Brexit and belonging

Written by
Laurie Cohen

22 Jul 2016

22 Jul 2016 • by Laurie Cohen

Career migration across international borders has reached unprecedented levels in our globalised age. You don’t have to be employed by a sprawling multinational to feel part of a workforce that’s rich in geographical and cultural variety. Diversity and inclusion are all around us.


Maybe that’s one reason why Brexit has shaken so many people. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, any move that suggests a major step back from integration, a retreat to comparative insularity, is bound to make us question our sense of belonging – both individually and collectively.

It has certainly made me question mine. I came to the UK from the US almost 35 years ago, and I’ve never felt so confused and unsure about my place here. I’ve even occasionally found myself wondering whether I’ve somehow wasted the past three-and-a-half decades.

At the heart of the issue for people like me – expats, migrants or whatever you want to call us – is the fact that belonging is a perpetual process. It’s never fully realised, and it’s precarious at the best of times. At the worst of times – right now, for example – the true extent of its fragility and complexity is laid bare. Let’s examine some of the forces at play.


As Malcolm Gladwell remarked in Outliers, we’re built from the outside in rather than from the inside out. Our formative experiences forever influence us. This has a major bearing on the matter of citizenship.

I’m not talking about citizenship in an overtly official, rubber-stamped, passport-owning sense. Rather, I’m talking about the ever-present friction that exists between personal ideology and location – the push and pull between the country a migrant leaves behind and the country he or she adopts.

This is a feature of life for every “international” person I know. It’s complicated, because it revolves around connections between two places and how they relate with each other. It’s always in flux and is prone to the slightest disturbance.

Perhaps mindful of this tension, sometimes migrants assume the zeal of a convert. They appreciate the importance of showing commitment, especially if they come from a country others think of as more desirable. I’m all too familiar with this kind of fervour – I have a British husband and children and no American friends or family here – yet people still ask me why I left the States.

Work versus life

For decades now we’ve been urged to strive for what’s become known as “work-life balance”. At the heart of this conceit is the idea that it should be possible to compartmentalise our lives into discrete and convenient segments. The basic message is that life is like a cake, ready to be cut into neat little slices that we can nibble on at a time of our choosing.

Unfortunately, the world seldom works that way. The reality is that the cake is less likely to be exquisitely divided and more likely to be accidentally sat on and squashed.

Brexit provides a classic illustration. An occurrence of such significance inevitably brings a rupture so seismic that the walls we’re encouraged to build between work and life come crashing down. We’re left with little in the way of control. Disorder dominates. Vulnerability at work seeps into personal vulnerability – or vice versa.

We never really achieve a flawless work-life balance, but it’s only in the face of milestone events – serious illness, bereavement, even war – that we realise how flimsy and prone to penetration the purported barriers are. And that’s what a lot of us, migrants or not, are realising now.


The dynamics discussed above – the first between place of origin and place of residence, the second between work and life – are in many ways most compellingly encapsulated in the sphere of relationships. The notion of family exerts a constant pressure on anyone, but for migrants it’s particularly powerful.

This is because family ties pose a permanent challenge to the decision to relocate. And when the wisdom of that decision is seemingly undermined – as many people believe is the case with Brexit – the doubts and the regrets begin to pile up at a potentially overwhelming rate.

I’ve come to know these doubts and regrets only too well just lately. I can’t answer with quite the same certainty when people ask me why I came to the UK. My mother recently passed away back in the States, so for me all the brittle boundaries – between old home and new home, between work and life – have been shattered.

It doesn’t take long to see that others, to whatever extent, are in the same boat. If our sense of belonging is to be found at the confluence of citizenship, work-life balance and relationships – as I suspect it is – then that confluence is marked by a whirlpool around which many of us are now circling.

Diversity and inclusion mean more now than ever

Although I’ve spent years studying how factors such as cultural identity, context, work-life balance and relationships both influence and are influenced by careers, the truth is that I don’t have any magic answers to the problems outlined above. I’m still trying to disentangle my own thoughts and emotions, and I would be pretty amazed if anyone could come up with a miracle cure-all.

I do think, though, that it’s vital for managers to acknowledge and try to understand the dimensions involved here, because the uncomfortable fact is that this is a concern that’s likely to characterise many work environments for some time. The post-Brexit crisis of belonging will surely settle down eventually, as most things do; but until it does we should at least be acutely aware of its existence and, maybe in tandem, of the need to stress the value of diversity and inclusion even more passionately than before.