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Middle-Class Aspirations in Asian Global Cities
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Drawing on an extensive study with young individuals who migrated to Singapore and Tokyo in the 2010s, this book sheds light on the friendships, emotions, hopes and fears involved in establishing life as Europeans in Asia.

It demonstrates how migration to Asian business centres has become a way of distinction and an alternative route of middle-class reproduction for young Europeans during that period. The perceived insecurities of life in the crisis-ridden EU result in these migrants’ onward migration or prolonged stays in Asia.

Capturing the changing roles of Singapore and Japan as migration destinations, this pioneering work makes the case for EU citizens’ aspired lifestyles and professional employment that is no longer only attainable in Europe or the West.

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Part I of this book, Spatial Mobility to Asia: Moving Ahead by Moving out, examines the EU Generation’s physical movement, that is, migration to Asia. Chapter 1 uses statistics and qualitative data from interlocutors’ youth in Europe in order to delineate how European university students of the EU Generation grew up in what they perceive to be a thrilling yet competitive educational environment – one that values overseas experiences and suggests these to be a prerequisite for a fulfilling and successful professional career. The chapter then discusses the related literature on intra-European mobility, educational migration and the labour market before it introduces the theoretical approach to class in migration. The remaining chapter categorises the EU Generation’s varied migration motivations into four major types. The typology demonstrates how different forms of capital are converted or validated in the migration of each type and underlines that across all types mobility becomes a form of capital in itself, one that helps explain how the EU Generation secure employment in Asian global cities.

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Chapter 2 depicts the contexts of labour migration to contemporary Singapore. As a consequence of the developmental state’s social engineering, epitomised by the principles of multiracialism and multiculturalism, as well as extensive foreign labour import, contemporary Singapore is characterised by postcolonial diversities and a bifurcated migration regime. Singapore’s immigration policies and migrants’ opportunities in the city-state have changed since the late 2000s, and these changing conditions constitute the background against which the young Europeans hope to develop a career and potentially grow footholds in the country. The chapter ends by introducing the legal and institutional framework the EU Generation use for accessing work visa and the labour market.

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Chapter 3 shifts the lens to Tokyo, a vibrant metropolis and business hub in the Asia-Pacific region and the capital city of Japan, an ‘island nation’ and country that, despite an influx of migrants over the past three decades, continues to be perceived as largely homogeneous both from within and outside of Japan. The chapter discusses how Japan has rapidly opened up to migration in recent years, leading to an immense diversification of Tokyo’s resident population, including its foreign residents. However, foreigners are still seen as guests rather than immigrants. The chapter traces the roots of Japan’s constructions of difference and thereby explains the peculiar positioning of the (mostly white) European migrants in contemporary Tokyo society.

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Chapter 4 opens Part II Organisational and Career Mobility: Seizing Security, Success and Self-realisation, which turns to a second dimension of mobility that shapes migrants’ lives: employment situation and professional development, which manifest in organisational and career mobility in Singapore and Tokyo. Chapter 4 on Singapore shows how the young European migrants strive to live up to the image of innovation-driven and high-potential foreign talents as painted by the Singaporean state. Lacking substantial work experience but aiming for the highly skilled visa, the migrants attempt to professionalise themselves in the neoliberal labour market by repeated job transfers, which facilitate career mobility. The majority of migrants pursue mobile careers in which organisational mobility, career mobility and geographical mobility go hand in hand. of the book.

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Chapter 5 on Tokyo outlines the Japanese employment system, in which foreign university graduates have increasingly secured career track positions in Japan’s primary labour market. Yet, pressure to conform to their firms’ homogenising company culture causes most of them to opt out. Overall, migrants’ employment patterns in Tokyo resemble those of migrants in Singapore by their frequent turnover. The analysis demonstrates considerable fluidity and overlap between the much-discussed sharp divide drawn between jobs in Japan’s primary labour market, that is, regular jobs, and those in the secondary labour market, including contract positions. The findings call for attention to the diversifying Japanese labour market, which offers a greater variety of career paths to highly educated early career migrants than linear career progression or stagnation.

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Chapter 6 unearths how the entanglements of gender, ‘race’, age and generation, as well as class identities shape the EU Generation’s work experience in the destination cities. This chapter conceptualises migrants’ employment and career development by their ‘Other’ identity as a way to unearth how work and (im)mobility affect each other. Integrating gender in the analysis reveals differences in the two cities. Yet, the comparison also highlights how this generational cohort value work as an undeniable factor of identity-making. As middle-class migrants, they are often unwilling and insecure about forfeiting their career for a family. This raises questions about the value of work in neoliberal labour markets but also about the taken-for-grantedness of having a family at a certain life stage – or at all. Augmented by ongoing geographical mobility, frequent organisational mobility, and the anxiety of becoming socially immobile, many migrants project family plans into a vague point in the future.

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Part III, (Im)Mobility Through Differentiated Embedding: The Ties That Bind, complements the analysis of migrants’ geographical, organisational and career mobility by examining the non-work-related aspects of migrants’ lives abroad. It connects the EU Generation’s place making and socialising practices to intimacy and thereby unearths complex processes of differentiated embedding, which result in either repeated physical mobility or staying. Chapter 7 engages questions of the migrants’ interaction with the heterogeneous and constantly diversifying resident population of their host cities. Emerging feelings of familiarity and security allow migrants to varying degrees to develop a sense of belonging. Such differentiated embedding, rather than a full-fledged belonging or outright marginalisation, best describes the complexities of migrants’ prolonged staying in Singapore and Tokyo.

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Chapter 8 foregrounds how intimacy and romantic relationships, or the lack thereof, and (im)mobility are intertwined, and present another factor shaping migratory ‘work-life pathways’. This chapter reveals how perspectives and rationales change over time and teases out how intimate relationships provide the stability and security to anchor migrants in the long term. It demonstrates that the EU Generation gradually experience emplacement and develop ties to communities in and segments of their migrant receiving societies in the Asian global cities Singapore and Tokyo. That said, mobility has become an underlying thread of the life trajectories of these middle-class migrants. While the migrants might feel at home, they seldom rule out the possibility of leaving again. Mobility and roots, and thus the possibility of having a home abroad without settling down, do not contradict. Further mobility or staying decisions increasingly depend on romantic partners and the possibility of both partners legally residing and working in the host country.

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The conclusion highlights the complex decision-making processes and the structural constraints involved in migrants’ geographical, organisational/career and social mobility. It emphasises the significance that the three entangled dimensions of mobility assume for the EU Generation’s pursuit of middle-class life paths in Asian global cities. The longitudinal research foregrounds how the particular generation and life stage upon the EU Generation’s emigration from Europe have turned geographically distant Asian cities into attractive destinations for career progression and distinction in a time of flexible labour and shorter employment contracts. Previously accumulated mobility capital and the notion of insecurity lying ahead in any globalised labour market render continuous mobility or residence abroad the most reasonable path to choose for the time being and thus pave the way for an entire life stage, or longer, in Asia. The discussion identifies remaining and newly emerging obstacles to the incorporation of independently moving middle-class migrants such as the EU Generation in both cities. In doing so, the conclusion reaffirms the rationale for considering Singapore and Tokyo, and potentially other non-Western global cities, as a viable option and a potentially long-term residence for the EU Generation and middle-class labour migrants in general.

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