Distant DreamsThe ups and downs of a digital nomad.

Distant DreamsThe ups and downs of a digital nomad.

Issue 51

, Starters

,
  • Words Tom Faber
  • Photo Guillaume Blondiau

In recent years, dedicated co-living and coworking hostels have been established in an attempt to alleviate some of these issues, providing a community and opportunities to integrate with the local population.

What would they say, those Neolithic nomads of the Eurasian steppe, if they could see their modern namesakes? While our ancestors’ itinerant lives were driven by the need to find fresh pasture for livestock, the digital nomads of the 21st century travel in order to see the world. They sleep not in tents and yurts, but in hostels and Air-bnbs. In place of a hardscrabble existence, today’s nomads, armed with only a laptop and a dream, pursue a life of ease and the sort of work-life balance that might actually deserve to be called balanced. 

The idea of working remotely while traveling has only been possible for the past decade, thanks to the increasing availability of mobile internet and the transition of many white-collar jobs into the virtual world of emails and video calls. According to the consultancy firm MBO Partners, over 17 million Americans, or 11% of the country’s workforce, described themselves as digital nomads in 2023 following a dramatic surge during the pandemic. 

The digital nomad’s dream can be summarized by an Instagram picture you might have seen: a hammock overlooking an azure sea, laptop perched on the knees, coffee in hand. The rest is implied: bathing in a waterfall, eating fresh tropical fruit and clocking off at a very civilized 5 p.m. for a nap before heading out for happy hour. It’s easy to see the allure. Nomadism promises the best of both worlds. You can travel the world while generating the income to fund it. 

As millennials—the biggest generational demographic among digital nomads—struggle in Western cities with a lack of affordable housing and unstable career paths, it’s easy to see the appeal of flitting around Southeast Asia or Latin America, where the weather is better, and the cost of living is generally cheaper. More than 20 countries have created digital nomad visas to allow foreign workers to stay for extended periods, their governments hoping to tap this lucrative resource. The most popular destination is currently cited as Lisbon, Portugal.

Yet not everyone welcomes digital nomads, who are often blamed for pushing up property prices and living costs. The fact that they are usually from privileged Western countries, and use their powerful passports and currencies to travel freely between developing nations, living a better life than many locals, has led some to claim this behavior resonates uncomfortably with colonial history. But while visitors should always try to travel sensitively—to learn about local cultures and spend their money in local enterprises—the ultimate responsibility for gentrification lies not with the individual but with governments prioritizing the easy dollars of foreign visitors over the livelihoods of their citizens.

Meanwhile, some digital nomads have found the lifestyle less idyllic than they first imagined. They must contend not only with the vagaries of international tax laws, work visas and health insurance, but also with the emotional strain of isolation and burnout. Many realize that living well is hard no matter where you do it.1 

Still, the possibility of staying on the move can prove powerfully liberating. There is a pearl of wisdom that links digital nomads to their Neolithic ancestors: the knowledge that home is not a place, nor even the people you have around you. Rather it is a feeling that we carry within us, which we might learn to unpack and roll out as easily as a tent, providing shelter and comfort, no matter where we might find ourselves.

In recent years, dedicated co-living and coworking hostels have been established in an attempt to alleviate some of these issues, providing a community and opportunities to integrate with the local population.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 51

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