Digital Nomads: Escape for the Uber-Rich or Accessible Lifestyle for the Masses?

Megan BowdenFuture of Work

The digital nomad revolution — an entire generation of people working while they travel — has been prophesied for years.

With a pandemic keeping workers remote, and Harvard Business Review (HBR) declaring in July that the 49% spike in US digital nomads in 2020 was “driven by people with traditional jobs,” the long-awaited paradigm shift may finally be upon us.

Possibly for the first time ever, “traditional job holders now make up a majority” of US digital nomads,” according to HBR.

The masses have had a taste of location freedom and they’re pushing to keep it. After all, if you can work from home, why not move home across the world? But some aren’t convinced.

Remote work: only for some?

McKinsey Global Institute stated in 2020 that “hybrid models of remote work are likely to persist in the wake of the pandemic” but “mostly for a highly educated, well-paid minority of the workforce” in sectors “characterized by a high share of workers with college degrees or higher.”

It’s true that for several sectors – such as agriculture, construction, manufacturing and care – working remotely isn’t an option.

However, many niches of online work enable people to earn well without degrees while having location freedom. This isn’t just hybrid or remote working, this is the digital nomad lifestyle that’s becoming more accessible than ever before.

Workers have a choice

Business Psychologist and founder of the Workforce Experience awards Clodagh O’Reilly, commenting on the future of digital nomads, told The Org, “Competent employees will increasingly seek out roles of this nature because they will afford the individual more autonomy; freedom and discretion which allows them to make choices about where, when and how they work.”

She adds that people are “feeling renewed impetus to try new things and get the most out of their lives, as those facing life-challenging situations tend to do. Workers who perceive they have a choice are more motivated than ever to seek satisfaction rather than simply settling.”

While she acknowledges that uncertainty around travel may put some off for a time, Clodagh explains, “the incentives for the digital nomad lifestyle remain and for some are becoming all the more compelling. How else does anyone who is not exceptionally wealthy get to live life to the full, where they want, when they want, all the time, not just for a few weeks a year?”

“And, as organizations are increasingly able to value their contribution as specific and measurable, they are unlikely to lose out financially - especially as many choice destinations for nomads are more affordable than the cities where their employers may operate or have premises.”

Clearly then, it’s not only the hyper-educated and uber-wealthy who have access to and will continue to choose this nomadic work style. In reality though, is freedom of location all it’s cracked up to be?

Digital nomads in reality

A country-hopping digital nomad

A Swedish-born Fin who’s sold mobility scooters remotely for more than 3 years told The Org he chose the digital nomad lifestyle for the convenience, freedom and because “it feels less like you’re stuck in a wheel.”

While he acknowledges the challenges like the “flow of information” between remote colleagues, he still sees himself working this way long term. “If I went back to Sweden, I wouldn’t go back to an office job. Commuting Monday to Friday is exhausting. I would keep working remotely for the freedom that work doesn’t dictate where I live,” he told The Org. “You have complete control of the view from your desk, it’s more than changing a picture on a wall. You can work one day in Kuala Lumpur and the next in Stockholm. In the woods one day, looking at skyscrapers the next. It’s not for everyone, but you never know if you don’t try.”

Home country remote working

Leah became a digital nomad teaching English online for the flexibility to travel as she worked. However, she says that it didn’t pay well at all, and when she moved back to the US, she returned to traditional employment.

When the opportunity arose again to work remotely as a dispatcher for a tire company, she took it without hesitation. “I returned to working remotely because it really does give me a lot more flexibility. I’ve done a bit of both throughout my working years and it’s always been the best for me personally. It is a great way to travel, volunteer, and not break the bank while doing so.”

She plans to move abroad again in the near future with her new, better-paying remote employment, which doesn’t require a degree.

Insights from an experienced nomad

Fang, who is from Malaysia, started working as a remote freelancer while he prepared to enter an online degree program. He now runs Jorcus, a community for digital nomads. “Remote work is here to stay,” he told The Org.

While he acknowledges that “hybrid work is more suitable for many people,” such as older generations who are still adapting to the idea, he encourages all in positions of oversight to trust their employees more. “A lot of people think their employees must work in front of their eyes. The main thing is, if we can solve the problems at home or anywhere, we don't need to go into any specific places,” he said.

Calling up-and-coming Gen Z the “generation of remote learning,” he predicts working nomadically will only continue to increase: “The digital nomad lifestyle is good for people like me, who feel a bit stressed when working from home. I do think in the next 5 years, it may become another normal state, because now we can combine life, work and travel together.”

The bottom line

So many industries depend on in-person tasks and interaction that remote working cannot be the future for everyone. But for those interested in pursuing it, work with location freedom will continue to become more and more accessible than ever before as technology and attitudes evolve.

Taking the plunge into freelance work may now seem more viable to many as they’ve experienced working and managing themselves effectively from home.

And in traditional employment, the effects of the pandemic continue to lure employers into introducing hybrid and remote working policies that afford employees more flexibility. For example, a company may require employees to live within one or two hours of the head office’s time zone — but that still opens up many different countries to explore. The digital nomad lifestyle isn’t a post-pandemic trend. It’s a long-established work style which a growing number will continue to pursue as they realize they have a choice.

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