More people are discovering for themselves the benefits of working while traveling and are striving to replace old-fashioned work models with more flexibility and work-life balance. In recent years a whole community has formed around these ideas and continues to grow in the form of co-working spaces, conferences, and of course online hangouts, where people exchange common experiences and address the daily challenges of life as a digital nomad. Curious to know where the movement is headed, we interviewed 9 travel bloggers and freelancers about their experiences and ideas.
What kind of visions stand behind this new life style and what potential does it have for social and environmental questions? With some practical ideas in the second part of the article we would like to start an open discussion in which everybody is welcome to join. Because a movement is only what we make it!
In the following article we call all those people digital nomads, who are working location independent and digital. We’re extremely happy to be digital nomads ourselves. We work in different countries and love the fact that we are able to follow our profession wherever we go. Nevertheless, with the rapid growth of the movement, we also find it important and interesting to practice a little more self-awareness and reflect on aspects beyond personal fulfillment and independence. How can we as digital nomads live in a way that not only benefits ourselves, but also the people and environments we deal with everyday, all around the world?
So we have come up with some thoughts on the matter and interviewed some other online entrepreneurs, travel bloggers, and interesting people from within the movement:
For me it’s a lot about the way we travel: Which means of transportation do I use? How do I handle local resources? What accommodation do I choose? A little less of everything already makes a big difference - less flying, fewer possessions (and luggage), more living. You don’t have to travel one time around the globe to work from there. My personal luxury is van life - having everything you need on you in a small space and stop wherever you like best. My vision: That future work models shift away from the current 9-to-5 model and that nomadism is accessible to more people so they can enjoy life more. In order to achieve that I think we also need much more networking amongst each other.
The reach that nomads (digital or otherwise) can have is enormous, but with that reach I think comes responsibility. If you’re just flitting around taking what you can and giving nothing back you’re missing the point. If you allow your vulnerability to connect you with others then something magical can happen.
I try to find like-minded communities wherever I go, help out on community gardens or dig out hackerspaces, to get involved locally even if only for short periods. I’m increasingly working with more activist causes, challenging the status quo through creativity. It’s not for me to tell anyone else how to do that, or what priorities they should choose, but if my strange lifestyle choice can provoke dialogue then I’m doing something right!
Matthias organizes Coworking Camp (temporary co-working spaces)
Digital nomadism is the other side of the globalization of the business world. While big companies have been looking internationally for the best parameters for their line of business, many of us just start to realize now, that as a startup or freelancer you also have the choice to work and at the same time live where you most enjoy it and personally benefit from the advantages of certain locations. This opens up a whole lot of opportunities but also brings up some challenges. One issue is the missing professional and personal network when you are working location independent. Co-working spaces and startup events offer the possibility to easily get in touch with the local community. To inspire and support others can make a big difference.
Digital nomadism & privileges
Positive thinking is a great and powerful thing, but the fact is: Life isn’t always a bowl of cherries. And this seems truer for some people than for others – especially in a global context. Many people around the world have to start working as children, are excluded from great parts of social life due to illness or disability, or are persecuted in their home countries because of their sexual orientation. What we are aiming at here are privileges.
“Privileges” isn’t a very sexy term and the more we have of them, the less we might actually notice. To be able to live and make a living as a digital nomad is such a privilege as well. For instance, you cannot be a digital nomad without Internet access. Yet nearly two thirds (!) of the world’s population do not have access to the Internet. On the other hand, no matter if in Chiang Mai, Berlin or Puerto Viejo, most of the time self-declared digital nomads are white, college-educated Westerners. Thus, education, nationality, and language skills apparently matter if you want to be successful in this lifestyle.
Reality check: Who can actually become a digital nomad?
We mentioned that Internet access is a must. But what else do you need to make a living as a digital nomad?
Realistically, digital nomadism is a one-way street in many cases: Most people who live in the new digital nomad hotspots around the globe cannot easily travel the world, because they do not own the “right” passport. As holders of passports from regions like Europe, North America or countries like Japan and Australia, we have visa-free access to an average of 150 countries, while people from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, North Korea, Angola, Iran, Sudan, and Syria can only travel to between 28 and 41 countries without a visa. Visa applications not only require cutting through a lot of bureaucratic red tape, but they also require considerable financial resources. If you want to apply for a US visa as a Costa Rican citizen, for example, you have to pay a service fee of 160 to 240 USD (depending on the type of visa), just for the application. This is a substantial amount considering that the average income in Costa Rica is around 500 USD, and many applicants are turned down in the end.
Buying a one-way ticket and hopping on a plane for a spontaneous trip is far out of reach for lots of people. And still many of them share these dreams and are not always just “happy with what they have”, even though we ourselves enjoy the trips into the simple life so much. If people earn 10 USD (and often much less), they can neither afford travel health insurance, nor the transfer to the airport and even less the flight itself. Or to quote Keziyah Lewis: “Budget travel writers may have worked hard to get where they are, but just like me, they’re also lucky. Ignoring this, and the financial circumstances that prevent people from seeing the world, is simply classist.”
