Foreigners rank US as third-best place to live, survey shows

John Bragg of Barn Light Electric
Source: Barn Light Electric
John Bragg of Barn Light Electric

A new global study reveals that foreigners are more upbeat about economic prospects in the U.S. than Americans are, and it indicates that the Great Recession has been especially prolonged and widespread for Americans.

The Boston Consulting Group found that nonresidents cited economic opportunity, material well-being and cost of living as key reasons for wanting to live in the United States. Nonresidents ranked America No. 3 on the list of best countries to live, behind Australia and Canada.

Not surprisingly, survey respondents in the U.S. chose English-speaking countries as their favorite places to live. U.S. residents ranked it as their first choice, followed by Canada, Australia and the U.K. But unlike foreigners, Americans placed a much higher value on noneconomic reasons for living stateside, including political freedom, and cultural and religious tolerance.

"It's revealing that nonresidents feel more positive about the economic opportunities in the U.S. than residents," said Christine Barton, a Dallas-based BCG partner who led the research on consumer attitudes and top places to live. "What the research may suggest is that the recession has tempered Americans' enthusiasm for economic opportunity," she said.

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While the BCG study uncovered pockets of economic doubt, it found that Americans broadly are optimistic compared with people in other developed nations. People globally have responded to hard times by becoming more resilient and adapting to a new "baseline" that includes nagging worries about retirement, job security and caring for aging parents, Barton said.

The study also unearthed generational differences about where to live and work. U.S. millennials are looking abroad for opportunities; older people, anchored by families and other commitments, want to stay home and pin their hopes on the U.S. economy.

Just ask John Bragg.

Bragg, 62, is general manager at Barn Light Electric, a small business in Titusville, Fla., that makes porcelain enamel fixtures—a rarity in U.S. manufacturing. He served in the army and Vietnam War, then transitioned to West Virginia's coal mines. He worked there for 29 years, weathering strikes and unsteady paychecks before eventually making his way to Florida.

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If his nephew hadn't offered him a job at the lighting company, Bragg would be retired, he said. He counts himself among the lucky working Americans and is hopeful about the future—but with caveats.

"There is a lot of unemployment in the state, homes up for sale," he said. The region, east of Orlando, has been hit by cutbacks at the nearby Kennedy Space Center. "I think the economy will come back, but I don't think it will be high-paying jobs," he added.

In fact, roughly 58 percent of jobs recovered from the recession are low wage, according to the National Employment Law Project. Low-tier positions grew 2.7 times as fast as mid- and higher-wage occupations.

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Feeling hopeful

The BCG report is based on a survey of nearly 28,000 residents in 11 countries: the U.S., Canada, Germany, U.K., France, Spain, Italy, Japan, Australia, Brazil and India. Global attitudes naturally have shifted in the recession's wake.

In some southern European nations hit hard by the downturn, a minority ranked their native country as the top place to live. In contrast, Americans, as well as Australians, Canadians and the Japanese, wanted most to live in their home country.

But all is not rosy on U.S. soil. The government reported Friday that 169,000 jobs were added in August, lower than expected. According to Pew Research Center analysis, the percentage of millennials (those between roughly 18 and 34) still living at home is the highest in four decades.

Despite such tepid economic news, people in the U.S. as well as globally are a hearty bunch. Consumers overall report an improvement in their emotional lives, peace of mind, optimism and stability from 2012 levels, Barton said.

Notable exceptions are France, Italy and Spain, where sentiment is down. As context, Spain's unemployment rate was 26. 3 percent in the second quarter, down from 27.2 percent in the first quarter. The U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 7.3 percent last month—its lowest level since December 2008—but because of fewer people in the labor force.

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Cynthia Yeung hiked to Tiger's Nest in Bhutan in June. At 29, the millennial values international experiences.
Source: Cynthia Cheung
Cynthia Yeung hiked to Tiger's Nest in Bhutan in June. At 29, the millennial values international experiences.

Generational gap?

Younger people usually are optimistic, and millennials are contributing to the buoyant mood, Barton said.

But they don't want just any opportunity to pay the bills. Instead, they seek enriching, international experiences. For example, American millennials show a strong preference for living in Europe and Japan, according to BCG research.

After five years of negotiating strategic partnerships at Google, Cynthia Yeung, 29, quit to join an entrepreneurship accelerator on a ship. The program, called Unreasonable at Sea, focuses on solving social and environmental challenges.

Working for corporate America, "it's very easy to feel like you're a cog in the wheel," she said. "I didn't want to solve first-world problems like 'Do I need a second computer screen?' " she said. "I want to have a direct, meaningful impact on people's lives, their needs—not their wants." The sea program ended, Yeung is hunting for her next adventure.

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Meanwhile, you can often find Bragg working on the shop floor of the lighting company in eastern Florida. When he's tinkering with a manufacturing process he's unfamiliar with, he'll huddle with colleagues around a YouTube video for tutorials.

Unlike millennials, American baby boomers and those older showed a strong preference for living in the U.S., according to BCG.

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"I do think America is still a land of opportunity," Bragg said. But that economic potential needs policy support focused on creating jobs, he said. "We need to get the politics out of it and get back to making and selling American products."

By CNBC's Heesun Wee. Follow her on Twitter @heesunwee.