Skip to content

Bad economy ruined your job prospects? Wait it out in Buenos Aires

BuenoAires.JPG

Tango dancers in the working-class neighborhood of La Boca (Photo by Ryan Auer)

Seeking greater fluency in Spanish, some time abroad and the comfort of a cosmopolitan lifestyle, Karen Martell moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the fall of 2008.

“I tried to get a job before I came, but it was really hard,” says Martell, 26.

Martell moved anyway, joining an increasing number of 20-something Americans and Europeans who are leaving their economically ravaged home countries and flocking to Argentina’s capital city, attracted by the low cost of living, a warm climate, world-renowned cuisine and government-subsidized education. Apartment rentals to expatriates are up, and local universities report an increase the number of foreigners taking remedial Spanish classes.

Lured by its reputation for cost-effective conviviality, Terrence Henry, a writer for The Atlantic, just announced on the magazine’s website that he is moving to Buenos Aires sight unseen “to live, without working in any conventional sense, and to live well.” Henry, 30, will write about his “temporary retirement” in a regular feature for the magazine’s Web site.

But as more and more of these economic exiles wash up on Buenos Aires’ shores, they are finding that it may be cheap to live there, but there are few opportunities to make money. “There are a ton of foreigners down here, but a ton of them aren’t working,” says Martell, who is the first to point out that she is an exception, having found a decent job.

Still recovering from a devastating economic collapse in 2001, which caused a mini-brain drain as Argentines left the country, Argentina now welcomes foreigners, and its government has lifted many restrictions on immigration and guarantees access to public health and education.

It costs less to live in Buenos Aires than in all but five world capitals. Mercer’s Cost of Living index, which measures comparative costs of housing, transportation, food, clothing, entertainment and household furnishings, ranked the city the 138th cheapest out of 143 capital cities in 2008. (Moscow is the most expensive city for expatriates; Asunción, Paraguay, is the cheapest.)

Not surprisingly, people are flocking to Buenos Aires, and the growth in the city’s expatriate community can be measured in increased traffic to blogs and Web sites catering to foreigners. One such Web site, baexpats.org, has seen its user registrations and number of visitors double to 900 unique visitors per day since February 2008, according to Igor Sidorenkov, one of site’s moderators.

Short-term apartment rentals are also on the rise. Apartmentsba.com, a Web site where foreigners can rent fully furnished apartments, has registered a 15 percent increase in two- to four-month rentals compared with last year. “A lot of people come down, but a lot of people leave,” says company founder Michael Koh, who has been living in Buenos Aires since 2004. “They’re on a budget, they lost their job and they are down here to learn Spanish and maybe add something to their résumé for when the economy turns.”

The number of international students has jumped. Enrollment in the University Center of Languages, the largest language-study program in Argentina, increased approximately 32 percent between 2007 and 2008, from 1,343 students to 1,867, many drawn by the low cost. Programs granting master’s degrees run as little as $600.

But for many travelers coming from collapsing economies and only having limited savings, the inexpensive education and quaffable wine aren’t enough to keep them. They need jobs to avoid cutting their stays short. Unfortunately, the options open to foreigners don’t pay well.

The average stay for international, non-Chinese students is only three months, according to Gonzalo Villarruel, director of the international-studies department at the University Center of Languages, not nearly enough time to complete a degree.

“The country’s still growing economy makes it hard for newcomers to support themselves,” says Koh, a former vice president of a Texas-based medical consulting company. “It is not a place to live and to make a lot of money.”

Even for well-educated foreigners like Martell, the most common jobs are as English teachers or translators, which only pay around $10 an hour, or as workers in the city’s booming call-center industry—a job as grueling as it is low paying.

“Most call centers used to only offer shifts of six hours, six days or nights a week,” says Brian Grove, a British expatriate who has spent nearly two years working in Buenos Aires call centers. “It used be known as 666, as it is so psychologically destructive, especially when the systems are designed so that you don’t get even a few seconds between calls. Six-six-six equals six hours, six days, six months to burn out.”

For a month of work in a call center at Teletech, which handles technical-support phone calls from Time Warner Cable customers in the United States, Grove took home 1,600 Argentine pesos (about $440), about the industry average.

“I had no alternative, really,” Grove explains via e-mail. “Unless you have some other kind of qualification (my U.K. law degree means nothing here), your chances of finding work are nonexistent.”

Many expats choose to work remotely for American companies and get paid in dollars. Noah Pedrini, a 29-year-old computer programmer, moved to Buenos Aires in January from Boston and has supported himself by doing remote programming for Jute Networks, a Web software company based in Asheville, N.C.

But while the pay is better, working 40 hours a week from his apartment has made it difficult to meet new people or take full advantage of the beauty that drew him to the city. “If I have the opportunity, I would rather go to a place of work, just to have that social environment,” Pedrini says. “I would make much less than I am making right now, though, so it is not an easy decision.” Pedrini says he will most likely return to the U.S. or go to another country before the end of the year.

Argentina’s bureaucracy often stifles those who try to start their own businesses. Ginger Gentile, a 28-year-old expatriate from New York, started a film production company, San Telmo Productions, in August with her husband, Gabriel Balanovsky, an Argentine, only to find that it would take two years to register the name—a far cry from the United States, where you can incorporate a business or trademark a name in minutes over the Internet.

Gentile and Balanovsky are moving forward with their project, but she understands it’s not for everyone. “A lot of people who come down don’t really understand what it involves, and they get frustrated,” Gentile says.

“This is a cool experience. It is very exciting,” says Martell. But she and her boyfriend “look at Argentines and say, ‘Oh my God, it would be so hard to live here.’” Martell says she and her boyfriend have decided to stay for only a year.

E-mail: rma2122@columbia.edu