The Experience of Young Professionals in Brussels
By comparison to larger European counterparts, Brussels is a small city, but has an outsized reputation as Europe’s unofficial capital. The city has an enormous international presence; the international sector accounts for over 100,000 jobs, with large international institutions such as NATO, thousands of consultancies and lobbying firms, regional European representation offices, European federations, NGOs, think tanks, and international firms. At least one in ten individuals in Brussels is linked to the international sector, and separately, almost 200,000 Europeans now live in the in the city. While there are no specific numbers for how many young workers (e.g. professionals in their 20s and 30s) make up this total number, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest it is significant.
One aspect of the story is therefore that the city is a magnet for young professionals from throughout Europe, who come to Brussels to fill the ranks of staff at its international institutions. This also means that Brussels is part of a global talent race, a feature of today’s international workforce that was highlighted in a recent Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Report. As the report highlights, young workers in their 20s and 30s have a remarkably high willingness to go abroad. The list of most attractive foreign destinations is no surprise, with big names like New York, London, and Paris topping the list for young workers of desirable places to live and work, based on factors such as quality of life and the chance to acquire interesting professional and personal experiences.
For Brussels, and in terms of how the city attracts these professionals and engages them once they have arrived, there’s actually lot at stake for the city. Brussels also has much to gain from these youth, who are often, for example, entrepreneurial and well-educated. In the long term, if they stay, these individuals could make significant economic contributions to both Brussels and Belgium as a whole. As the BCG report notes, “[countries] will need to find ways to attract and, especially, to retain their most talented and highlight skilled people. Failing that, countries will be runners-up in the international competition and won’t be able to do anything but watch as their most gifted citizens emigrate and do not return.”
As the Transatlantic Cities Network heard, the Brussels Liaison Office is one of those institutions working to maximize the experience of expats in Brussels. The organization was established specifically to help these newcomers integrate into Brussels, helping them with administrative aspects of moving into the city and with the basics of daily life in the city. For example, a series called “Discover Brussels” is a lunch series geared toward workers in European institutions. Such activities might not only make them want to stay longer, but also to encourage them to contribute or invest to the city, to get to know Belgians, and to contribute to the city and its civic affairs. Another effort that could have a tremendous impact on this is to make the European quarter a mixed-use area, thus potentially making it much less disconnected from the rest of the city.
To investigate the experience of these young professionals and what is and what isn’t keeping them in Brussels, we hosted a listening session with 10 local Belgians that are also part of the Young Transatlantic Professionals Network of GMF’s local Brussels office. In addition to several native Belgians, we also had expats from European countries that represent the spectrum of workers that are tied to the EU and international sector in Brussels, including Italy, Greece, Norway, Spain, and Romania.
What did they say?
Resoundingly, many acknowledged that they do not see themselves in Brussels for much longer. As a testament to that, many commented either they or their friends make little effort to learn French or Dutch, two of Belgium’s official languages—it’s easy enough to get by on English alone. Further, many also commented that they are in the city only as a kind of resume builder, and hope to transfer their skills back to a job in their home country rather than to use them in Brussels itself.
More importantly, many also lamented that they would prefer to be in a city that is more bottom-up, a place where they feel like they could make a wider contribution and to “start something.” In making these comments, it is clear that they associate many of the European institutions of which they are part—which are often known more for their bureaucracy than for flexibility or openness –with the city of Brussels as a whole and the opportunities it offers to them. Even though many commented that they enjoy the richness of the city’s cultural life, it does not appear that this is enough of factor to make them want to stay in the long run.
Indeed, from just this conversation, I got the impression that the city of Brussels has its work cut out for itself in this area. And ultimately, this effort is important to the integration of the wealthy and well educated international class as a whole. Many of the large urban regeneration projects that the city has planned are aimed at providing housing and amenities for the constant influx of international workers, while preserving a social mix of classes and ethnicities and thus integrating the international sector and its workers with the rest of the city. If the city’s young professionals don’t have a connection to the city, this says a lot about the challenging environment in which these well-intentioned developments are being launched.
This was a report on the Transatlantic Cities Network, who met in Brussels October 20-22, 2014 for the network’s annual meeting.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.