Without basic education it is nearly impossible to pursue a digital career, because reading and writing, in addition to language skills, are basic requirements in order to be able to work online. Furthermore, you will need some digital skills (like WordPress and online marketing) or at least the financial backing to be able to teach yourself. You learn from experiences, but that does cost money and/or time.
Becoming an online millionaire overnight unfortunately really only works in very few cases. (Remember: “The ones getting the richest in a gold rush are often the ones who sell the shovels”). You cannot build a successful online business within a day and besides a lot of work you might need a dose of luck as well. But not everybody can afford to invest endless unpaid working hours to build a company, especially if you have a family to take care of. Without financial backing and support the risk of failure is also greater – and as we all know failure is an essential part of founding a startup.
Tobias, blogger at Humaninvestors & “2.0 emigrant”
“Fairness means to act in a decent and reputable manner and be just and honest towards other people” (Wikipedia, German). For me that means nothing else than not harming anyone directly or indirectly with your actions. It also means that someone can say “no” to a certain option without having to fear man-made consequences. At the same time, this sums up my definition of individual freedom. As long as digital nomads treat their clients and subcontractors (freelancers) as equal partners, I do not see any issues regarding fairness. I think it is a good thing that through the global nature of digital nomadism economies and people in other countries can benefit. This should be the case in the tourism, food & service industries.
Parallel universe – or: “You are the average of the people you hang out with”
Digital nomadism is often promoted as alternative way of life that gives us the possibility to get out of our comfort zone, crossing borders and limits in many different ways and making new experiences. But do digital nomads really frequently connect with locals or are we often just opening up a parallel universe?
Here is an example: While Thailand is quickly moving towards censorship and dictatorship, Chiang Mai has evolved into one of the hippest hot spots for digital nomads in the last five years. Many temporary visitors will probably not even notice anything about the political situation in the region, because they mostly hang out with international folks. Along the lines of “You are the average of the five people you spend time with”, many of us automatically connect more with people with similar work and life realities that inspire and challenge us in our pursuits. Of course this isn’t something bad, as it’s a bit strange to mix with the locals just for the sake of it. But to exaggerate just a little bit: It’s not very social or innovative to live in a country just because the cost of living is relatively low there, while at the same time leaving a huge carbon footprint.
Ben, blogger at Anti-Uni.com & digital nomad (at the moment mainly within Germany and travelling mostly by train)
I have to admit that right now I feel a little disenchanted with the digital nomad community. Yes, personal freedom is great! But I am personally missing the aspect of social responsibility, a sense of community awareness, and the spirit and ambition to seriously change something together.
For me it is important to truly move things and make a difference with a meaningful project. I would like us to get away from mere ego trips for our freedom, if I may say that. As Georg from Soulbottles said in his talk at Betahaus: “When I am looking back at the end of my life, I want to be able to say that I was not only free, but that I contributed something meaningful to society.” My definition of ‘meaningful’ right now (because I am still constantly reflecting upon it) is something that helps us to reach another level of consciousness and also to conserve our planet somehow.
I am a big fan of slow travel. For me it is less about seeing as much as possible of the world. I want to travel in a conscious way, with more time “in my bag” and be able to stay longer in the places I am visiting. It is the only way to really get to know a country. At the same time slow travel helps to use less resources, because it doesn’t always have to be a flight; I can just take the bus or the train. I really love the digital nomad movement and hope that more people learn about it. Not everybody has to become a nomad, but I think more people should understand the essence of it - independence and conscious decisions about the future - and dare to do that in their own lives as well.
Digital nomadism is a great concept for self-realization. But how can it be more than just a type of trendy post-colonialism? Including other life realities and maybe even supporting or being supportive towards people outside of our own community? Our personal vision of digital nomadism is one of the “good life” – for as many people as possible instead of at other people’s cost. We know that not everybody wants to be a digital nomad, but who does not dream of a job that is fulfilling and well-paying and that offers a certain flexibility location- and time-wise? We who are already living this dream should therefore remember the people who are still far away from achieving it.
Here are some initial ideas about what each of us could do, inspired by the people whom that we have interviewed for this article:
- Slow down. Many of us do have that urge to explore new places all the time and burn to see new things. But climate change is real and does have actual consequences on other people. Especially travel bloggers should keep that in mind when motivating others to travel and to fly (more) by also mentioning the consequences here and there and showing alternative travel options with lower environmental impact where possible. If flying is inevitable, the “second-best solution” (according to Dietrich Brockhagen of atmosfair) could be to compensate the greenhouse gases from air travel with atmosfair. Also, slow travel not only means less CO2 emissions but also gives you the chance to get to know the places and people of a region better, including their life realities.
