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Dual-career spouses: Singapore’s double-income expats are on the rise

Many expats come to Singapore not just for one job, but for two. But what happens with these dual-career expat families when one spouse’s career begins to takes priority? Dr Yvonne McNulty from Expat Research takes an honest look at life for Singapore’s double-income expats.

Dual-career expatriates are defined as internationally mobile families in which both spouses have career responsibilities and aspirations, combined with a strong psychological commitment to their careers, as well as to the marital relationship. The term does not imply that both spouses are necessarily working; and a dual-career family does not stop being one because of temporary or even long-term unemployment.

 

The global statistics on dual-career expat families are rather damning – only 11 percent of trailing spouses who worked back home are able to continue working while living abroad. While this is frequently due to work permit restrictions or licensing difficulties for those in professions that require local certification (lawyers, doctors, nurses), Singapore is a rare bright spot on the expat employment landscape.

Work permits for trailing spouses are easy to obtain here, with many able to secure a Letter of Consent to allow for casual, part-time or even full-time employment. The question, however, is not just whether a trailing spouse can work here, but whether their employment is satisfying. For many, it’s not.

In the 1990s, most trailing spouses living in Singapore didn’t want to work, and instead enjoyed time off during their two- or three-year assignment, with the intention of returning to work upon repatriation. But the numbers of one-income expat families are dwindling. An increasing number of expats choose to “localise” (work here on local salaries and terms) and stay for 10 years or more with no thought of “going home”; living in Asia’s most expensive city, it often becomes necessary for both spouses to work – not just to break up a routine of tennis, luncheons and charity events, but to earn enough to support the family.

The reality, however, is that it’s often impossible for trailing spouses to continue their careers, with local salaries being far lower than what many are used to, and cultural and language barriers often being formidable challenges. Unless one is really lucky, most trailing spouses either give up paid employment entirely, secure a “job” as opposed to a career-fulfilling role, or change their career to accommodate the challenges that an international relocation presents.

 

Research shows that having to settle for second best in a career can lead to a number of issues, including psychological or physiological problems, and to feelings of powerlessness, isolation, disappointment, frustration and even anger. It’s not uncommon for dual-career trailing spouses to suffer from addiction and depression as they struggle to cope with the loss of their independence and identity.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. A recent study in Singapore found, for example, that 30 percent of dual-career trailing spouses here were able to successfully continue their career or launch new ones that they found personally fulfilling and financially satisfying. Four types of dual-career spouses were identified: ready, reborn, resentful or resigned. Each of these four types displays different characteristics that define the stage at which the trailing spouse is at in their journey of professional identity development.

Ready or Reborn

Those characterised as ready or reborn are more likely to succeed in finding paid work because they are proactive in searching for career opportunities. Both types are typically described as feeling empowered, showing delayed confidence, being realistic and having a pragmatic outlook. They also tend to be driven, single-minded people.

For ready spouses, dual-career success often begins even before they arrive in Singapore, because they refuse to relocate if their existing career cannot be continued. They adopt a structured, disciplined, logical and sequential approach to solving their dual-career situation, with perseverance, a keen sense of building coalitions, and tuning into their environment.

For reborn spouses, success occurs after a period of reflection during which they search for new career opportunities different to those they may have had back home or elsewhere. They want to continue their career but find that they can’t, so they alter their attitudes about conventional ways of getting things done (for example, continuing in their existing career) to instead consider alternatives (such as a new career). Reborn spouses surround themselves only with people that will be helpful and support them. They rarely, if ever, hang out with naysayers.

Resentful or Resigned

Spouses who are resentful or resigned sit at the other end of the spectrum, where dual-career success is less likely. They are unlikely to move into paid or fulfilling employment, because they remain stuck in a place of denial from which resigned spouses, in particular, never escape. Both types are defined by feelings of defeat, anger and mild or chronic depression. Each also displays passive-aggressive and negative attitude traits.

The Kübler-Ross change cycle appropriately describes theses challenges as a type of grief that takes over their lives. For resentful spouses, their movement through the grief cycle of denial-anger-bargaining-depression-acceptance gets stalled at the anger stage; resigned spouses typically progress through all the stages to reach a point of acceptance, but do so in a state of mourning and in an endless cycle of self-pity and blame.

 

While ultimately it is the trailing spouse who decides which profile to adopt, true dual-career family success undeniably rests with the couple themselves, and how both spouses work together to create and implement dual-career solutions for the trailing spouse. The attitude of each spouse plays a crucial role, in particular the willingness of the trailing spouse to embark on a portable career that fits better with an unpredictable and international lifestyle, even if the new career is a compromise, unsustainable over the long-term, underpaid or not ideally what they had in mind.

This story first appeared in Expat Living’s August 2015 issue.

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