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Migration and aspirations – are migrants trapped on a hedonic treadmill?


Based on longitudinal information from two waves of the Indonesian Family and LifeSurvey (IFLS) in 2000 and 2007, we find evidence that migrants are self-selectedalong higher individual aspirations acquired (or, inherited) beforemigration. About 70 per cent of aspiration differentials can be explained by factorssuch as young age, good education, or superior socio-economic background, while theresidual seems to be linked to an individual pre-disposition for higher aspirations.However, despite the fact that migration is economically beneficial for mostmigrants, the migration experience itself seems to further increase economicaspirations, hereby trapping migrants on a ‘hedonic treadmill’.

JEL classification: D03; J61; R23

1. Introduction

The causes and consequences of internal migration in developing countries have beenanalysed extensively in the economic and social science literature (Greenwood 1997; Lucas 1997). Building on thisliterature, this paper adds new insight on the interaction between the individualdecision to migrate and aspirations for the future, by asking whether aspirations arethe cause or rather the consequence of migration, or both.

Using longitudinal household survey data from two waves of the Indonesian Family LifeSurvey (IFLS) collected in 2000 and 2007, our research is motivated by a puzzle we haveidentified by comparing recent migrants and non-migrants with respect to their currentsubjective well-being and their (economic) aspirations for the future. In terms ofcurrent well-being, we find a rural–urban divide with higher levels of subjectivewell-being reported in urban areas, which is a known phenomenon also in other contexts(see Knight & Gunatilaka (2010) for China, or Fafchamps &Shilpi (2008) for Nepal). Interestingly, no significantdifferences in subjective well-being are observed between those respondents with recentmigration experience and the non-migrants, neither in rural nor in urban contexts.However, migrants express strikingly higher levels of aspirations for the future thannon-migrants, with only weak differences between rural and urban populations. Whilemigrants are as (un-) satisfied with their current economic situation as non-migrants,migrants are much more ambitious about the future. The key question is now: Whatexplains this difference in aspirations? Are migrants simply a self-selected group ofindividuals with higher aspirations? Or, are these higher levels of aspirations rather aconsequence of the migration experience itself, that is, does the migration experiencegenerate higher aspirations? And if there is a relationship between aspirations and thedecision to migrate, is it non-linear with highest migration propensities forindividuals with ‘middle-range’ aspirations?

Section 2 discusses the concept of aspirations by providing a theoretical rationale forits relevance as an individual-specific cause and consequence of migration decisions,and specifies hypotheses to be tested in this paper. Section 3 provides backgroundinformation on migration in Indonesia since the Asian crisis in 1997 and describes thepanel dataset that we use for the analysis. Section 4 reports the results from ourestimates on the determinants of aspirations and the role of migration experience,explores whether aspirations trigger the decision for migration, investigates whetherthis aspiration-migration link is non-linear, and finally, we assess the role ofmigration self-selection along higher aspirations. Section 5 summarises andconcludes.

2. Aspirations as a cause and consequence of migration

This study proposes a theoretical frame for understanding migration that goes beyond thestandard economic approach of rational and utility-maximizing individuals or households.We conceptualise migration as a function of an individual’s capability formigration, with this capability being a combination of two individual-specific‘capacities’, the ‘capacity to aspire’ and the ‘capacityto realise’.

People’s capacity to aspire describes the set of factors that determine thedifference between an individual’s current level of well-being and its aspiredfuture level of well-being. Thus, individual i with a (pre-migration)level of subjective well-being w i,t might considermigration as a way to achieve his aspired future level of well-being, if w i , t a = w i , t + 1 > w i , t .We call the difference between the actual and the aspired level of subjective well-beingthe aspiration gap g i,t , defined as: 1

g i , t w i , t a , w i , t w i , t a - w i , t

Hereby, the capacity to aspire, or the aspiration gap, includes not only the ability toset goals and generate aspirations, but also knowledge of how to achieve those goals(Dalton, Ghosal, & Mani, 2010). In the following, we defineaspiration gaps as the motivation to achieve personal economic progress, which can bethe result of a conscious or unconscious drive to increase subjective well-being.

Psychological research shows that aspirations, or achievement motivation, can either bean inherited or acquired character trait, often formed at an early age (Quaglia &Cobb 1996), but are also a product of a stimulating socialenvironment (Collier 1994). Thus, many factors may affectpeople’s aspiration formation, ranging from the individual personality,socialisation, education, to access to information and networks, and eventually themigration experience itself. People’s awareness of social, economic and politicalopportunities elsewhere, transmitted through modern mass media, the internet, or socialnetworks, may thereby increase (life) aspirations (de Haas 2010).

