I left the US for the UK 35 years ago. Since then I’ve been weaving a narrative one whose development has always seemed entirely linear and natural – to explain why I made the move, why I’ve stuck with it and what the point of it all has been.

Just recently, for the first time, my stock answers haven’t rung quite so true. The story I’ve been weaving for all these years doesn’t wash any more. The loom has broken, the narrative has unravelled, and all that’s left – at least until some new yarn emerges – is a pile of frayed threads.

The reason is Brexit. Last year, to the astonishment of the allegedly informed, the UK chose to leave the European Union. Given the choice, Britons voted for isolationism over integration – and to hell with the likely political and economic consequences.

Some dubbed this epochal rejection of the prevailing neoliberal consensus “the revenge of the disenfranchised.” It was undoubtedly a reaction drawn from a profound wellspring of unhappiness, embitterment, and anger. Free markets have raised billions worldwide out of poverty, but the fact is that the remorseless march of globalization and financial capitalism has left many people behind; and on June 6 2016, finally, some of them had their say.

Now we await a possible domino effect. It was felt only an overwhelming victory for the “remain” campaign would calm tensions in other countries facing rising internal pressure to hold referenda of their own: almost the very opposite having occurred, it’s eminently possible that other nations could follow the UK’s lead. Radical, right-wing parties that revel in the language of secession and separatism are riding high in the polls in Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Poland. The threat of total disintegration grows ever larger.

Any move that suggests a major step back from cooperation, a retreat to comparative insularity, is bound to make us question our sense of belonging, whether individually or collectively. Brexit has certainly made me question mine. I’ve never felt so unsure and confused about my place in the UK. I’ve even found myself wondering whether I’ve somehow wasted the past three-and-a-half decades.

And then, of course, I remind myself what has happened in the US, where near-identical sentiments were a defining theme of a profoundly depressing race for the White House. I heard Republicans and Democrats alike urging American companies to “bring manufacturing home.” I heard pledges to rip up trade agreements. I heard one of the most empty yet ever-powerful political expedients, the promise to “save jobs,” voiced over and over again. I hear blatant racism and unbridled xenophobia – not to mention the riotous acclaim they provoked. And so I figure it’s the same old song pretty much everywhere.

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 realized, and it’s precarious at the best of times. At the worst of times the true extent of its fragility and complexity is laid bare. I’d like to examine some of the forces at play; and in doing so I’d like to consider what has already happened in the UK, what might happen elsewhere in Europe and what some politicians would have us believe should happen in the US.


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 official, rubber-stamped, passport-owning sense that appears so dear to Donald Trump’s heart. I’m talking about the relentless 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 invariably in flux and forever susceptible to the slightest disturbance.

Perhaps mindful of this tension, sometimes migrants assume the zeal of a convert. They appreciate the importance of showing commitment, particularly if they come from a country others think of as more desirable. I’m all too familiar with this brand of fervor – 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 compartmentalize our lives into discrete and convenient segments. The basic message is that life is like a cake, ready to be cut into perfect slices that we can nibble on at a time of our choosing.

The reality, though, is that the world rarely works that way. The cake is less likely to be neatly divided and more likely to be accidentally sat on and flattened.

Brexit offers 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 realize how flimsy and prone to penetration the supposed barriers are. And that’s what a lot of us in the UK, migrants or not, are realizing 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 an alarming rate.

I’ve come to know these doubts and regrets only too well. 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.

I don’t pretend the above arguments are in any way definitive. These are just some of the factors that I’ve realized have been central to my own post-referendum crisis of belonging, and I expect there are many more that might be relevant in my case and in the cases of others who feel something precious, something intangible, has been lost during the past few months.

What’s more, although I’ve spent years studying issues such as cultural identity, context, social legitimacy ,and work-life balance, the truth is that I don’t have any magic answers. I’m still attempting to disentangle my own thoughts and emotions, and I would be astonished if anyone could come up with a miracle cure-all. The only thing I can say with absolute confidence at this moment is that lacking a sense of belonging makes for a profoundly dispiriting and debilitating experience.

And maybe that’s what we should really strive to remember when contemplating “the revenge of the disenfranchised” and the populist appeal of knee-jerk rhetoric about jobs and trade agreements and migrants and walls. Everyone is susceptible to myriad potential sources of marginalization, confusion, anger, and frustration, which is precisely why we should be championing diversity and inclusion more than ever rather than shamelessly advocating novel and increasingly extreme forms of rejection and exclusion.

I’m no politician, but it strikes me that our greatest comfort right now might just be that those who are – or who at least purport to be – routinely fail to keep their word. It’s easy enough to secure a few million votes with tub-thumping, jingoistic rants that appeal to people who have grown weary of longstanding political philosophies and yearn to reclaim a degree of control over the forces shaping their lives; but it’s much harder to translate promises into action, particularly when those promises invite only fresh misery.

I know that maintaining a perverse faith in someone’s innate dishonesty sounds like a last, desperate roll of the dice – but then maybe that’s where we’re at. I sincerely hope not.

Featured image courtesy of Library of Congress.

About The Author

Profile photo of Laurie

Laurie Cohen is Professor of Work and Organisation. She joined NUBS in September 2012, having previously worked for many years in the School of Business & Economics at Loughborough University. Since coming to Nottingham she has led the redesign of the undergraduate Management programme, and is currently Head of Professional Practice. Professor Cohen's doctoral research focused on women's career transitions from employment to self-employment. Her interests emerging from that include changing careers, careers in emerging forms of organization, and research methods in the study of career, focusing in particular on interpretive approaches and the use of narrative. For many years she has also been involved in a series of studies into perceptions and enactment of management in professional organizations focusing mainly on scientific research establishments. Professor Cohen is currently involved in research projects into public sector careers in the wake of austerity, and into gender equality in university research. Her work has been supported through a series of grants from the Economic and Social Research Council, the British Academy and the Nottingham/Birmingham Collaboration Fund. Professor Cohen has published widely and is on the editorial boards of Journal of Vocational Behavior, Management Learning, Journal of Professions and Organization, and Management Inquiry. Her research monograph, Imagining Women's Careers, was published by Oxford University Press in September, 2014. This has led to an appearance on BBC Radio 4's 'Women's Hour' and to numerous articles in the press. Professor Cohen has taught across the spectrum of years and programmes, including undergraduate and postgraduate taught and research programmes, and she has supervised over 10 PhD students to completion. In addition to her Nottingham role, Professor Cohen is Visiting Professor at the Lund University School of Economics and Management.