As I write this, I'm sitting in the sunny courtyard of a Grenadine cafe in the ancient Arabic district of the Albaicin. Birds are tweeting. Spaniards are nattering. Canas de cerveza and cafe con leches are flowing. I'm in Spain. But I don't live here - at least, not permanently. I work anywhere - and I count myself as - what is being described as - a 'Digital Nomad'.
The world is becoming more and more filled with this strange wave of cyber-savvy millennials. From Prague to Chiang Mai, 20 and 30-somethings are finally shedding the dream of security and conventional families in exchange for something far more exciting and fulfilling. Something that promises an infinity of experiences and flexibility. But is their world as glamorous as it seems? I take a deeper look at what’s quickly becoming the biggest work and lifestyle trend of the 21st century.
The phrase 'Digital Nomad' was coined by Tsugio Makimoto in his 1997 release ‘Digital Nomad’. The book itself reads as prophesy for a technologically-savvy generation:
“New digital technologies promise to enable large numbers of people to work wherever and whenever they wish and to choose between a stationary or nomadic lifestyle.”
However, in 1997, there were fewer than 70 million internet users. The number of digital nomads – we can presume – were a fraction of that number. In 2015, things are looking differently. 50% of the US workforce telecommutes – works remotely – at least partially. And with 90% of workers saying they’d like to do the same, we can expect a huge increase in that number.
The Digital Nomad Conundrum
But what is it that draws people to digital nomadism? Why sacrifice stability and familiarity? Talking about the attractions of the lifestyle, Peter Wall, co-founder of Hubud, says:
“Remember the telecommuting term 15 years ago? It was the dream. But it hasn’t happened. And why it hasn’t happened is, one, it’s really boring, and two, there is a real value in face-to-face interaction. And so I think what people are realizing is that there is a place I can do what I do, I can be in a community, and I can also be somewhere beautiful.”
It’d be easy to dismiss digital nomadism as a selfish millennial preoccupation. But it’s clear that it goes deeper than that. Digital nomads are on a continual path toward new experiences. Where their cubical office counterparts spend their money on things, digital nomads spend it on experiences - following that old millennial adage. And scientists have been telling us for years which of the two leads to happiness.
Digital nomadism isn't an isolated trend - it's a small microcosm of trends that are impacting a huge majority of the workforce. While a ‘vagabond’ lifestyle might not suit everyone, there are elements of the lifestyle that do. For example, 34% (or 53.7 million) of Americans are freelancing or self-employed. And the majority of those now earn more, expecting their income to keep rising. The era of technology has given us a level of personal liberty that would’ve left the Founding Fathers awe-stricken.
But what does a life of digital nomadism truly look like? Sunshine, self-fulfilment and rainbows? Well, not all the time. Yaron Budowski, digital nomad, talks about the struggles of working abroad:
“Working out of cafes is very romanticized, but it's impossible to work there because it's too distracting and the Wi-Fi's not reliable.”
The logistics of working from country to country can, at times, get complicated. You might have headache days with no wi-fi, or try to juggle projects with periods of travel in a foreign country. Not to mention juggling conferences in different time zones. All of that can have an enormous impact on your well-being. Jodi Ettenberg, a travel writer running Legal Nomads sees these experiences from a more positive light:
“It's not just about travel or about working from anywhere. It's the mixture of both and how you learn more as a person by forcing yourself to adapt to really disparate situations...It's been incredibly satisfying."
Dawn of a New Era
With a great range of experiences and opportunity for challenges, digital nomadism seems like the perfect solution to personal growth. As many Americans feel unfulfilled in work or bored with routine, digital nomadism offers the polar opposite. For a huge chunk of us, this is an alluring prospect.
It could be said that digital nomadism represents a paradigm shift. Long gone is the dream of a nuclear family and 9-5 job that our parents and grandparents sought after. Millennials – with divorced parents and first-hand experience of the destructiveness of modern debt-slavery - are starting to realize that the American Dream is all but broken.
But they have a new dream. One that promises real freedom – unrestricted by jobs, borders or governments. Their revolution will be neither tweeted or televised. Their revolution has already begun.