However, aspirations as such do not necessarily enable an individual to leave thesocial, economic and sometimes even the political context. Potential migrants not onlyneed to have the ‘capacity to aspire’ (cf. Appadurai 2004; Ray 2006), but also the ‘capacity torealise’ a migration project (Carling 2004; de Haas 2010). This capacity to realise migration is the result of theendowment with various extrinsic economic, social, human, or political capabilities (Sen1985) that may enable migration. A lack of these capabilitiesconstrains the extent to which people can actually migrate.

In general, the capability for migration can be thought of as a necessary condition fora person to be considered a potential migrant. However, persons with sufficientcapacities to aspire and realise migration may never decide to migrate, while theabsence of the capability for migration makes voluntarily migration very unlikely.

The question arising is whether people, driven by the power of strong aspirations, workon their capabilities to overcome their ‘involuntary immobility’ (cf.Carling 2002), or whether individuals rather adjust theiraspirations downwards to avoid continued unhappiness because of unfulfilled aspirations.Appadurai (2004) calls the latter phenomenon an aspiration trap,because without the ‘capacity to aspire’ people are likely to remain in apoverty trap which is characterised by a low level of individual capabilities that doesnot allow people to improve their well-being. On a larger scale, aspiration trapsprevent broader economic and social change in a society.

Migration itself may resolve such an ‘aspiration trap’ by formingaspirations, for instance through the adaptation to new lifestyles or the emulation ofrole models and new peers (‘reference group substitution’) (Rao & Walton2004)2. The capacity to realise and the capacity toaspire are mutually interdependent. Aspirations can stimulate behaviour leading to animprovement of capabilities, and, at the same time, aspirations are the consequence ofinherited and/or socially acquired capabilities. Migration is thereby an importanttransmission mechanism linking the capacity to aspire and the capacity to realise.Aspirations are hence expected to be endogenous, with the aspired goals for the futurebeing likely to change (normally, to increase) with the migration experience itself.Migration as an investment in capabilities can widen the set of (known) opportunities,or the ‘aspirational window’ (cf. Ray 2006), byincreasing people’s capacity to aspire. Thus, we hypothesise that the decision tomigrate is both initiated and perpetuated by an ex ante aspiration gapreflecting people’s desire to realise economic, social, human or politicalopportunities which are within their aspirational windows.

However, aspirational windows do not necessarily close with migration, but might evenenlarge if the returns to migration in terms of enhanced well-being are lower thanexpected, or if the migration experience coincides with a rising awareness of evenbetter opportunities that lead to even higher aspirations. This phenomenon, known as the‘hedonic treadmill’ may explain our initial finding that migrants do notreport significantly higher levels of subjective well-being compared to non-migrantswhile having significantly larger aspirations. Even if migration has an actual positiveimpact on capabilities (for instance, through better education, higher income, orimproved access to health services), the post-migration aspirational window canbe larger than before. Awareness about new opportunities combined with stronger feelingsof relative deprivation may have a negative effect on a migrant’s level ofsubjective well-being and/or aspirations about the future.

Finally, we claim that a positive aspiration gap creates the impetus for a behaviouralaction to close it, such as a decision to migrate. However, what size of the aspirationgap renders the strongest impetus for migration? Intuitively, we would assume that theaspiration-migration link is non-linear, that is, very low or very high aspiration gapslead to significantly lower migration propensities than ‘middle-range’aspirations, which are significant but achievable, and thus, realistic aspirations.People with low aspiration gaps have relatively low incentives to migrate, but alsopeople with very large aspiration gaps have limited interest in diminishing the gap.Why? Mainly because any actions and investments taken (including migration) may not beconducive to significantly reduce the extra-large aspiration gap and it would remainlarge even after migration. In this case, migration may be considered not worth toundertake the associated risk of failure. A persistent aspiration gap may also be asource of frustration and unhappiness, and a more likely ‘cognitive’response is to adjust aspirations downwards. This is the reason why we expect to findless migrants among those with very high aspiration gaps. Thus, while a positiveaspiration gap is essential to motivate people to migrate, this gap should not be toolarge in order to avoid frustration and emotional loss. We therefore hypothesise thatfuture migrants form middle-range aspirations, which give the strongest impetus forclosing an achievable aspiration gap through investing in migration. In thefollowing, we outline four hypotheses that this paper will test.

Hypotheses about the aspirations-migration nexus

First, we consider that self-selection is an important explanation for thedifferences in aspirations between migrants and non-migrants. The fact that migrantshave higher aspirations (after migration) might simply be the result of thisself-selection process. Many studies show that, on average, migrants are younger,better educated and relatively well-endowed compared to non-migrants, which arefactors which tend to correlate with higher life aspirations. Thus, we presume thatpotential future migrants report higher aspirations already before migrating becausetheir capacities to aspire and to realise migration, respectively, are affected bysimilar individual characteristics.

