The Bobbie Salazar Phenomenon: Why Filipino Millennials are Moving Abroad
More than a dream, millennial migration is becoming a trend. Here’s why it matters.
by Roace Alfonso
If I count the number of friends and acquaintances who left for another country in the past two years, my fingers in both my hands and toes would not suffice. I myself have thought about this a couple of times over the past year, especially when reading news about how other countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand handle the pandemic and respond to their people’s needs.
It wasn’t surprising though that a lot of my contemporaries have left. After all, they are like me: idealistic Filipino millennials. A 2019 survey conducted by the World Economic Forum revealed that 52.9 percent of Filipinos aged 15–35 years old are open to becoming Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). And we aren’t afraid to express our interest in the matter, so much so that we’ve basically co-opted leaving the country into our vernacular: from stories about marrying a foreigner for a better life to considering congregating in online communities to figure out the logistical intricacies of visas, funding, and work.
But why exactly do Filipino millennials consider migrating abroad?
One of the defining characteristics of migration is how it is driven by individual experience and motivation.
“[Y]ou have push-pull factors happening within and without [outside] Philippine borders,” says Dr. Lawrence Dacuycuy, a full-time professor from De La Salle University’s School of Economics. These factors include personal, social, and economic forces that ultimately lead one to make life-altering decisions.
“But what I can say is you have to appreciate the attitude, the set of beliefs, the behavior of millennials to come up with a more informed characterization of what they do and what they want to do,” he added.
A single mother of three might prioritize flexible employment opportunities abroad, for example, while another will prioritize his dreams of becoming a global expert in his field. Meanwhile, the breadwinner of a struggling household will prioritize overseas job opportunities that can pay him the most to make ends meet. No reason is the same, even among the same age groups.
“Aside from achieving a more stable career abroad, it has really been my dream since I was young to move to a different country,” Ericka, a 27-year-old HR practitioner from Laguna, says. I feel that moving to a new environment will help my personal growth further, and enable me to become more independent and enjoy real freedom,”. This drive to pursue personal aspirations is a common trait across millennials. In fact, a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in 2020 reported that 80% of millennials across the world want to work outside their countries.
The family-oriented culture of Filipinos also influences an individual’s decision to move abroad.
According to Dr. Dacuycuy, this is true for young Filipinos, especially for breadwinners who want to provide a better quality of life for their families.
“It’s something they thought about carefully. It’s for them to survive, to send their kids to the best schools,” he says.
Some people also move abroad to reunite with their families who have already migrated. Still, for others, it’s their parents who decide for their future, such as in the example of Ace, 26, a Hong Kong-based content and web editor who shares, “[It’s], not my choice, [but my] parents’.”
For young couples starting a family, moving abroad means chasing better professional and living opportunities. In some cases, particularly in the Filipino LGBTQIA+ community, it is seen as a strategic move to get married and strive for a better quality of life abroad.
“My partner and I have been wanting to get married, which, we, unfortunately, don’t see being possible here anytime soon,” Erik, 31, an implementation analyst from Makati says.
The internet also plays a part in millennials’ decision-making process. Anecdotes and experiences from YouTube videos, blogs, online groups, movies, and TV series about migrating to a foreign land likewise help paint a picture of how a life of a migrant will turn out. With more positive stories popping up online and in the media, millennials, one of the largest consumers of such materials, feel emboldened to take a leap of faith.
This is known as the “network effect,” says Dr. Dacuycuy. People who plan to move abroad increasingly become more confident about migrating because of the support or encouragement they receive from others who have already migrated. This may come from family, friends, friends of friends, or strangers on the internet.
Subpar Standard of Living
The scarcity of local employment opportunities is one of the constant problems young millennials constantly face. In fact, the latest reported unemployment rate is at 6.6 percent which is equivalent to 3.27 million Filipinos aged 15 years old above, 62.8 percent of whom are within the 15 to 34 age range, and 30.1 percent of whom are made up of college and post-secondary degree graduates. This gap leaves millennials with no choice but to seek employment opportunities elsewhere.
For the fortunate ones who do find local employment, the disparity between the value of their job and the cost of living in the Philippines becomes a common issue. For instance, the constant ridicule and shame brought upon by the government and the public, alongside delayed and unequal pay, pushes Filipino healthcare professionals to leave the country.
The labor force has also had to continuously endure the increasing price of commodities, despite the downward trend of a 3.0 percent inflation rate as of January 2022. This has prompted millennials to seek “greener pastures” abroad where merely surviving wouldn’t put a big hole in their pockets.
