“And the winner is...”
The countries that follow frequently top expat surveys – though not necessarily across every factor or index. Looking beyond these latest survey results (2017), we’ve caught up with a team of expert, expat parents who have added their insights on the ups and down of life abroad.
This European powerhouse takes the number one position for raising a family abroad in HSBC’s 2017 Expat Explorer Survey. Lucille Abendanon has lived in The Netherlands for two and a half years with her husband and three sons, and whole-heartedly agrees with its top ranking. “Despite the weather, the quality of life here is wonderful” she enthuses. “Children are encouraged to be independent, to be on their bikes and to play sport. Life doesn’t stop because it’s raining and I really love that.” Lucille is also impressed with the Dutch work-life balance, “both parents play equal roles and share household tasks evenly. Part-time work is very normal.” According to The Economist, 26.8% of men and 76.6% of women work less than 36 hours a week.
According to Unicef, Dutch children are among the happiest in the world and benefit from more relaxed parenting styles, open spaces, excellent infrastructure, and independence due to a safe environment. “Life here is really family-centric” says Lucille, “families have dinner together, children play in their neighbourhood streets, and life is very social. Add to that excellent (and free) schooling, good healthcare and infrastructure that just works, and you realise that raising kids here is pretty special.”
Sweden consistently clinches the top spot for the best place for raising kids, but in 2017 is pipped to the post by The Netherlands and so drops to number two in HSBC’s Expat Explorer Survey... Paid parental leave, excellent (and free) healthcare, and a culture geared towards encouraging children to be independent are major draw cards.
Lisa Ferland, editor and publisher of the Knocked Up Abroad series relocated five years ago from the US to Sweden, where she currently lives with her husband and two children, aged six and four. Lisa has high praise for Sweden’s parental leave, which is a staggering 480 days for the parents to share, “We would never have had the quality time at home with our kids when they were babies without Sweden's paid parental leave policies.”
Lisa continues, “Sweden takes children's rights very seriously and has written it into law to protect and support their education and rights. Sweden is part of the UN Convention on Rights of the Child, which entitles children to play in a stimulating, safe, and appropriate environment. This provision has led to the development of multiple playgrounds in every neighbourhood with play structures that are accessible to children of all abilities.”
Indeed, quality of life for kids is one of the things Lisa loves most about living in Sweden, “Kids in Sweden enjoy a lot of unstructured free play and the Swedish right to access public spaces, ‘allmansrätten’, means that kids (usually aged 5 and older) are often seen playing unattended in playgrounds, backyards, and in the woods. Their freedom to wander their local environment helps develop a physical competency to handle unexpected situations that many kids in the US don't have.”
When it comes to overall experience (which considers lifestyle, people and ease of setting up your life in the country), the same HSBC survey ranks Sweden at 23 out of 46 countries, which suggests that whilst it is fantastic for raising kids, there are obviously factors that do not sit well with expats. Lisa lists weather, language, geographic isolation, and discrimination against foreigners as factors that may contribute to Sweden’s lower score, “There is a strong cultural pressure to conform — to do things the Swedish way. That makes sense since we are living in Sweden, but it can often feel like a rejection of anything "other" and can be quite isolating if you do not fit into their societal expectations.”
Singapore is the overall winner in HSBC’s Expat Explorer survey showing that the Asian powerhouse scored consistently high in all three categories: fourth for economics, fourth for experience, and third for family (beaten only by Sweden and The Netherlands . Respondents cite excellent schooling and better overall quality of life as positives.
Pang Kue Van moved from Houston, Texas to Singapore with her husband and twin sons before moving on to The Netherlands two years later. She only has good things to say about the island nation. She most values Singapore’s education system, its safety, and its location as a regional hub. “Raising kids in Singapore is a unique experience. Local schools are some of the most academically rigorous in the world, and the international schools are a mixture of Western and Eastern teaching.”
Pang goes on to say, “the rigor of Singapore’s border control and harshness of its laws help to keep the country one of the safest countries in the world. Who wouldn’t want to raise their children in a country where safety is practically guaranteed, education is of the best in the world and family travel is so easy and affordable?”
Mercer’s Quality of Living Index however, ranks Singapore 25 for overall quality of living. Factors such as pollution, expensive (and small) housing options, and the high cost of living affect its rankings. The qualitative data suggests that people are willing to compromise on the higher costs of living in exchange for the benefits of excellent schooling, safety and all the other things life in Singapore has to offer.
Australia ranks consistently well and is a popular destination for expats and immigrants with families. The HSBC survey ranks Australia seventh overall out of 46 countries. Good weather, the standard of education and safety are what drew Lauren Watson to make the move with her husband and two children from Durban, South Africa to Sydney. “The main advantage for us is that we have excellent infrastructure and transport, a great free public schooling system, free medical care for all permanent residents and citizens, and a strong feeling of safety” says Lauren.
She also says, “freedom is our favourite thing about Australia compared to South Africa. Playing in the street or running next door to a friend’s house is something we never really did in South Africa, but having it here makes me realise that this is an important part of growing up and feeling independent.” In terms of challenges, Lauren notes that she found it “difficult to make connections with people that you have no history with, although having younger children definitely helped in making school connections.” Lauren also mentions the extremely high cost of living in Sydney, specifically housing and food.
Was moving so far away from family worth it? Lauren replies with an emphatic yes: “no matter how many hard times we face, or financial challenges we have making this move, nothing will ever compare to the feeling of knowing that we’re giving our kids the best start they can possibly have with every opportunity at their fingertips.”
Germany is an interesting case. It ranks highly on all surveys considered here: second for working life (HSBC), fifth overall for raising a family (HSBC), with Munich ranking fourth in the world for quality of life (Mercer). Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that Germany is one of the most difficult countries to adapt to as a foreigner.
Difficulties in learning the language rank highly. “Making friends if you don’t speak German is tricky” says Eylem Canatadurucu who made the move from Texas to Germany with her husband and twin daughters. “When I first moved here I used to greet people on the street but they would mostly avoid eye contact or look at me as if I was from another planet!”
Rebecca Hilton, the voice behind the expat blog Making Here Home, moved to Germany with her husband and daughters and has the same concerns regarding speaking German. “We live in a very international city where English is widely spoken. In other places I think you could feel isolated if you don't speak the language.” Language difficulties aside, Rebecca feels Germany is a great place to bring up a family with “lots of fresh air, green spaces and lots of activities geared towards children.” She also values the amount of freedom children are given at a young age, “It's normal for children to walk to school by themselves from the age of seven.” However, she does say “The stereotype of Germans being rule-abiding is true to an extent; and when you don't know what the rules are, you can feel like you're constantly being told off!”