Second, we argue that, already before the migration experience, future migrants havea unique capacity to aspire, which goes beyond the effects of some stylized(migration) factors such as age, education, socio-economic background. We thereforehypothesise that the differences in aspiration gaps between migrants and non-migrantsdo not disappear when simultaneously controlling for differences in socio-economiccharacteristics. We argue that at least part of the difference in aspirations gapsbetween migrants and non-migrants cannot be explained by measurable characteristicsor capabilities such as age, education or the endowment with other economic, socialor human resources. Thus, even if the group of permanent non-migrants would haveexactly the same observable socio-economic characteristics than the group of futuremigrants, they would have smaller aspiration gaps which –as one consequence-make them less prone to migration. We hence claim that migrants possess certainintrinsic aspirations that go beyond the aspirational levels that can be explained byindividual and socio-economic characteristics. However, a discussion about whethersuch ‘super-aspirations’ are genetically inherited or rather sociallyacquired goes beyond the scope of this paper.

Third, we hypothesise that migration itself leads to higher aspirations. Withoutexcluding the possibility that migrants already have higher aspirations beforemigrating, there are various reasons to think why aspiration gaps may also be drivenby the migration experience itself. For instance and as already mentioned, migrationmay expand the ‘aspirational window’, i.e. the awareness about newopportunities, which most likely corresponds with increasing aspirations. Anotherpossible source for rising aspirations are feelings of relative deprivation as aconsequence of social comparisons with new peer groups at the destination site(‘reference group substitution’, see Stark and Taylor (1991))3. Migrants may also have significantly higheraspirations than non-migrants because they adapt their aspirations to the level ofrisks they have taken to achieve their initial aspiration level (see Selten (1998) for a so-called aspiration adaptation theory).

Finally, we inquire whether the hypothesised aspiration-migration relationship isnon-linear. In fact, we hypothesise that both very low and very high aspiration gapslead to lower migration propensities than “middle-range aspirations”,that is, significant but achievable aspirations. The hypothesised non-linearreverse-causal relationship between aspirations and migration behaviour creates an‘endogeneity puzzle’, which we aim to disentangle empirically for theIndonesian context. To summarise, we will test the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1a: Future migrants have higher aspirations than non-migrants,because future migrants are self-selected according to aspiration-enhancingcharacteristics such as being of young age, well-educated, or bettersocio-economic background.

Hypothesis 1b: Future migrants have higher aspirations than non-migrantsbecause of a unique capacity or disposition for‘super-aspirations’.

Hypothesis 2: Past migrants have higher aspirations than non- or futuremigrants because the migration experience itself increases aspirations.

Hypothesis 3: Potential migrants with moderate aspiration gaps have ahigher migration propensity than individuals with very low or very highaspirations.

3. Background and data

Local context

Before describing the data in more detail, we give a brief overview ofIndonesia’s recent socio-political development and the patterns of internalmigration. Indonesia, the fourth most populous nation in the world, has undergone aperiod of major political, economic, and social transitions after the fall of the NewOrder regime (Orde Baru) in the wake of the Asian financial crisis in 1998.More than a decade later, the country is considered a stable democracy with promisinglong-term economic prospects (Worldbank 2011).

Migration has always played an important role in Indonesia, with around 6 per cent ofthe total population living outside their province of birth already in 1930(Volkstelling 1930). Consisting of more than 17,000 islands,the Indonesian archipelago is characterized by an immense cultural and linguisticdiversity as well as substantial socio-economic disparities, particularly between thepolitically and economically dominating main island of Java and the outer islands.During the autocratic rule of President Suharto from 1967 to 1998, the controversial“transmigration program” was extended, which resulted in (forced)displacements of millions of poor households from the densely populated island ofJava to less densely populated regions (Marr, 1990). Thislarge-scale resettlement program, intended to ease population pressure on Java and tofoster economic development outside Java, has caused ethno-religious tensions in thereceiving regions and is considered a major trigger of widespread communal violencein the early post-Suharto period (Østby, Urdal, Tadjoeddin, Murshed, &Strand 2011).

With Indonesia’s major transition to a more democratic, decentralized andmarket-oriented system after the fall of the New Order, the transmigration programwas discarded and existing legal barriers to internal migration where removed. By2000, the number of inter-province migrants had increased to about 10 per cent (VanLottum & Marks, 2010), with rural–urban migration asthe major contributor to intensified urbanization processes (United Nations 2008).

