Taking an OE, or Overseas Experience, has become a characteristic activity of Young Kiwis over the last fifty years. Young New Zealanders head overseas for an extended period, usually immediately after graduating university, although often before beginning (and sometimes instead of undertaking) tertiary study. It has become such a social norm, that failing to show some work experience or extended stay overseas on one’s CV can put one at a disadvantage in job applications. Colloquially termed The Big OE, it’s estimated, that at any one time, one in five kiwis are living or travelling overseas. To make up for this “loss”, we have a high immigration rate. One in four New Zealand residents are immigrants.
So what lures young Kiwis to foreign shores?
A sense of adventure? Its been argued that the reason NZ had such a high rate of military volunteers during the first and second world wars was that young men saw it as the only opportunity they would have for an adventure in a foreign land. There’s no doubt that our isolation and small population makes other places seem more enticing and exciting.
Seeking one’s roots? Aotearoa New Zealand is a young country, and there would be very few individuals who don’t have at least one parent, grandparent or great grand parent who was born overseas. Depending on which branch of the family tree I follow, I am a second generation, third generation, fourth generation or fifth generation New Zealander. My wife is an immigrant, as is my daughter-in-law. In that respect, I’m a typical kiwi. Young people today have a greater interest in their roots than do people of my generation and have a genuine interest in where their family came from.
Career prospects? Kiwis are often highly sought after, particularly where the reputation of our work ethic and “can do” attitude precedes them. There’s certainly no denial that overseas there are pay scales and career opportunities that we can only dream about here. On returning home, that experience gives them a distinct advantage in the job market.
The lure of bright city lights? Sure, why not? World wide, there are over sixty cities with populations larger than our entire country, and if you include metropolitan areas, that number swells to 100. I have a distinct dislike for it, but most young people seem to crave for the excitement that can be found where the lights are brightest.
Economising? Strange as it may seem, this is a factor. New Zealand is very isolated geographically, and to get anywhere outside the country is expensive and takes a long time. The cost of travel to and from foreign destinations is relatively high compared to the cost of living there. So why not cram as much into one journey as possible by making it last a year or three?
There’s no doubt a myriad of other reasons, including that fact that this country and even its biggest cities just too quiet or dull for some. But eventually most return, sometimes with a new partner in tow to set up a new family. For although it’s an expensive place to live in, there’s no better place in which to raise a family.
A beneficial outcome of such a significant number of our young adults spending an extended period abroad is that they experience a wide variety of cultures different from their own. This means that on return they are, generally, more accepting, tolerant and appreciative of alternative cultures and life styles found within Aotearoa New Zealand. And that can only be a good thing.
So our rite of passage is the Big OE. What’s the rite of passage where you live?