Should I stay or should I go? What shapes decisions about whether and when to be mobile for work again

March 5, 2024

Research has tended to focus on why people move for work, and few studies examine what drives decisions around whether to be mobile again after a move, and how quickly. In this thought piece I draw on insights from my current study of high-skilled professionals who have moved to Denmark for work, to understand this decision-making process better.

In my last thought piece, I discussed the experiences of accompanying partners. Here, I want to focus on what drives the decisions of families around when to make a new move.

Based on insights from the stories of participants in my SkillsINCORP study (a sub-sample of 52 high-skilled professionals currently working in Denmark, exploring their experiences outside work), with colleagues I have been able to unpick the factors shaping whether and when people move from one location to another.

One focus of our analysis has been to examine how the needs and experiences of an individual family member intersect with those of the family as a broader unit, to determine future mobility decisions.

First, it is important to emphasize that mobile high-skilled professionals are a very varied group. Although all our study participants had secured their employment prior to arriving in Denmark (a criteria for inclusion in our research), their level of previous mobility, their main reasons for coming to Denmark, and their intentions regarding how long they might stay, differed significantly.

All our respondents identified opportunities for professional growth and career satisfaction as critical to their decisions about whether to leave Denmark or not. But the extent to which they prioritised these issues in their decision-making was set alongside a number of other factors, including:

  • their partner’s scope for professional fulfilment (if they wanted to work);
  • having strong social networks/friendships;
  • the broader perceived benefits of Danish life (strong provision of state-funded health services and education, a society in which women are encouraged to combine parenthood with professional ambition, easy access to nature, and a safe environment within which to bring up children and allow them to explore their independence);
  • how mobile their nationality (passports held and concomitant scope for visas) allowed them to be, and whether they desired to seek Danish citizenship for themselves or their children;
  • whether or not their children had a Danish parent;
  • whether they wanted their children to benefit from free secondary and higher education provision in Denmark.

To illustrate the complexity of decision-making around future mobility, I outline here three brief cases studies from our research (which have been anonymised).

1. Tanya’s mobility considerations were very much defined by her and her husband’s professional identities and aspirations. Both of them worked as university researchers and felt under considerable pressure to secure their next fixed-term contract, or ideally, permanent position.

Both partners were in more or less the same position – having found professionally stimulating positions, in the same geographical location, and though these were not permanent, this felt to Tanya as the best case scenario for both. Although both partners were strongly committed to their individual careers, both their needs had to be considered in future mobility discussions, so no one was expected to become the ‘trailing spouse’ and settle for less, professionally.

Meanwhile their child’s needs did not feature heavily in their narrative about mobility as he was still very young; neither did their relative lack of a social network. Although Tanya expressed a very negative view about Denmark and its immigration and integration system, because of her and her husband’s professional aspirations, Denmark was considered a possible long-term option.

2. For Jing, meanwhile, her family needs - specifically in relation to her child - played a much larger role in her mobility considerations. Despite not having strong social networks, struggling to learn Danish, being frustrated that her non-white ethnicity stood out more in Denmark than it had done where she lived previously, she felt unable to consider moving because she shared custody of her daughter with her Danish (and Denmark resident) ex-husband.

Jing was not dissatisfied with her professional role at the time of the interview, but was concerned that she did not see anyone that ‘looked like me’ in the management tiers above her in her company, or anywhere in Denmark. However, the decision around whether to stay or leave Denmark was wholly driven by her wish that her daughter have a relatively ‘normal’ Danish childhood. Having said that, Jing also made sure to teach her daughter both English and Mandarin, so she would always know she was not ‘just’ Danish.

3. Meanwhile, Lily’s work, and that of partner, were not tied to living in Denmark (she worked online advising global dispersed clients, and her partner worked for an international organisation). However, Lily loved living in Copenhagen – being in the middle of the city yet near the sea and a land-based nature reserve too, being able to send her children to the local school, do her shopping on her doorstep, take her children to lots of after-school activities in the neighbourhood, as well as pursue her activism around nature preservation.

She described, however, that her partner felt no strong connection to Denmark and spent hardly any time in the local neighbourhood – working long hours in an international environment. Though he could easily apply to work elsewhere, the family had not yet moved due to Lily’s sense of connection to the place she lived. Lily anticipated that at some point they would probably need to leave for her husband’s work. Despite Lily’s contentment at living in Copenhagen, the family spent ten weeks each year travelling, and were still strongly connected to their Latin American background through friendships and regularly seeing family.

These three examples make clear that high-skilled professionals – a group of people highly sought after in Denmark as well as many other parts of the world – are still very human, and a very heterogeneous group with diverse contexts, motivations, and ties.

Yet many of us still associate the idea of the mobile high-skilled professional with a particular and often narrow image they have – based on themselves, people they have met, what we see in the media. If we are to develop successful approaches to attracting and retaining such people to Denmark, we need to work with a more accurate picture of who this group is comprised of, as well as better understanding their reasons for coming to Denmark, their experiences of living here, and their reasons for leaving.

Through my SkillsINCORP study, and my wider research knowledge, I can shine a light on this heterogeneity, and better develop human centered frameworks for really understanding how this group experiences living in Denmark, and what prompts them to move on again. Despite the range of contexts and motivations of this group, there are a number of clear threads which tie these examples together, from which we can form the basis of a set of tools to support international staff retention. A firm grounding in community, a sense of belonging, and confidence in having an equal footing in professional life and society alongside to their local Danish peers: these are vital to all.