The Indonesian family life survey data

We study the interrelations between individual aspirations and the decision tomigrate using data from the Indonesian Family Life Survey (IFLS), a large-scale,longitudinal household and community survey representative of about 83 per cent ofthe Indonesian population (Strauss et al. 2009). We employ thethird (ILFS3 in 2000) and the fourth wave (IFLS4 in 2007/08) of the IFLS, whichprovides us with a sample of 34,341 adult respondents from 12,900 households, ofwhich 17,564 individuals are observed in both waves. The community surveyadditionally offers detailed information on the characteristics of the 320communities in the sample4.

The longitudinal data of the IFLS allows a detailed analysis of internal migrationpatterns. For this study, we particularly focus on (i) exceptionally rich informationon the respondent’s past migration movements; and (ii) a module on subjectivewell-being that was included in IFLS3 for the first time. The migration moduleprovides a complete migration history from birth to date for each adult respondent inthe survey. The module includes information on the location of origin, thedestination, the date of moving, the reason to move, and the co-movers. Migrationdecisions are mostly work-related, while other important motivations to move arerelated to family and education. Where appropriate, we will distinguish thesedifferent reasons to migrate in the analysis5.

Our main variable of interest is people’s aspirations about their futureeconomic well-being given their current situation. We construct the variableaspiration gap based on information provided by the respondents’assessments of their current and expected future well-being,respectively6. Combining this information allows us to calculate anaspiration gap according to equation (1), i.e. the difference between current andaspired well-being in the future, with a one year horizon in the 2000 survey and afive year horizon in the 2007 survey7.

On average, we observe higher aspiration gaps in 2007, which seems both related tothe longer, five year time horizon for aspired future well-being and the moreprosperous economic outlook in 2007, compared to the political and economicturbulences in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis and the fall of the NewOrder regime. More than 50 per cent of the respondents perceive their relativeeconomic situation as ‘average’ (i.e. on step three of the six-stepladder), while aspiration gaps tend to decrease with increasing economicwell-being.

Table 1 illustrates the puzzle which motivates ourresearch. We compare respondents with and without recent (i.e. between 1997 and 2000)migration experience with respect to their subjective (current) well-being and theiraspirations for the future, and further distinguish by urban and rural locations.First, we find a rural–urban divide with higher levels of well-being reportedin urban areas (both for migrants and non-migrants)8, while aspirationsfor the future do not differ significantly between respondents in urban and rurallocations. The opposite pattern is observed when comparing recent migrants tonon-migrants. While recent migrants do not express significantly different levels ofsubjective well-being compared to non-migrants, they express much higher levels offuture aspirations than non-migrants, with almost no or only weak differences betweenrural and urban contexts. Whether high aspirations are rather the cause or theconsequence of migration, i.e. whether higher levels of aspirations for migrants areindependent from, or rather the result of their migration experience is the guidingquestion for the subsequent analysis.

Table 1 Past migrants and non-migrants: status quo well-being and futureaspirations

4. Empirical results

The determinants of aspiration

Table 2 reports the results for the analysis on thedeterminants for aspirations. By estimating aspiration gaps, we can identify whatobservable characteristics of the individual respondent explain the differencesbetween migrants and non-migrants9. In the two rounds of the IFLS (2000and 2007), time horizons for achieving the aspired subjective well-being differ,being one year in 2000 and five years in 2007.

Table 2 Determinants of aspirations: differences between migrants andnon-migrants

Comparison of the two subsamples of migrants and non-migrants reveals that bothgroups have very similar patterns of other aspiration-enhancing factors. First, andmaybe foremost, age is a crucial determinant of individual aspirations. For both timehorizons (1 and 5 years), young adults, aged 15–24, show the highest aspirationgaps, which then continuously decline with age. Differences between migrants andnon-migrants are marginal and not significant, implying that young people have higheraspirations, irrespective of their migration experience. Besides age, education playsa key role in explaining aspiration gaps. Less educated respondents appear to havelower aspirations, with no (or only weakly) significant differences in the effects ofeducation on aspirations between migrants and non-migrants. We also find the level ofeconomic activity, measured in the numbers of hours worked, to be positivelyassociated with aspirations for the future.

Furthermore, individuals of poor households (i.e. of the lowest income quartile),have significantly lower future aspirations than wealthier households. This seems toindicate a positive link between the ‘capacity to realise’ and the‘capacity to aspire’ and provides evidence for the existence of a‘vicious cycle’ of low aspirations and poverty (Appadurai 2004). Another indication for a positive association between capabilitiesand aspirations is the robust positive effect of non-farm business activities ofhouseholds. Even after controlling for their on average higher income compared toagrarian households, respondents in non-farm households have higher aspirations. Thebetter access of such households to aspiration-increasing resources and networks ofinformation can be one explanation for this observation. Interestingly, heads ofhousehold show significantly lower levels of aspirations than other householdmembers, also when controlling for age. This can reflect a perceived ‘burden ofresponsibility’ for securing or achieving a certain level of wellbeing for theentire household, which is easier to bear when aspirations are less ambitious.

