier to find again somewhere else.

I now understand better the reasons why so many young internationals are so much concerned with opportunities, although answering the questions above will require more investigation in the future. What seems to be going on is that for many people the point in life at which they start narrowing down options is pushed away into the future, due to fear of commitment or career considerations. Much of the sometimes a bit superficial and uncommitted lifestyle, somewhere between self promotion for the next short term contact and painting over the loneliness, thus has its root in the fundamental fact that many people in the international arena are in a cyclic process of opening up new opportunities. I wonder how far it is wise to go with this and if it is really desirable to have all the options open once on the deathbed, but having forgotten to live until then. The opportunity game seems to boil down to a refusal to grow up.

In the light of this rather fatalist view of the situation, I should maybe see if a more upbeat interpretation is possible. Is being ambitious and keeping open ones options a bad thing after all? Human advancement is pushed by people relentlessly trying instead of being complacent. Competition usually brings about higher production, in areas as diverse as the economy, sports and the arts. People lead exiting lives their fathers and mothers could only have dreamt of, and in a world of global competition some investment might be needed to make it to the top. Telling people to abandon searching sounds dangerously close to instructing them to live the sort of life I would approve of, rather than them. Boy- and girlfriends are eventually found or brought along, and the door to a different life is open. Maybe it is merely a question about the right point in time to change course. So many people leave and are lost out of sight and I cannot know which lifestyle they finally adopted. Why reproach people not to know what they want and to lead exiting lives in the meantime until they know? What, after all, is the right thing, lifestyle, approach to life? A generic answer does not exist, so why nitpicking at people?

The right lifestyle being up to everybody to determine individually, there is not much to add to the above. Finding ones place in society has always involved reaching for the top, and international life only reflects this in a more and more globalized society. However, one should be aware of the powerful incentives for self-delusion which wait along the international highways of success. The example of that friend of mine, and myself, epitomised to me how personal problems and professional payoff tend to go hand-in-hand in the international arena. I think that, for all my love of extremes, being happy is about the right balance in life, and I think that what is particular about the international arena is that it makes striking this balance difficult.

For the contrary of opening up opportunities is to narrow them down, necessitating closure of paths. This means choosing, instead of keeping the options, and to maybe never walk down the path to Dadaab refuge camp, burdened by bags of beans, on top of being a human rights lawyer and a public policy specialist.
Maybe closing opportunities deserves being appreciated in a more favourable light, despite the negative connotation. While it is sensible to have some options, profound experiences often only await those who know to chose. Choosing does not necessarily mean to be trapped, for change is still possible. But only readiness to close opportunities might make others possible in the first place. Choosing one career can give a sense of purpose that endless seeking cannot produce. When we go to the restaurant, we think of it to be desirable to know that pizza and not pasta will give us the most pleasure. Last but not least, we also chose a partner, aiming to share and enjoy live with her.

So what is the solution? Maybe it is wise to be pragmatic and not to forget that things can be combined. If international lifestyle brings us pleasure, why not trying and combine it with whatever else we long for. Perhaps things are not mutually exclusive. It is certainly difficult to know what one wants, but I have tried to argue that international life tempts many people not to think about what else matters to them, as it dawns on them that it could be contrary to their professional self-conception. The answer then is to be honest to ourselves about what we, also, want. Then we can set about the, difficult enough, job of reconciling this with whatever pleases us. As to fear of commitment, the anxiety seems overblown, when analyzed rationally. In a world of virtually unlimited opportunities one necessarily needs to make choices if one accepts the fact that ones time on this earth is limited. At the same time, life being what it is one can neither expect to get bored doing the same thing throughout ones life, nor to be inextricably chained to a partner against ones will. Conversely, many options only open up after some sort of commitment in the first place, although this insight might dawn only after extended periods of loneliness and/or many visits to the couch. As you ponder priorities, it might then be worthwhile considering how much value do we give to opportunities and exotic jobs and how much to things like friends or love.

I wrote about how one can get caught up in the opportunity game. Ambition, high and maybe inaccurate expectations of an international career plus competition make people accustomed to self-exploitation. I then described the process of not narrowing down ones options as a refusal to come to terms with the finiteness of our existence. It seemed that these are two different ways and that hence motivations that let people get into the international arena vary. But it was suggested that they are in reality two ends of the same sausage, the former being the beginning and the later the end. Self-exploitation and ambition is a requirement of entering the game in the first place, self-denial about or ignorance of ones goal in life are the requisites of those who want to stay in. If one presumes a model of the survival of the best adapted, it was argued that the high-mobility, low-social nature of the job only lets those prosper for who a stable social network plays a secondary role or who are ready to suppress these feelings in them. I also considered a more positive analysis. It is not clear what “the right” lifestyle is. The doors to a different life are open and there are examples plentiful of international staff leading happy lives, be it alone or with their partners. My solution is to accept, rather than suppress, the fact that differing and conflicting needs of human existence require careful balance.