Future Citizens

By Ariana Crisafulli 2019-04-26 16:10:43

Do third culture kids have the global mindset needed to take on the future?

Possibly the most common question an expat in Shanghai hears is ‘where are you from?’ For some, this question is as simple as asking what your name is or how old you are. For others, it’s a complex question that requires a lot of explaining.

If you fall into the second category, chances are you were raised a third culture kid (TCK). A third culture kid is someone who was raised outside their country of birth or outside their parents’ country of birth. Third culture kids sometimes identify more with the culture they were raised in than with their parents’ culture, and sometimes the opposite is true. Some TCKs find it difficult to claim any culture at all and instead embrace many, especially if their childhood was spread out over multiple countries and cultures. 

In an increasingly interconnected world, it is becoming more and more important to study the experiences of these third culture kids. Do they fare better in a globalized world than their peers who were raised in only one culture? Or are they alienated, unable to claim anywhere as home?

Any discussion on TCKs would be incomplete without mentioning the founder of the concept, Ruth Hill Useem. Ruth and her husband, John, studied children born outside their native countries from 1952 to the mid 1980s. They came to a number of conclusions, namely that TCKs as adults tended to be more highly educated on average and that many were professionals and held managerial positions. However, they also found that TCKs were aimless as adults. They had trouble deciding which country they wanted to live in and what they wanted to do with their lives. If they did follow a traditional script, they eventually rejected it in favor of a less conventional life. In essence, the Useems found that while adult TCKs tended to be intelligent and driven, they were also restless and had difficulty ‘settling down’.

On the surface, Shirani Alfreds seems to fit squarely into the Useems’ assessment of an adult TCK. A Singapore native, Shirani spent her childhood in her home country as well as Sri Lanka, Italy, and Germany. She got her undergraduate degree in Britain and went to law school in Australia. In her adult life, she has also lived in New Zealand, Germany, and now Shanghai, and worked for years as a freelance writer - a job that allowed her to travel more freely. Shirani is highly educated and seemingly restless. Square peg, square hole.

However, Shirani is also married with two children. Much of her movement was due to her husband’s job that required him to live and work in different countries. Although she continues to work as a freelance writer, she also focuses on raising her two daughters. Her and her family are able to move fairly seamlessly through cultures, are able to befriend people who have both international and small-town mindsets, and feel comfortable working (or learning) in international environments.

So perhaps a more fitting definition for a TCK is sociologist Ted Ward’s definition. Ward makes the bold claim that TCKs are “prototype citizens of the future”. 


Ward made this prediction in 1989 before the era of the Internet. Today we are so connected through technology that it is not necessary to travel or to live in another country in order to learn or to be affected by a culture an ocean away. Not only is it more possible to see the world firsthand, today we can bring the world to us with the touch of a button. Because the world is becoming more globalized through new technology and through global issues that affect us all, it could be said that someone who is raised with a broader mindset might be more equipped to handle future global scenarios.

Illustration by Zovi Weng

What is culture?

When asked how she defines her culture, Monique Malan found it difficult to answer. Monique was born in South Africa, raised in Morocco, and received her higher education in England. She is a person between worlds and cultures. Instead of a concrete definition, Monique spoke of a complex and often contradictory set of values that defined her. She loves the experience of living and working in new cultures, but she also values community very highly. She makes friends very quickly, but finds it difficult to stay in touch. She is both Moroccan and South African but also neither of these things.

But how does anyone define culture? If you asked an American from California to define their culture, they might say that they believed in freedom, that they were liberal, that the government should provide some social services for the public, and that everyone has a right to the pursuit of happiness. If you asked that same question to another American who lived in Texas, they might agree that freedom and the pursuit of happiness were important, but they would most likely define themselves as conservative and say that the government should stay out of everyone’s business. 

Culture might actually be better defined by its fluidity than by its consistency, since no culture has ever remained entirely intact throughout centuries of industrialization, modernization, and globalization. We can define ourselves by our histories and by our collective narrative of the changes our cultures have undergone. Where once Americans believed that women should not vote, now it’s taken for granted that women exercise their voting rights. Therefore, Americans can define themselves as a country that learns from the error of their ways. 

It also might be more accurate to define a culture by the things we disagree about than by the things we agree on. No one country will ever achieve one hundred percent agreement between every citizen on every issue. Rather, it’s the things we disagree on and fight vehemently over that reveal to us what the most important issues of the culture are. In the United States, people fight tooth and nail over gun control laws, and in the United Kingdom, people march in the streets to protest the vote on Brexit. 

Author of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari, makes the argument that because the world is so interconnected today, we are living in something akin to a global culture. The most telltale sign of our global culture is the things we argue over around the world.


While British citizens might be fighting over Brexit, on a more global scale the argument is about whether countries should take a more globalized approach to politics or whether it would serve us better to return to more nationalistic boundaries. But when we have global issues that affect each and every one of us such as climate change, it becomes more and more important to use our interconnected world to work together to solve such problems. 