In general, we find that age and education are the most robust drivers of therespondents’ aspiration gaps, while other individual or householdcharacteristics seem less relevant for explaining aspiration. We can find onlylimited differences in the importance of these observable characteristics betweenmigrants and non-migrants. However, even after controlling for a large set ofeconomic, social, and political factors at individual, household, village andprovince levels, there remains a strong and significant difference in aspiration gapsbetween migrants and non-migrants. This implies that migrants, due to their migrationexperience in the past, may have generated an additional ‘capacity toaspire’.

For both time horizons, it turns out that, even after controlling for a multitude ofother factors, past migrants have significantly higher aspirations, with their(average) aspiration gaps being between 0.04 and 0.05 points higher than those ofnon-migrants 10. It is though unclear whether this difference is driven bythe migration experience itself, or rather by an unobserved migrant-specificdisposition for higher aspirations. These two alternative explanations are nowfurther explored.

Do aspirations change as a consequence of migration?

Table 3 provides the results of OLS regressions onchanges in the respondents’ aspiration gaps between the interviewsin 2000 and 2007. On average, the aspiration gap has more than doubled between 2000and 2007 (see Additional file 1), which we assume is theresult of both the generally better economic prospect in 2007 compared to 2000, andthe longer aspiration horizon of five years in 2007 (instead of only one year in2000). Of key interest is the binary variable indicating whether an individual hadmigrated in the seven year period between the two interviews.

Table 3 Determinants of changes in aspiration gaps between 2000 and 2007

Overall, we find that migration between 2000 and 2007 has contributed significantlyto the formation of aspirations, with an estimated migration-related increase inabsolute aspiration gaps of about 0.05 points11. Interestingly enough, thechange in the aspiration gap increases significantly with the level of economicwell-being in 2000. The better off are hence found more likely to generateaspirations for the future, reflecting their higher capacity to aspire and, at thesame time, supporting the hypothesis of an ‘aspiration trap’ among thepoor and less well-endowed individuals.

In a next step, we run separate estimations on sub-categories of migrants bydistinguishing the reasons to migrate. We find a particularly strong rise inaspiration gaps for those migrants who moved out of economic necessity - i.e. thosewho mention a lack of labour market options as the main reason for migration-,whereas migrants who migrated rather for economic opportunities -i.e. those whosemain reason for migration was to find a better job- experienced no significantpost-migration increase in aspiration gaps.

Migration for non-economic purposes, i.e. for education or marriage reasons, also hasa strong positive effect on post-migration aspiration gaps. These resultsgenerate a mixed picture of the effects of migration on the adaptation of aspirationgaps. Economic migrants with more proactive attitudes to realise economicopportunities do not experience a significant post-migration increase inaspirations, whereas respondents who migrate out of economic necessity realise anincrease in their ‘capacity to aspire’. The same holds for migrants whomoved either for educational or marriage reasons; both types of migrationsignificantly increase aspiration gaps.

Beside these effects of migration itself, some other drivers of aspirations seemsimilarly relevant. A very strong effect is found for gender, indicating a highlysignificant ‘gender gap’ in changes in aspiration gaps over time with menreporting larger increases in aspiration gaps between 2000 and 2007 than women.Further, we can see that ambitions are significantly higher for younger age cohorts,which holds similarly for migrants and non-migrants.

The aspiration-enhancing effects of economic variables such as increasing income percapita or household consumption levels are positive, suggesting a ‘hedonictreadmill’ effect. The robust and positive effect of increasing householdexpenditures on changes in aspirations strengthens the assumption that there is alink between the ‘capacity to realise’ and the ‘capacity toaspire’. Increasing economic resources hence does not only provide immediatemeans to realise aspirations, but may also foster aspirations for personal progressand development.

Along similar lines, we find evidence of a substantially negative effect ofunemployment on the affected individuals’ capacity to aspire. This might implythat within a rather short period of unemployment with presumably relatively stableaspirations, migration becomes more likely. However, if unemployment last longer,aspirations (as well as self-confidence, self-esteem, and even skills) may adjustdownwards, and future migration (and any other proactive behaviour) becomes less ofan aspired option (see e.g. Sheeran et al. 1995).

