On Laying Down New Roots in New Lands

On Laying Down New Roots in New Lands

An exchange student reflects on why international inequality cuts down our rosy cosmopolitan ideal

The instant I stepped off the plane from Sydney to Paris, my time lost more than a third of its value. 

Looking at wages in other countries can profoundly undermine our mythology of an international community, because it reveals exactly how well off people in those countries are. There is a hierarchy among nations, and we Australians are at the top. The problem is that this might discourage us from living in other countries and seeing the world as locals would.  

Salaries and the myth of international mobility

Australia’s minimum wage is currently the highest in the world, at $19.49/hour. We often think of France as a generous welfare state with a high minimum wage. So I was shocked to learn that, since minimum wage earners lose about a fifth of their income to taxes, the net hourly minimum wage in France ends up at €7.94, or $12.88. 

The gap widens when we take loadings into account. The standard casual loading rate in Australia is  25%, raising the effective hourly minimum wage for student jobs to $24.37. In France, the equivalent benefit is a 10% ‘prime de précarité’ for temporary contracts, bringing the hourly minimum up to $14.17. 

Looking at wages in other countries can profoundly undermine our mythology of an international community

Unpaid internships are a scourge of student life in Australia, although a lucky few among us will manage to find paid internships at or above the minimum wage. As I found, the French have a pragmatic approach: all interns get a stipend of just $6.08 (€3.75) per hour. But employers are only obliged to pay this after receiving two months of full time work for free. The other consequence of this rule is that no intern ends up getting paid above $6.08/hour. 

Taking a broader view, median wages (adjusted for purchasing power parity to account for the exchange rate) tell us how much ordinary people in a given country can expect to earn in a year. The raw numbers are a horror show. The median Australian wage will enable you to buy US$47,894 worth of stuff, nearly a fifth more than the median French wage of US$40,291. 

Even after we further adjust for the length of the working week (35 hours a week in France, compared to 38 in Australia), we find that the French earn about 9% less per hour than Australians do. Over in the capitalist heartland of the United States, it’s even worse. An ordinary American needs to work for more than 23% longer than an ordinary Australian to attain the same standard of living. In short, other countries are far less prosperous than we often think.

‘Somewheres’ from everywhere

I’ve been fascinated by the interest that French politicians have taken in British journalist David Goodhart’s 2017 book, The Road to Somewhere. Goodhart argues that the populist tides turning in Western liberal democracies around the world can be explained by a divide between two types of people: the cosmopolitans who see the world from ‘Anywhere’, and the traditionalists who see the world from ‘Somewhere’. It’s a compelling story, and it would seem to apply equally in Australia

Goodhart’s ‘Anywheres’ are those who have benefitted from globalisation, with portable ‘achieved’ identities linked to education, making them confident with new places and people. ‘Somewheres’, on the other hand, have identities based on group belonging and particular localities – they’re the kinds of people who voted for Trump and Brexit. The right wing of French politics has taken up this theory because it helps them to champion rural citizens sceptical of EU integration. 

But these rootless ‘Anywheres’, at home everywhere and nowhere, don’t sound much like our generation of students. In fact they sound rather a lot like my parents, who migrated to Australia in search of economic opportunities in the early 1990s, when Australia’s GDP per capita was some 18 times higher than China’s. Today, it’s less than three times higher.

In short, other countries are far less prosperous than we often think.

These migrants have confronted difference and carried across their self-actualised identities from their education back home. They have demonstrated tolerance and resilience in uprooting themselves from all they have ever known, to adapt to a new society. This is far from uncommon in Australia. The 2016 census found that nearly half of Australians were either born overseas, or had at least one parent born overseas

‘Anywheres’ going nowhere

If migration were actually happening among David Goodhart’s ‘Anywheres’, we’d be seeing it among students and young people. This is because, although rich people like to travel, they don’t tend to migrate. As Cristobal Young puts it, “after making it onto the Forbes billionaire list, elites are actually more likely to die than move to a different country.” 

But let’s look at the question practically. As a child of migrants and a student in Australia, where would I go? Trapped in a far corner of the world, we Australians tend to associate travel in Europe and North America with worldliness and globetrotting confidence. But eventually, all exchange students return home. After all, when you already live in the richest country in the world, every direction is a step downwards.

In essence, the cosmopolitanism of young urban students is a myth because our migrant parents have travelled more deeply than we have. They have lived the reality of international wage inequality. They understand, far better than we ever will, what it means for human time, labour and life to be worth more in some countries than in others.

This points to a conclusion that our generation of Australian students isn’t actually a cosmopolitan elite, at home anywhere in the world. Contrary to David Goodhart’s theory, we are more tied to particular places than ever. We are the residents of big cities like Sydney and Melbourne, spending our lives in campuses and workplaces among people who look, sound, and think like us.

Henry Chen is a third year International Studies/Law student at the University of New South Wales, currently on exchange at Sciences Po Paris. He’s fascinated by the nexus between law, media, and technology!

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