The last year has presented many temptations to leave the United States: the catastrophic mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the social unrest in the streets, and an embarrassingly volatile presidential election that culminated in a violent storming of the US capital. However, I’ve been determined to leave the country ever since I took an internship in Switzerland in the summer of 2018. Once I received an offer to return to that company full time, I didn’t hesitate to leave the US behind.
I’m not prescribing emigrating as a panacea for the average American’s problems, nor is it fair or realistic to assume everyone has the means to move abroad. I’m a unique and privileged case. I hold a Ph.D. from an Ivy League school, I speak German — one of Switzerland’s official languages, and I’ve lived abroad before. However, the rationale for my departure reflects systemic issues in the US that desperately need to change, for the benefit of all Americans.
Growing up, Americans are repeatedly fed the message that the US is the greatest country in the world. I began to question and ultimately reject this narrative after spending part of my childhood in Germany. I remember doctors coming to our home when we were sick. I remember our excitement at my father’s six weeks of annual vacation, which allowed us to take long trips exploring Europe. I’ll never forget returning to my public school in Michigan, where my peers were still learning to add and subtract, while I had mastered long division and fractions as a part of my German elementary math curriculum. My American teacher once called me to the white board to teach my classmates to add “the German way.”
I was fortunate to be exposed to an alternative to the US at such a young age. It allowed me to resist the rhetoric from the media, history textbooks, and my peers, all of which portrayed a skewed sense of American superiority. Still, that experience did not ultimately convince me to move away from the US. It was the decades that followed, living in and witnessing the flaws of American society, that motivated my departure.
The United States treats people as economic inputs, not as human beings. The general policy is to pay employees the least amount possible, while squeezing out maximum productivity. This leaves us exhausted and anxious. Many don’t have adequate sick leave or vacation time. When too old to contribute economic value to the system, we are seen as worthless and burdensome. The system treats us as dispensable parts of a machine.
Through its design, the US society sends a clear message: unless you have enough money, you don’t deserve a dignified life. If you cannot afford to send children to private school or live in a community with good public schools, your children don’t deserve safety or a quality education. If you don’t participate in the economy — and often even if you do — you do not deserve adequate healthcare coverage. You may not even deserve access to clean water (e.g., Flint). Our fundamental rights are not granted by virtue of our humanity. Rather, they’re contingent upon our economics. The US system rewards inherited privileges, ignores centuries of institutionalized oppression, and invalidates the unpaid social labor of caregivers and those raising children. Yet we preach hard work, bootstraps, and The American Dream.
While comparing job offers upon graduation, the Swiss option quickly rose to the top of my list. A competitive salary, five weeks’ vacation, a Swiss pension- plus a company pension, comprehensive health insurance, 14 weeks paternity leave, and unlimited sick days were enticing. Equally as important was that, as an intern, I had experienced a better culture around work/life balance than in the US. My coworkers were noticeably less stressed. Emails after working hours were rare, lunch breaks were mandatory by law, and my colleagues took three-week vacations in the summer.
Swiss society boasts no fewer perks outside of the workplace. Switzerland has world-class public transportation and infrastructure. All citizens have healthcare coverage. The public schools are highly ranked, and children learn to speak German, French, and English. A national pension system provides financial security for the elderly. There are high minimum wages, with Canton Geneva believed to have the highest in the world at $25.00 an hour. These benefits implicitly acknowledge that we are human beings first and foremost. The society makes clear that simply by existing, one deserves an acceptable quality of life. It’s comforting to know that the taxes withheld from my paycheck help create such a society. Americans conflate robust social programming with socialism, but Switzerland, like the US, is a capitalist and federalist nation.
The US should take note. Among the industrialized nations, the US has a strong aversion to distributing wealth and providing basic human rights to all its citizens. I’m ideologically at odds with this approach, to the point that I’m concerned about bringing a child into such a society. If my kids wanted to pursue the arts or any other non-lucrative field in the US, I would feel I had no choice but to advise them otherwise, to spare them from the system’s disdain for those without economic power.
One day, during the commute to my internship, I crossed paths with a small child who was walking alone. I immediately panicked and started looking for his parents. Then I remembered that in Switzerland, even in the city, children are encouraged to walk to school on their own. I thought about my future children. Would I want them to grow up in America, where school shootings have become the norm? Or should I raise them with Swiss levels of safety, economic security, and human dignity?
We often describe societal issues as a consequence of some sort of natural evolution. “That’s just the way things are.” By doing so, we absolve the architects. We fail to see that inequality in the US is designed to oppress and take advantage of those on the lower rungs of society. There is no sign that the fundamental power structure of the country will change. Contrarily, the norm for my generation is to see the income gap widen and life get harder for the average American. It is no surprise that the overwhelming reaction to my departure from friends and family has been, “You are so lucky.”
The US needs to abandon the ideology that one’s human dignity is determined by one’s wealth. This requires systemic changes and an unapologetic overhaul of the status quo. What we need is to guarantee every human within our borders healthcare, a free quality education, and a living wage. We of all nations have the resources to do so. Lastly, the elderly deserve financial security in the final years of their lives, rather than being forced to spend their glory years penny-pinching, nervous that rising healthcare costs and living expenses will leave them bankrupt.
In the US, I often questioned what the future would hold. What if I can’t afford a quality education for my children? What if I’m too stressed out from working long hours to spend time with my family? What if I or a loved one develops a serious health issue that evaporates our savings? I now breathe a sigh of relief. At least for now, I no longer live in the United States.