Beyond this, aspirations are also triggered through the effects of socialcomparisons. Our results show that an overall increase of wealth (as measured byassets) in a community has negative effects on individual aspirations. Feelings ofrelative deprivation, generated by an independent improvement of the average economicsituation of other households, do not only negatively affect subjective well-being,but also the individual capacity to aspire. This suggests that there is only a fineline between aspiration-enhancing and aspiration-deteriorating relative deprivation;for some, feelings of relative deprivation may create incentives to improve the ownsituation, whereas for others it may rather result in resignation.‘Minor’ relative deprivation seems to be most ‘effective’ fortriggering strong aspirations about individual progress and development.

Are migrants self-selected along a predisposition of higher aspirations?

Finally, we test whether migrants are a self-selected group of individuals who hadlarger aspiration gaps which exist already before migrating. We therefore decomposethe initially identified difference in aspiration gaps between migrants andnon-migrants into ‘measurable’ differences in characteristics on the onehand and a (non-measurable) disposition for higher pre-migration aspirations on theother. The panel structure of the dataset allows analysing this question. We includeonly those individuals with no migration experience until 2000, and compare‘permanent’ non-migrants, i.e. those individuals who did also not migrateafter 2000, with the group of future migrants, i.e. those non-migrants who migratedafter the 2000 survey.

Table 4 reports the differences in the average aspirationgap between these two groups, who -as seen before- have on average lower aspirationgaps than those individuals with past migration experience in 2000 (Table 1). Non-migrants, who migrated after the survey in 2000, report,on average, significantly higher aspiration gaps (average gap: 0.315) thanrespondents with no migration experience at all (average gap: 0.389). In line withthe results in Table 5, future migration is associatedwith higher aspirations than non-migration. However, the decisive question is whetherthese differences are due to individual characteristics, such as age, education orsocio-economic background (or any other variables we control for), or whether thesedifferences are due to an (non-measurable) natural disposition for relatively highaspirations.

Table 4 Decomposition of aspiration gaps between future migrants andnon-migrants
Table 5 Determinants of future migration and the role of aspiration gaps

To investigate the relative importance of these two explanations, we decompose theoverall difference in the aspiration gap (0.074). We apply a Blinder-Oaxacadecomposition (Blinder, 1973; Oaxaca, 1973), which divides the differential in aspiration gaps into the partthat is explained by the set of observable characteristics, i.e. the set ofexplanatory variables, and a residual part that cannot be accounted for bydifferences in these characteristics (Jann, 2008). Hereby, theunobserved predictors reflect a natural disposition of (future) migrants for higheraspirations that go beyond observed characteristics. This decomposition techniquehence allows answering the following question about the counterfactual: “whatwould the average aspiration gap for future migrants have been if they would have hadthe same observable characteristics as non-migrants?” The decomposition followsthe following formulation:

ΔG ^ N , F = X ¯ N ' β ^ F - β ^ N + β ^ F X ¯ F ' + X ¯ N ' ,

where ΔG ^ N , F reflects the differential in average aspiration gaps of future migrants andnon-migrants, X ¯ F ' and X ¯ N ' are vectors of mean observable characteristics for the two respective groups, and β ^ F and β ^ N are the estimated vectors of coefficients, respectively.

Our estimation results show that about 70 per cent (0.052) of the overalldifferential in aspirations (0.074) can be explained by the differences in observablecharacteristics (Table 6). We can identify three maincategories in which future migrants have favourable, aspiration-inducingcharacteristics: age, education, and the geographical location (here: province)explain most of the larger aspiration gaps among future migrants.

Table 6 Future migration and alternative aspiration gaps

If future migrants would have had exactly the same observable characteristics asnon-migrants, the between-group aspiration differential would have been 0.022, orabout 30 per cent of the actual difference. As this residual is due to differences inunobservable, individual-specific dispositions for higher aspirations, we canconclude that (future) migrants are neither a representative group for the totalpopulation nor are they representative for the (sub-)population with favourable‘migration characteristics’ such as young age, unmarried, well-educated,and with decent socio-economic background. Instead, migrants have some (unobserved)qualities that generate higher aspirations already before migrating, compared tothose individuals who never migrate. Potential migrants are hence self-selected alonga strong ‘capacity to realise’ and a unique ‘capacity toaspire’.

Do aspirations trigger migration?

We are now turning to an alternative explanation for why migrants have significantlyhigher aspirations than non-migrants. We hypothesised that migrants showsignificantly higher aspirations already before migration. Individuals witha higher capacity to aspire are hence more likely to consider migration as a valuableoption to realise their aspirations for increased economic well-being.Table 5 therefore reports the results of the effects ofpre-migration aspirations on the decision to migrate. We use thelongitudinal dimension of the dataset to identify those respondents who migrate inthe years after the interview in 2000 (IFLS3).

