If you have ever visited a Starbucks and observed people in the corner fiddling with their laptops and chatting in different languages, you may have encountered some “digital nomads.” This is a phrase worth remembering, since nomads look set to become typical 21st century workers: rootless, tech-savvy, and internationalist.
The Digital Revolution
Of course, the digital nomad would not exist were it not for the digital revolution. Indeed, it is striking how blind we are to the revolutions that unfold around us. Did the average worker in late 18th century England know he was living through the Industrial Revolution, for example? In the same way, many lived through the digital revolution without knowing what it was. Its by-products, like the Internet, skype, cell phones, etc., are merely accepted as gifts from the tech gods.
In essence, the digital revolution involved a shift from analogue to digital electronics, which began in the 1960s and ’70s. The most obvious examples would be the analogue clock, which moves continuously round a dial, and the digital watch, composed of flashing digits. More generally, it involved changes in digital computing and communication technology. This in turn gave birth to the Information Age.
To put this in context, the Industrial Revolution began in the 1760s and was based on water power mechanization. In the middle of the 19th century, steam power technology replaced it, then around 1900 production began to rely on electricity, and so on.
Scientific advance leads to technological breakthrough. This leads in turn to new ways of living and working. Computers, cell phones, and the Internet represent the technological breakthroughs of the digital revolution. And they have enabled us to work for almost anyone, anywhere.
The Information Age is the age of globalization – of easier communication, greater interconnection, and better access to information. Above all, it means the age of the self-entrepreneur. More and more people will develop products and provide services on their own rather than having to submit to larger corporations.
So who is the digital nomad? As the phrase suggests, he or she is essentially a rootless worker. Of course, this is true of many modern workers (indeed, the iconic “hobo,” who drifted through the USA during the ’30s Depression, was a nomadic worker). Driving to the office every day, sitting in a little booth surrounded by the same colleagues, fearing “the boss” down the corridor, etc., is less and less common.
Many businesses now run on the cloud, staffed by people who never meet face to face. For example, the CEO makes decisions from her home in Singapore, her PA answers calls and filters e-mails from her apartment in Melbourne, the CMO approves ad copies in a coffee shop in Seattle, and the programmers and developers in India or Russia do the rest. The company itself saves a fortune in salaries and office space, and the workers are spared the commute and the stress of obnoxious work colleagues.
A digital nomad simply takes this further. Someone who earns their money working in their apartment or family home is not a digital nomad. The nomad rents out their home and moves across the world, from city to city. Others own nothing but their laptop and clothes. Often, they are young and adventurous and see this as a way to earn while travelling.
Digital nomads tend to be tech-savvy and self-employed. They enter a country on a tourist visa, then renew it, or simply move on, once it expires. Usually, they head for the big cities, though some are more popular than others. Low-cost hubs like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh city are preferred, as are U.S. cities like Nashville and Las Vegas: all have the modern facilities, but unlike London and New York the living costs are relatively low.
Adequate Wi-Fi is the main priority. This has even led to jokes that the nomad is someone who tires of working in a coffee shop in Berlin and so flies 10,000 miles to do the same thing in Sydney. And that isn’t far from the truth. Plenty of digital nomads see very little of the countries they pass through.
The nomad is a true product of globalization. And yet he or she is essentially an urban creature. Those taken with the idea may imagine themselves lounging in a hammock on some Pacific island: white beaches, mango trees, the sea lapping in the distance, etc. But this is a fantasy. That would mean flies, blistering heat, and sand in the laptop! Life for most digital nomads revolves around coffee shops, hotels, and Internet cafes.
So what does a digital nomad do? In other words, what are they paid for? Obviously, they need work that can be done anywhere in the world (or at least anywhere with good Internet connection).
Many are creators, which in itself may explain their lifestyle choice. Writers sometimes opt for the nomadic life, as do website designers. A website designer, as the title suggests, earns money creating websites for individuals and small businesses. Graphic designers are also drawn to the nomadic life. Indeed, travel can be a source of inspiration for someone working away at a logo, or whatever it may be.
Marketing is also popular. This takes many forms, from inbound and content marketing to e-mail and social media marketing. Then there are translators, consultants, and software developers.
The Psychological Impact
Anyone tempted by this life ought to consider the psychological impact. Most obviously, the nomad lacks roots. For many, not being tied to an office, not having to spend their days in an air conditioned box with strangers, is the main attraction. But people need to belong. That need not mean working in an office or store, but it does mean connecting to the wider community – knowing your shopkeeper by name, having a group of friends in the local bar, etc.
Loneliness is another major problem. When people first hear of the digital nomad, imagination gets the better of them, especially if they loathe their job. They look out of the window at the grey London sky and imagine sitting in the corner of some bar in Hong Kong, a straw hat on their head, an exotic cocktail on the table. No doubt some do enjoy this kind of life, but for many a nomadic life is also a lonely life.
The problem is the lack of intimacy. Loneliness is not the same as being alone. You can live and work on your own and feel perfectly happy, just as you can surround yourself with family yet feel desperately lonely. People feel lonely when they lack deep connection – and that takes time.
Digital nomads often contact one another on social media. Many then arrange meet-ups in the various cities they pass through. But such relationships tend to be brief and superficial. You meet a group of British, Dutch, and Canadian nomads in some coffee shop in Singapore. You chat about your work, maybe go for a meal. The next week a couple of them move on and new people arrive, and so on. Such a life may be fun in your twenties, but as people age they want something more.
The digital nomad is a typical product of the 21st century. Indeed, he would make a good symbol for the Information Age. And though the life may not suit everyone, the digital nomad is here to stay.