The favorable labor market in Germany has drawn quite a few emigrants back to their native country. It may not be a trend quite yet, but it is making headlines in the media.
Helmut Kohl was still Germany's chancellor when Philipp Mayer-Kuckuk emigrated to New York. Germany's unemployment rate was at 11 percent, and German universities were dismissed, seen as the opposite of research hotspots.
For the young biomedical doctor from Bonn, a job offer from the renowned New York-based Hospital for Special Surgery was a golden opportunity. Now, 15 years later, Mayer-Kuckuk is returning to Germany, to a job at Munich's Technical University. Again, with great expectations: "When I saw how the labs were appointed, it was clear we are no longer inferior to New York."
Since 2008, the number of emigrants from Germany has dropped slightly year by year, reaching a level of about 130,000 in 2013. Mayer-Kuckuk is one of about 120,000 Germans who left their country many years ago but returned this year, joining the increasing number of expats returning home.
Newspapers have speculated about a trend reversal, celebrate the rediscovered attractiveness of Germany's labor market and a new German sense of identity.
Farewell is not forever
"Fewer people have emigrated than [in previous years], but we don't see a strong trend in return migration," said Thomas Liebig, a migration expert at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Sabine Jung of the German Scholars Organization (GSO), a group that looks after German academics abroad and assists them when they return to Germany, agrees: there is no explosion of returning expats. "As before, there are clearly more emigrants than returnees."
Liebig and Jung suspect an antiquated idea of emigration behind the reports of a large numbers of returnees. Some people pack their bags because they are adventuresome, others because of financial worries - a negligible minority. "Today, we no longer have exoduses like we had after wars or famines," said Monika Wilhelm of the Bavarian Ministry of Economic Affairs, adding that as a result, there are no huge return movements, either.
"What we see today is brain circulation: highly qualified people who leave the country, live elsewhere for a while, possibly move on to yet another country, and return at some point."
Many reasons to return
Wilhelm is responsible for the ministry's Return to Bavaria project. The program aims to lure well-trained academics with international experience to Bavaria - people like Philipp Mayer-Kuckuk and Maximilian Emans, an engineer who emigrated to Austria in 2003 to work for an automobile supplier.
Back then, he couldn't find work in Germany and the employment center even paid for his move to Austria. Ten years later, Emans is in great demand in Germany and the Return to Bavaria program has found him a job for the Südsalz salt supplier in Bad Reichenhall.
Emans found many reasons to return, including family and friends. "No one emigrates just for a job anymore," said Wilhelm. "And no one returns just for a job, either."
Expats next door
Most people only spend a certain amount of time abroad, said Liebig, adding that "almost one out of two migrants return within five years." Most migrants are sent abroad by their German employers. The richer and more developed the destination country, the more likely that a posting is transitional, said the OECD expert. One out of four Germans currently abroad made the move to neighboring Austria or Switzerland, he said, and there is a great likelihood that "people return to Germany from countries that are quite similar to Germany."
Mayer-Kuckuk is excited to return home, but he said the move from New York to Munich is not just motivated by his new job, a step up the career ladder. His young daughter is about to begin school and his American wife found work in Germany, while in the United States, his job became increasingly difficult due to a lack of research funding.
Germany's solid economic situation is a reason for many expats to return home - only to experience that not all that glitters is gold. "When you look at your native country from afar, you tend to glorify things quite a bit," said Emans, the returnee from Austria.
Mayer-Kuckuk notes that Germans complain a lot: "Here, the glass is always half empty, while in the US, it is always half full." He is intrigued by Germany, but he and his wife don't plan to commit to anything. His family is the kind that moves back and forth between the continents "depending on where the opportunities are better and the quality of living is higher," he said.
There is no doubt in his mind: "If the US or any other English-language speaking country offers better chances, we will move on again."