We use the full sample of respondents for which data from IFLS3 and IFLS4 isavailable and define all individuals who did not migrate in the first two years afterIFLS 3 as the reference group. Importantly, we do control for past migration (beforeIFLS3) to account for the positive effect of migration experiences on aspirationsidentified above. Specification (1) in Table 5 estimatesthe odds-ratios that an individual will migrate within two years, given his or heraspiration gap at the time of the 2000 survey. Overall, we find that individuals witha positive aspiration gap have a significantly higher propensity to migrate comparedto individuals without positive aspirations for the near future. By consideringdifferent types of migration, we observe that migration for reasons of economicopportunity is particularly driven by aspirations for economic well-being.Individuals with positive aspirations for their future economic well-being are morelikely to move in order to reap benefits from job opportunities elsewhere. Formigrants who are rather compelled to resettle due to economic necessity, however,future aspirations to not have a significant effect on the decision to migrate.

Furthermore, we find strong evidence for migration being primarily an option ofyoung, unmarried and well-educated people. This group has a comparative advantage inthe capacities to aspire and to realise, which makes them predestined as potentialmigrants. Age in particular is an important factor in migration decision-making, andthis not only for economic reasons of expanding the time available for amortisingmigration costs and optimising life-time income, but maybe more for social reasons ofbeing unmarried and not responsible for accommodating a family.

Furthermore, a substantial positive effect of past migration on the likelihood offuture migration decisions seems to confirm a certain self-selection into a(temporary) ‘migration lifestyle’, which may reflect some path-dependencyin individual migration histories, at least until age and family responsibilitiescounteract this personal inclination for migration. Finally, moving out of ruralareas is not a general trend in Indonesia, but becomes only relevant when economicopportunities are lacking and people do not find alternative ways for improvingeconomic-well-being. This interpretation is supported by the negative effect ofaverage wealth in a community on out-migration propensity of its members. Wealthiercommunities which provide more economic opportunities experience lessout-migration.

Is the aspiration-migration relationship non-linear?

Finally, we address the question of whether individuals with moderate aspirationshave a higher migration propensity than individuals with very low or very highaspirations. In order to test the existence of such a non-linear relationship betweenaspirations and future migration decisions, we re-run the models presented inTable 5 and replace the single dummy for positiveaspirations with two dummies for moderate and high aspirations, respectively.Table 6 presents the coefficients for these dummies(all other control variables as in Table 5 though notreported).

When looking at migration movements in the first two years after the 2000 survey(Panel 1), this non-linear relationship can be observed for migration motivationsrelated to seeking economic opportunities as well as, though only marginallysignificant, migration for educational purposes. The pattern, however, is notparticularly clear and results for the full sample even suggest a positive and linearrelationship. We therefore rerun the analysis for migration movements within thefirst year after the survey to match the time period of the stated aspiration gap(Panel 2). While the number of observed migration movements drops from 1,635 to 840,the effect of future aspirations (which were stated for the next coming year) may beassessed more accurately this way. The drop in observed migration movements causesthe expected loss of significance; however, we do find a distinct non-linearrelationship between aspirations and migration, with very high aspirations for thefuture reducing the likelihood of migration (though not significantly). This resultseems to corroborate the hypothesis that ‘middle-range’ aspirationstrigger migration propensities most. Low or extremely ambitious aspirations, however,seem to make migration less of an option.

5. Conclusion

The main conclusion of this study is that aspirations are a pre-requisite, but can alsobe a consequence of migration. Aspirations can be a decisive ‘mentalcapability’ to avoid or to escape socio-economic traps such as poverty,unemployment, or social and economic exclusion. However, where do aspirations come from?Our study suggests at least four main sources for aspirations: first, fortune of beingborn with a natural capacity to aspire, second, fortune of being born into awell-situated household providing the economic, social and human resources necessary todevelop an aspirational personality, third, being young and having enjoyed someeducation and become more independent from the social context born into, and fourth,proactive behaviour such as migration itself, which can further increase aspirations forthe future.

Consequently, the allocation of aspirations is not random across the populations, andtherefore, migration is a self-selected process with regards to aspiration levels.Migrants have higher aspirations and we find strong evidence that while theseaspirations are partly the result of the migration experience itself, they also hadalready existed before migration. Higher levels of aspirations, by which migrants areself-selected, are mainly driven (i.e. by about 70 per cent) by aspiration-enhancingcharacteristics such as being of young age, well-educated, and economically and sociallywell-situated. However, the residual is more or less due to unobservable characteristicswhich we assume to be captured by an individual’s personality and a naturalinclination for migration.

