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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Applied to Third Culture Kids

I was reviewing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs the other day for a separate project and came to think about how it could be applied to Adult Third Culture Kids. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs, Abraham H. Maslow was a psychologist from New York who studied and theorised about self-fulfillment within humans. His seminal work was the Hierarchy of Needs, a pyramid shaped diagram illustrating the needs that had to be fulfilled in order to achieve self-fulfillment. Since its conception in 1943, it has been widely used in sociology classes and social work professions to explain the needs of a client.

Before we look into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in more detail, I feel the need to explain the term Third Culture Kid. Third Culture Kids are people who have spent a majority of their formative years in a culture different to that of their birth parents. Typical examples of a Third Culture include an expat’s child, an army brat or the child of a diplomat.

Step 1 – Physiological Needs (Food, Water, Warmth, Rest)

The first and broadest step on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the physiological needs. This includes the need for food and water as well as shelter, warmth, the ability to rest etc. Fortunately, for the majority of people living in the Western world, these essential needs are met. In less developed countries, people still live not knowing where they next meal will come from. Third Culture Kids often come from financially stable families and therefore this part of the hierarchy would not be an issue.

Step 2 – Safety Needs (Security, Safety, Stability)

It is when we get to the second step of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that we begin to see some difficulties for Third Culture Kids. The second step pertains to security, safety and stability and although most of these needs are met due to the financial stability that Third Culture Kids typically experience, the stability part of this step is harder for the Third Culture Kid to fulfill. Getting accustomed to moving around as a child will often lead to the sensation of “itchy feet” as an adult. In other words, Adult Third Culture Kids are more likely to feel displaced in any given country and therefore feel an innate urge move countries every so often. This lack of rootedness would make it difficult for the Third Culture Kid to experience a stable lifestyle.


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Step 3 – Belongingness & Love Needs (Intimate Relationships, Friends)

The third step in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the need for intimate relationships and friends. This is a step that most people find difficult to fulfill. This need is somewhat fulfilled by the relationship we have to our parents and siblings but due to the nature of growing up global, those parents and siblings may be in a different country. Constantly moving country as an adult will also make it hard to establish any strong bonds and Adult Third Culture Kids are typically friends with many but good friends with few. The urge to establish a romantic relationship would also be affected by the globally nomadic lifestyle.

Step 4 – Esteem Needs (Prestige and Feelings of Accomplishment)

Ironically, the fourth step in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the feeling of prestige and accomplishment, may be easier for the Third Culture Kid to fulfill than the previous step. This, in part, due to the Third Culture Kid’s unique upbringing. The feeling of “being special” is instilled in the Third Culture Kid from a young age and their childhood can often be used as a talking point in conversations as an adult. This basic feeling of prestige and accomplishment can sustain the TCK whilst it looks for additional ways of attaining the same feeling in the future.  

Step 5 – Self-Actualization (Achieving One’s Full Potential, Including Creative Activities)

Step five in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the one all of us find hard to fulfill. Entrepreneurs, artists, politicians and the like may achieve this feeling by the nature of their work and so may many others through their hobbies and extracurricular activities but the difficulty for Third Culture Kids here is that the nature of Adult Third Culture Kids as global nomads, country hopping due to “itchy feet” actively works against the person’s ability to self-actualize. People who have been brought up in more traditional circumstances, will allow for their ambition and life goals to lead the way. If you want to be a banker, move to Frankfurt, London, New York. If you want to be a fashion designer, move to Milan or Paris. If you want to act, move to Hollywood or Mumbai. Many Adult Third Culture Kids tend to lack the patience needed to live in one place for an extended period of time and therefore choose to move although it goes against their goals of self-actualization. They let the location lead the way rather than their goals lead the way. They may like the culture in a certain city and therefore choose to move there despite there not being any jobs in their sector available there.

The literature surrounding Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that the previous step needs to be fulfilled in order to achieve fulfillment in the subsequent step. In other words, physiological needs have to be met in order for safety needs to be met and so on. Wars and other life crises may lead to a sudden break in the hierarchy. Maslow also mentioned that a lot of people spent their entire lifetimes not being able to reach the top. Some may be stuck on the third step for a longer period of time than other for example.

The goal of this article was to act as some food of thought for Adult Third Culture Kids who are currently in a life-planning phase. The comments in this article may not be relevant to your situation exactly but for those of you wondering about the next couple of years in your life it may be good to look over Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and take each level into account as you plan your next step in life.


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