In addition, the poor quality of government support in terms of education, housing, health care, and social support, all of which are basic fundamental rights funded through the people’s taxes, remains to be a burden.
Lee, 27, an Israel-based programmer, says that the lack of government support and funding to do advanced research and studies left him no choice but to leave the country. “I used to be a Theoretical Physics Researcher (and)…I want to do high-level research that DOST [the Department of Science and Technology] will never give money to…I want to do cutting-edge work that no one in the Philippines has money to fund,” he shares.
What Happens Next
The effects of migration also span the economic, social, and personal realms.
One of the biggest benefits of migration is overseas remittance, which has become the biggest source of income for the Philippine economy. These remittances jumpstart the economy through productive and non-productive activities.
“Some of them [migrants] would invest in education, condominium units, or housing… The effects will propagate throughout the economy. If you consume a lot, then the government will collect more taxes. It will enhance income-generating activities and spur investments like stock markets.” says Dr. Dacuycuy.
The influx of overseas migration has also opened up new opportunities for the country to make advancements in education and technology. With the increasing demand for global talents, private academic institutions, as well as governing bodies, have started to invest more in high-demand fields like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).
These experts in turn help improve the quality of education and generate national interest for young individuals to take up courses and pursue careers in these fields. However, prioritizing such global demands first also has a downside. For instance, it can be detrimental to our country’s economic growth to export the very human resources we need to keep a healthy economy. We lose so much because of migration so retaining top-shelf talents has got to be one of the country’s priorities.
But can we blame those who leave? Moving abroad means having a higher chance for a better standard of living, such as free or subsidized healthcare, education, housing, and social support. Take for example Lee who pointed out the ease of access to healthcare in Israel. “I have three Pfizer vaccine shots in my arm, and all I had to do was show up to a mall and wait for exactly five seconds.” He says. “I didn’t even need to get a taxi or hitch a ride, I just needed to ride a bus!”
The Filipino Migrant Experience
Families left behind by migrants who must work abroad face a lot of potential troubles, pressure, and judgments along the way–both from their immediate circle and society as a whole. Dr. Dacuycuy points out that this is one of migration’s biggest trade-offs, but should not be taken lightly.
“[A situation like] troubled family relations where the father is not present. Do you think it’s not calculated? It’s really bad for others to evaluate what migrant households are facing because it’s not a random process….It’s not like somebody flipped a coin and went abroad.”
Then, there are those who face discrimination.“It wasn’t hard at first but experiencing and knowing what you can’t and can do, experiencing racism for the first time, and losing all the privileges that I had in the Philippines was hard.” Ace from Hong Kong says. “Filipinos being poor and migrant workers or ‘lahing katulong’ is something I hear commonly,” he added.
Apart from the fear of facing discrimination, migrants also face the risk of health vulnerabilities. In a 2020 International Organization for Migration report, migrants who feel isolated, defenseless in face of risk, and in state of shock or stress are prone to develop health issues. And families left behind by migrants also have an increased risk to mental health issues like anxiety disorders, depression, and substance abuse.
If there’s anything good that comes out of experiencing these hardships, it’s that migrating somehow further solidified the migrants’ identities as Filipinos.
“My passport is still a Philippine passport, marunong ako mag-tagalog (I know how to speak Tagalog),” Lee (from Israel) says. “I know that taho (soy pudding) is the best sh** ever. I know that my tinola (chicken stew) should have malunggay (moringa) in it. I think I’m pretty Filipino.” he adds.
For aspiring migrants like Erik and Ericka, moving abroad doesn’t change the fact that they’re Filipinos at heart. Erik said “If we’re talking about heritage, no. I will still identify as a Filipino who just happens to live abroad.” which is echoed by Ericka who says “I will still be Filipino by heart wherever I go.”
Living abroad is a test of character. It’s a gamble of what one is willing to risk despite its pay-offs not being a hundred percent guaranteed. Oftentimes, it can be unpleasant. The experience is in no way similar to Emily Cooper’s Parisian adventure, however. It’s not always glamorous or filled with soirees and white privilege. Instead, it’s a lot closer to Josie (Vilma Santos) in the movie Anak. Or Bobbie Salazar’s recollection about her life in New York in Four Sisters and a Wedding. The life of a Filipino migrant is enduring yet rewarding; isolating but self-fulfilling.
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