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Today’s expats benefit from a revolution

A message-in-a-bottle on a sandy beachRecent studies from La Trobe University in Australia and Carleton University in Canada have concluded that developments in transport and communications technologies have revolutionised the expat experience. As a teenager in 1959 I remember emigrating with my family to the West Indies aboard the SS Colombie on a fourteen-day transatlantic voyage. Contact with home and my grandparents was limited to an infrequent exchange of blue air letter forms. There were no phone calls as they were prohibitively expensive and neither grandparent was on the phone. Other than occasional forays into the flimsy airmail edition of The Times and frustrating attempts to listen to the BBC World Service on short wave radio, contact with home was effectively lost. Things began to change in the early 1960s with the introduction of passenger jet aircraft like the trailblazing VC10s and Boeing 707s. We were then able to enjoy extended leave in the UK every three years.

More than 100 years earlier, emigrants were all but cut off from home. Outward journeys lasted weeks or months on sailing ships rather than a few hours aboard a jet plane. Returning home was a rarity and upon departure many emigrants were convinced they would never see their place of birth or extended family again. Sending letters was very expensive and unreliable. Letters took months to deliver and many got lost en route. And, when the letters eventually arrived, the recipient often had to pay for delivery. Records from the 1830s reveal that one East Sussex labourer said that he had to pay one shilling upon delivery. This charge was the equivalent of half a day’s pay.

How things have changed for today’s expat. Transatlantic telephone calls cost only a few cents using a phone card or are free using a range of internet services. There is email. There is video conferencing. And ever since the deregulation of International Air Transport Association (IATA) controls in the 1970s, the cost of fast and efficient air travel has fallen in real terms, much to the benefit of all expats as well as facilitating visits from their friends and family in the UK.

It is services like Skype that have revolutionised what academics refer to, somewhat pretentiously, as interpersonal family dynamics. I have a friend who lives in grizzly bear country in northern British Columbia; he was tickled pink when his seven-year-old grandson, thousands of miles away, unexpectedly Skyped him to say that he had scored a goal in a football match. I have a neighbour here in the UK who has a son and a grandchild in Perth, Western Australia, and a daughter with two grandchildren who live nearby only 28 miles away. My neighbour sees her Australian family much more often, through Skype chats every Sunday and long-stay holidays twice a year.

While apps like Skype and social networking sites like Facebook are useful for keeping in touch, the Internet helps maintain family ties in other ways too; I met one frail elderly lady who told me that her daughter, who coincidentally also lives in Western Australia, did the weekly shopping for her mother in the UK using the Tesco home shopping web site. Helping her Mum only involved the click of a mouse from down under.

Add the ability to use your smart phone to watch news and events as they happen on the other side of the globe and this must mean that there has never been a better time to be an expat than the present.

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