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University of Basel

Careers on the move

Text: Samuel Schlaefli

Increasingly, highly qualified professionals live and work in different locations. Cultural studies expert Katrin Sontag has examined mobility among business founders, and believes it is time to revise our concept of migration.

Bernd, in his mid-forties, runs a major IT firm based in Switzerland. Over the last few years he has founded several companies and lived in five different countries. Every Friday evening, he boards a plane to Scandinavia to spend the weekend with his family. Early Monday morning he heads back to Switzerland. In between, he often flies to the US or Asia on business. Around a third of Bernd’s working time is spent on the move. He is one of a growing number of highly qualified, highly mobile entrepreneurs whose work and private life span various countries – or even continents. The geographical focus of their lives is merely temporary, shifting to meet the requirements of their current situation.

Freedom-loving risk takers

Katrin Sontag’s own career as a cultural studies expert has also taken her far and wide. She studied in Berlin, Reykjavik and Bangalore, and worked as a management consultant in Beijing before beginning her doctoral thesis in Basel, for which she has researched the life stories of highly mobile business founders in Switzerland – a country whose legal framework, infrastructure, central location within Europe and supply of skilled professionals and investors have given rise to a vibrant start-up scene. Today, almost a third of the country’s business founders are nationals of another country, and many cater to the global market, often with subsidiaries and staff abroad.

Sontag interviewed 14 highly qualified entrepreneurs in the fields of IT, biotech, medical technology, event management, education, and environmental consulting. She also spoke to start-up consultants, underwent coaching, conducted fieldwork in business incubators and attended specialist workshops and trade fairs. In the process, she encountered motivated professionals between the ages of 25 and 60 for whom the boundary between private and work life has become blurred. They all share a strong desire for freedom and the autonomy to define their own work structures – even if this means taking certain risks. They also tend to be devoted to lifelong learning and personal development. For these individuals, income is just one factor among many, says Sontag: «Many of them realize that they could earn a great deal more as employees. However, their freedom is more important to them.»

Constantly connected

The entrepreneurs interviewed by Sontag have learnt to harness the dynamic nature of the modern working world: internet and broadband connections are rendering the fixed workplace obsolete, while the costs of communication and mobility have plummeted, making Skype, WhatsApp and EasyJet a part of everyday life. Cross-border work patterns also imply changes in social relationships: business and private networks are not tied to a particular location and can be accessed from wherever the user happens to be. As a result, nationalities and borders lose their significance. «For many people, migration is no longer a one-time event», explains Sontag, «but a biographical constant, occurring in a number of directions.»

Sontag is convinced that our current understanding of migration, with its focus on national origins, has little relevance to cases like these. «Is the distinction between migrants and non-migrants a meaningful one? Or should we be paying more attention to the roles people play in different places and at different times?», she asks rhetorically. Rather than migration, Sontag prefers to speak of mobility and flows, drawing on the concept of «scapes» coined by the ethnologist Arjun Appadurai to describe the interconnectedness of finance, technology, ideas and people in trans-local, global and highly dynamic flows. This interconnectedness also includes virtual mobility, which allows ideas and inventions to be disseminated at an ever faster rate. «Our understanding of the different forms of mobility, as they are currently experienced, is still very limited», she concludes.

Katrin Sontag studied in Berlin, Reykjavik and Bangalore. She worked in Peking as a management consultant before coming to Basel to begin her doctoral dissertation.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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