This research has some important policy implications. In general, socio-economicdevelopment, including poverty reduction, facilitates the individual capacity to realisefurther behavioural actions, such as investment in physical, social or human capital.Moreover, development also spurs the individual capacity to aspire individualand societal progress and development. In that sense, development is self-perpetuatingas soon as it is initiated. As far as migration is concerned, we can expect thataspiration-enhancing development also spurs migration intentions, thereby leading to amore mobile society with supposedly more internal and international migration. Migrationexperience feeds back into individual future aspirations. However, there are limits tomigration as a self-enhancing social process. Ageing societies, of which also countrieslike Indonesia begin to ‘suffer’, have smaller cohorts of younger people;this reduces the number of potential migrants in the future. And, significant numbers ofindividuals do not have a natural disposition for aspirations, i.e. in all societies, asignificant number of individuals never consider or aspire migration as an option forimproving their lot.


1Although in general aspiration gaps are expected to be positive, it is atleast possible that sometimes people’s aspirations are lower than their currentstatus quo. For instance, this seems possible in situations where people have doneunexpectedly well in the recent past and they either haven’t adjusted theiraspirations upwards, or they realise that the current level of well-being is rathertemporary and significantly above their long-term base level.

2One referee pointed to another explanation for higher aspirations ofmigrants, which is known in the cognitive science literature as the ‘confirmationbias’ by which people actively seek for reasons or information that will confirmor justify their past decision (e.g. to migrate). Information that will disconfirm isignored in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.

3Wilson’s (1987) study on role models shows thatthe effect can also work in the other direction. He shows that successful individualswho were leaving the inner city did not influence the aspirations of those who stayed;thus, out-migrants were not part of the aspirational window of the stayers anymore (Ray2006).

4An IFLS community/village refers to an enumeration area (EA) that wasrandomly chosen from a nationally representative sample frame used in the 1993 SUSENASsurvey. Each EA includes between 200 and 300 households (Strauss et al. 2004). The fact that we avail of a representative sample for a largepopulation is important as it is rare in this literature, where most micro-studies areeither concentrated geographically or correspond to non-random, small laboratory sets ofsubjects.

5Additional file 1 gives an overview of migrationmovements of IFLS respondents between IFLS2 and IFLS3, and IFLS3 and IFLS4,respectively.

6 The IFLS module on subjective well-being asks the following two questions:“Please imagine a six-step ladder where on the bottom (the first step),stand the poorest people, and on the highest step (the sixth step), stand the richestpeople. On which step are you today?” and “On which step do you expect tofind one (five) years from now?”

7Additional file 1 reports the average level of theaspiration gap by current levels of well-being.

8This result on levels of subjective well-being differs slightly from othercontexts like China (Knight & Gunatilaka 2010) or Nepal(Fafchamps & Shilpi 2008).

9We run standard OLS regression models to estimate the determinants of theaspiration gap. While the aspiration gap variable is a discrete variable for whichordered logit or probit estimations would be the standard regression approach, we runOLS regressions as the interpretation of the estimated coefficients is morestraightforward. Results of both approaches are very similar, which is in line withFerrer-i-Carbonell and Frijters (2004), who have demonstrated thatthe use of OLS leads to negligibly different results for an 11-point scale (aspirationgap between -5 and 5).

10In comparison with the results in Table 1, thesenumbers show that the actual aspiration gap between migrants and non-migrants halveswhen controlling for other possible aspiration-enhancing factors.

11The simultaneity between the decision to migrate (between 2000 and 2007)and the change in the aspiration gap over the same time period may bias the estimateswhen aspirations have already changed before the migration experience. We thereforeprovide two approaches to assess the robustness of our findings. First, we instrumentfor migration using recent migration experience of the respondent’s parents as aninstrument for (current) migration of the individual, as the past migration experienceof close household members is likely to have a positive impact on future migration, butshould have no influence on the future change in the aspiration gap. The IV estimates(available from the authors upon request) confirm a significantly positive impact ofmigration on the change in the aspiration gap is confirmed. Second, we address the issueof simultaneity by considering only those migration movements that occurred in the firstfour years after the 2000 survey. While we still cannot preclude that aspirations havechanged already before the migration experience, the sequencing is clearer in thisset-up. The estimated effects are similar to (and in part even stronger than) the OLSestimates. We are therefore confident that the effect runs from the migration experienceto increased aspirations, rather than vice versa.


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Correspondence to Mathias Czaika or Marc Vothknecht.

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Table A2.

Additional file 1: Appendix. Table A1: Descriptive Statistics. Average aspiration Gaps by currentlevel of subjective well-being. (DOCX 71 KB)

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Czaika, M., Vothknecht, M. Migration and aspirations – are migrants trapped on a hedonic treadmill?. IZA J Migration 3, 1 (2014).

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  • Internal migration
  • Migration behaviour
  • Aspirations
  • Indonesia