Insight - Covid has changed the psychology of ambition

Customers have lunch at a restaurant in Lamma Island, Hong Kong, Sunday, Dec. 27,2020. Hong Kong's government have tightened the social distancing measures and restaurants can only serve no more than two persons per table, to prevent the spread of coronavirus. - AP

A BRITISH banker and mother of two who has lived in Hong Kong since 2008 recently told me that “push factors are adding up” and she’s “close to the point” of taking the risk of relocating to Europe for the sake of her eight-year-old daughter’s well-being after a year of schooling disruptions.

Welcome to the Covid-19 reset.

This year has thrown into question, on a personal level, the long-term expatriate lifestyle made possible by being able to hop on and off a plane.

With coronavirus risks, restrictions and quarantines, living abroad isn’t so easy anymore.

Many global nomads are heading home - or at least, thinking about it, exchanging often glamorous lifestyles for getting back to basics.

For the banker and her partner, the upheaval of 2020 has meant an end to frequent work trips around Asia, vacations home to see family, and quick long weekends to Bali and Singapore.

Now, getting out involves an excursion in the hills and woods of Hong Kong’s New Territories - more of a mental journey than a physical one.

Making the full repatriation leap may mean trading high-rise living for suburban houses with yards.

Even if families stay abroad, the changes of being grounded - from racking up air miles to spending air-time with kids, shifting from Michelin-starred restaurants to quarantined home cooking - has led to reassessment of what’s important.

Catchups by telephone, FaceTime and Zoom with loved ones became more meaningful.

That glass of wine on the couch at the end of the day has been worth more than happy hours and fancy cocktails.

A key factor is rejigging the psychology of ambition.

When given the right external conditions, people are willing to reach for all sorts of opportunities and experiences, and pay the price (not just monetary) to achieve them.

For many expats, the seismic shift around the world this year has forced a reassessment: What’s all this globetrotting really worth, and to what end? What once felt like an adventure now seems like alienation.

The benefits of normalcy seem far greater: frequently visiting grandparents, family Christmas lunches, a weekend in the park.

Much of that comes down to simply having more time and fewer options.

Like everywhere, some former high-flyers have lost their jobs and face hard choices. In places like Hong Kong, seeing your kids head off to school each day has been replaced by a turmoil of classroom closures and home-learning.

Families find themselves piled on top of each other in small apartments. The benefits of even a 50 square-foot garden and open playgrounds feel far more appealing.

Research shows that quality of life is partly a function of the emotional relationship between an individual and environment.

This has changed drastically with social distancing rules, shuttered restaurants, and the inability to plan the looking-forward-to aspects of life.

Think, Groundhog Day. Historian Frank M. Snowden, author of “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, ” said in a New Yorker interview that epidemics “hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are” and “reflect our relationships with the environment, ” both built and natural.

Varying degrees of lockdown change environments and our appreciation of what’s around us. Conversations in bubbled existences seem slower and revolve around the little things in life.

There’s more admiration for people doing the jobs that are suddenly far more risky – not just doctors and nurses, but trash collectors, security guards, and the checker at the grocery store. With gyms closed and no regular commute, time outdoors seems precious.

This experience isn’t limited to expats. Around 90% of Americans say the pandemic has been “a good time to reflect on what’s important to them, ” according to a survey.

Eight of 10 expect to have changed for the better on the other side of Covid-19. More than 90% are turning to wellness, and such behaviors are likely to stick.

People are getting in touch with their goals. Of course, everywhere, the disruption has strained mental health with increased stress and anxiety. Loneliness is more widespread.

Covid-19 will likely accelerate an ongoing change in the globalised workforce.

Cities hosting large expatriate populations like Hong Kong and Singapore rank among the world’s most expensive.

If individuals now feel that what they’re getting out of their overseas adventure is too pricey, the companies paying for it have been reassessing for some time.

Low tax rates in some jurisdictions may not be enough. Corporate outposts often can’t be justified anymore in places like Hong Kong, where retail is cratering, or in parts of South-East Asia, where prospects for an uptick are dim. Nor is the world of finance still a sure thing.

Hedge fund launches are down, while private equity fundraising fell. Banks are dealing with their own share of troubles, like Brexit. The tougher choices are for everybody.

Families dividing up in different locations is becoming more common. For some, this means living in the suburban outskirts, or further, of their home countries with partners commuting each week into the city.

For others, dependents have returned home while the breadwinner remains overseas, with visits severely limited. When and where vaccines become available may ease these separations.

The banker-mom’s daughter had an end-of-year classroom Zoom celebration. The children lit a candle and were asked what they were most grateful for, in this most challenging year.

Her daughter said being with friends in school and looking forward to being with her whole family at Christmas.

Her father had been in Europe for a while, unable to easily enter and exit Hong Kong due to quarantine restrictions.

“The simple things in life are the ones that mean the most to kids, ” the mother said.

That’s true for most of us – whether we go back to our tinseled pre-virus lives or not. — Bloomberg

Aanjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Asia. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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