People who were raised in many different cultures may be uniquely suited to address these global issues. Although TCKs may sometimes feel alienated from the people of their home country, or people who have “small town” mindsets, they also seem to be especially skilled at bridging divides between people of other cultures. This is reflected both in the Useems’ research and throughout the interviews conducted for this article. 

Although much of the world is currently in a nationalist withdrawal from the interconnected world that we’ve created, people who are able to understand other cultures and view the world from a more global perspective may be better equipped to answer the questions that our future will bring. How can a British citizen solve the ecological crisis if they only think about Britain’s needs? How can a Japanese citizen decide who should own the Internet if they don’t talk it out in the United Nations?

Are TCKs the future?

According to the United Sates’ State Department, as of 2016 there were an estimated 9 million US citizens living outside of the United States and 43.3 million immigrants living inside the USA. About 50 million Chinese citizens are living outside of China, and 5 percent of Australia’s population live outside of Australia. The State Department also mentions that many of these immigrants have moved to their new country with children in tow or have started and raised families in their adopted countries. In many cases, just as Ruth Hill Useem reported decades ago, these third culture kids often grow up to exhibit the behaviors of their parents and continue the expat lifestyle. 

Immo was born in Egypt to German parents. Besides Egypt, he lived his entire childhood overseas in Pakistan and Thailand and only had the experience of living in Germany when he was 19. Iva is from the Czech Republic and grew up between her home country, Nigeria, and the United States. They met as adults, married, and had third culture kids of their own. Their kids have lived in Japan, Germany, Australia, Malaysia, and now China. 

Although they live an unconventional life, many of their parental concerns are the same as the concerns of any other parents in the world. Are their kids happy? Are they safe? Will they fit in? Will they become functioning adults? One of the things that they are concerned the most about is their children’s education and their sense of empathy. As their children grow up, they want them to be able to identify with the people they see in other countries that may be less fortunate than them, and to empathize with those people. 

Shirani also agrees that education and open-mindedness are two of the most important things she can give to her daughters. Above all, she wants to prepare them for a future that may be uncertain.

As technology ushers in an era of never before seen globalization, it also leaves us to question what kinds of lives future humans will be living. Because technology is advancing so quickly, jobs are constantly being disrupted.

A report by Dell Technologies released in 2017 says that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet. Other sources, like Fast Company, say that many jobs we think of as evergreen could become obsolete. Bank tellers, financial analysts, construction workers, farmers, taxi and truck drivers, journalists, and even movie stars could soon find themselves replaced by a machine.


Many predict that the pace of disruption will only increase as technology becomes more advanced. One day we may even live in a world where jobs are disrupted by technology so often that people will have to change professions every decade. How can we even hope to guide our children if we don’t even know what jobs will be available for them when they grow up? Equally importantly, how do we prepare them for a life of constant change and uncertainty?

Yuval Noah Harari. author of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, suggests that in order to cope with this kind of potential future, one of the most important things children should be taught is the ability to deal with change, learn new things, and preserve mental balance in unfamiliar situations.

Although the book does not make mention of third culture kids, it’s hard not to draw parallels between these future needs and the experiences of third culture kids today. 

When talking about her career path and whether or not she felt “unsettled,” Kate Chan, a Chinese Hong Kong native who grew up in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Canada says that she actually feels very resilient. When she was a lawyer in Singapore, she was offered a job in Shanghai in business development and marketing. She quickly jumped on the opportunity, despite the sudden change in industry. 

Similarly, when describing her life as a third culture kid and now adult, Monique says that because she lived in so many places and cultures as a kid where things were often unfamiliar, in her adult life she has found comfort and familiarity in the unfamiliar.

In the future, the ability to pick up and move to another country to start a career in an entirely new field at the drop of a hat like Kate did, or the ability to retain mental stability in unfamiliar situations, as Monique has, may be the difference between making a living or becoming irrelevant in the face of AI. 


Shirani believes that in most cases, TCKs like her daughters have an advantage in a globalized world. However, she also points to the fact that her husband was raised in only one culture – New Zealand – but his open-mindedness has allowed him to live and work in an international setting such as Shanghai. Whether you’re raised in many cultures or only one, the interconnectedness of our world will continue to make a globalized mindset an asset.

Being a TCK doesn’t automatically provide an advantage over the uncertainties of the future since technological advancements and job disruptions will affect everyone regardless of culture and nation. However, it doesn’t hurt to have the open-mindedness, resiliency, and empathy to other cultures that many TCKs display. So if you’re a parent raising a third culture kid, try not to panic too much about whether or not you’re doing the right thing. Many third culture kids are alive and thriving today as adults, and the future TCK adults may even have what it takes to thrive in an uncertain future.