Would you like to become a digital nomad? Try before you buy
McCormick’s desire to be “in a nice place” has driven him to ride his motorcycle across Europe, South America, Africa and Central Asia (“it’s a progressive tour that’s still going on”), and gotten him into some hair-raising moments implicated, including being kicked out of Mali during the 2011 coup. Now he has decided to swap his motorbike for a camper van converted for e-bikes.
Our grey-haired veteran identifies three phases in the nomadic movement. The housing crash of 2007-8 forced some people to abandon their homes for itinerant living. The idea of ”going unattached” caught fire among younger people in 2015-17. Then the pandemic took nomadic living into the mainstream, showing that ordinary people could work from anywhere (paradoxically, McCormick went back to Washington during the pandemic because the e-bike business was growing so quickly). However, one force has remained constant: the relentless improvement of basic technology. As he began his odyssey, he wasted much of his time looking for a signal; Thanks to satellite internet services like SpaceX’s Starlink and internet phone systems like Google Fi, life on the move is much easier today.
Working from home is so established that it has its own acronym (WFH) and presumably its own syndrome. But what if you can’t stand being in the office even two days a week?
No one knows how many digital nomads there are — the oft-repeated claim of 35 million stems more from evangelism than hard bookkeeping — but there is no doubt that a new generation of people is emerging, using modern technology in ways that challenge our most basic assumptions about the relationship between them contradicts workplace and physical location.
The most conservative members of the new nomadic tribe are digital executives who want to combine high-level jobs with sunbathing. Many of them own their own businesses, giving them the freedom to choose where they want to be. Others have “become plural” – they sit on several committees or advise several companies and can therefore work via Zoom.
The most popular option for digital leaders is to buy a permanent place in the sun and live there for several months of the year. Always sensitive to movements in the luxury property market, Savills Plc. recently created a Nomad Index for leaders based on climate, connectivity, both physical and virtual, and overall quality of life. The five most popular destinations are Lisbon, Miami, Dubai, the Algarve (also in Portugal) and Barbados.
Another method is the “workation” of the “bleisure” pause. Some executives have made it a point to add some free time to business trips; some are returning to work virtually while staying in their vacation spots; Still others work full-time on vacation while their families frolic. Elite resorts are responding to this blurring of work-life lines by offering on-demand IT support, upgrading their conferencing facilities, installing Zoom rooms and offering massages.
True digital nomads include many different tribes, from street fighters like McCormack to migratory birds that happily spend half of the year in warmer places. “Crypto Bros” want to build communities outside of the jurisdiction of the state; Hippies want to do the same thing, but with lots of tofu and yoga. Trust fund nomads pretend to work while spending daddy’s money; Californians want to capitalize on the state’s exorbitant home prices or escape its pesky taxes; and some middle-class refugees from rich countries can only afford to live the same comfortable lifestyles as their parents when they move to emerging markets.
Zach Boyette is a keen observer of the nomadic scene, partly because he is a nomad himself and partly because he recruits his company Galactic Fed’s employees from the nomadic community, which he sees as a deep and growing pool of talent. He argues that the average digital nomad is in their early thirties – the median age might be 33 – not backpackers in their early twenties. It takes a certain amount of discipline and experience to maintain the lifestyle, and most people who think they can hit the streets after college and make a living in a cloud of marijuana smoke and beer burps are soon to be disappointed.
He also points to an emerging paradox: the growth of permanent digital nomad communities in Asia and Eastern and Southern Europe. The most famous of these are Bali, Indonesia; Chiang Mai, Thailand; Danang, Vietnam; Cape Town, South Africa; Lisbon, Portugal; Barcelona, Spain; and the scene of a recent digital nomads “unconference”, Nomad Fest, Bansko, Bulgaria. Some digital nomads migrate between these different communities. Others fall in love with a place and build permanent nests.
More than two dozen countries have introduced nomad-friendly visa and work regimes since 2019, most notably Croatia, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Portugal in Europe; Bermuda, Barbados and Mexico near the US; and the United Arab Emirates and Thailand in the rest of the world. Zoom’s background feature lets you disguise where you live. Companies are emerging to take over the lifestyle mainstream: Remote Year brings professionals together in groups to live, work and travel together, arranging everything from co-working spaces to whitewater rafting expeditions; Outpost rents temporary living and working space in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. There are nomad-specific insurance schemes, how-to websites galore, and co-workspace arrangements that will open office doors from Madrid to Kuala Lumpur. Airbnb is shifting its focus from short-term rentals to long-term rentals, with an emphasis on beach cabins, forest cabins, and other “work-cation” fantasy resorts.
Nevertheless, serious problems remain. The world is still built around nation states, particularly when it comes to taxes and welfare. Too many nomads believe they can get away with “forgetting” their tax returns while relying on local hospitals if they break a leg. Visa regulations in one of the most popular travel destinations, Indonesia, are still unclear. Especially at the local official and police level, even countries that claim to be pro-nomad can harbor significant animosity towards Westerners. Working while traveling can mean you’re doing both wrong: when nomads arrive in a new place, far too many are more interested in getting a Wi-Fi signal than looking at the scenery. When it comes to the beach, you couldn’t think of a worse place to work: sand lands everywhere, the sun blocks your view of your screen, and if you’re unlucky, the sea destroys your laptop.
Digital nomads can break out, get sick, or get into trouble. Those who start working for big companies can be demoted to part-time employees and then freelancers, making it increasingly difficult to make enough money to survive. Ukraine was a popular destination for nomads before Vladimir Putin invaded. Now another popular travel destination, Sri Lanka, is going through its own ordeals. McCormick emphasizes that the lifestyle is “not for everyone”. Boyette argues that it’s more likely to combine life stages — a stage in your thirties and perhaps another stage as you near retirement — rather than a permanent state.
The current popularity of the nomadic lifestyle raises problems of its own. What is the difference between a digital nomad and a digital expat? Digital nomads can result in rising prices and cultural imperialism. Bali’s Seminyak neighborhood, with its Starbucks and Mexican restaurants, is beginning to feel more like California than an authentic part of Indonesia, sparking local resentment that sometimes culminates in theft or violence.
Can companies really work when their employees are completely detached from their headquarters? Boyette points out that the Galactic Fed is making tremendous efforts to onboard and keep its employees busy. But for most companies, managing employees on the other side of the world might prove to be too much of a challenge. And if they can actually rise to the challenge, why not forego all the expensive westerners and just outsource jobs to educated Thais and Indonesians who will do the same work for a tenth of the wages? Knowledge workers have gained a lot of freedom thanks to the remote working revolution. We have to celebrate this. But going one step further and detaching ourselves completely from the mothership might prove too good to be true.
More from other authors at Bloomberg Opinion:
Travel defies the spending pressures of inflation: Sutherland & Felsted
Are workers more productive at home?: Justin Fox
Goldman Sachs now has the best furlough policy on Wall Street: Sarah Green Carmichael
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adrian Wooldridge is the global economics columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former contributor to The Economist, he is most recently the author of The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.
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