Tim writes for his main project www.earthcity.de about location independent working.
Flying is a central argument. Traveling should not become a use-and-throw-away culture. We use cloth bags and fly twenty times a year? Biased!
My goal is less travel movement. Melt with the place. Return something to the people. Try to fly less. I am intending to implement that in my life right now. In the future I just want to move between 2 or 3 home bases and without switching constantly.
I hope that more people ask themselves the question, why they are where they are at this very moment and if it wouldn’t be worth it to stay a little longer.
The key for me is more multi-locality instead of complete location independence in the sense of continuous traveling. One year in X, one year in Y; not 12 places in 12 months.
- Leaving your comfort zone without leaving home. Because there are so many people for whom it isn’t that easy to visit other countries, we can support these people by helping them to access our countries, for instance by sending invitations that they need to present to immigration; helping somebody pay for their ticket, or inviting people from other countries to speak at an event. This may require you to get informed about legal requirements and in some cases also deal with official institutions.
- Giving a voice to others. Everybody who blogs or knows about online marketing or web design can support people in our temporary home bases with their projects. For example, this can mean helping a local NGO to create a WordPress website for their cause or helping with translation.
Heather writes for the family travel blog globetrottingmama.com
Many of us are traveling to poorer countries than our native lands and the ability to bring those stories home and share them with our readers who are in a position to help financially or physically is a huge one. You can raise money for a cause you believe in or lobby a government to help.
In 2011, my husband and our two kids (then 6 and 8) traveled to 29 countries on six continents on a yearlong trip. Currently my largest audience are of parents who, like me, want to help their children to become global citizens who are compassionate and active in making the world a better place. For me, that means traveling and sharing the stories from those travels in as many mediums as possible. I am proud that for many, my stories might inspire them to learn more about another part of the world or work to make a difference.
- Fair cooperation instead of charity.Digital nomads opt for self-determination in their private and professional life because they do not want to spend all their lives working under semi-ideal conditions. Unfortunately, many people forget about that once they have their own successful business and need to contract or employ others. To attack the dominating 9-to-5 mentality is easy, but as soon as we have the opportunity to change something in a small context, we often struggle. Charity or donation campaigns are nice gestures by entrepreneurs and startups, but fair wages and flexible working hours, which help others to reach their dreams, are really much better.
Tim writes for his main project www.earthcity.de about “location independent working“
If as a digital nomad you do outsource a lot and thus benefit from currency fluctuations, you should be aware of your responsibility and act accordingly. Furthermore, we are very privileged as digital nomads and travel to countries where the locals could never afford a lifestyle like this, especially because of their very low chances of being granted a foreign visa.
- Minimalism a.k.a. own less and consume less. It just feels good to be free of stuff. But to travel as a minimalist with just hand luggage shouldn’t mean buying lots of stuff every time you get to a new destination. In this context the so-called rebound effect should also be mentioned: An ecological and conscious handling of resources like water, electricity, and raw materials is important and much appreciated, but if we use the money we save with that to buy another flight ticket, the positive impact of these environmental savings are quickly voided again.
- Second-hand is cool. If you are staying in a place for a longer period you will often have to get some basic utensils like kitchenware etc. and once you move on, it’s often not really worth taking them back with you. Instead of just throwing things away or leaving them behind at the place you stayed, you can also donate, cheaply sell, or just give them away to somebody who can make good use of them. Nowadays there are many local Facebook groups to buy used stuff, such as the FB group Buy, Sell, Swap in Chiang Mai. You can also donate anything from clothing to toiletries to local NGOs, e.g. ThaiFreedomHouse, who will pass it on to Burmese refugees or sell it in their shop for a good cause. In many places all over the world it is often just as easy to put (obviously only well-preserved and functional) items on a busy sidewalk, so they can soon find a new lucky owner - this works from Berlin to Bangkok.
When I am on the road I always try to live as ecologically responsible as when I am at home. Trash is just one example: in many countries plastic bags are still given away very freely and often just to hold three items. I always take my cloth bags to avoid that. Furthermore, buying regional and artisanal food and products at farmers markets is a great way to support the local economy and people, and many locals depend on this income, especially outside of the tourist centers.
- Support your locals. Support local infrastructure and fair working conditions when traveling. This might mean not always bargaining in order to save some cents: if the street vendor in Thailand offers his or her merchandise to a local person for half the price, then it’s most likely because his local clients (just like him) only earn one tenth or one hundredth of what many of us earn. Parallel economies are often the only way for local people in tourist regions to survive where other people make holidays.
- Last but not least: Meet your locals. Why not work in a co-working space, where there are also local web workers, and get in touch with interesting new people? To connect with people from the places we visit and get to know other perspectives on working and living can be extremely rewarding and can contribute so much to our individual and professional learning venture. The world is full of talented, skilled, and creative people with so many backgrounds and we as digital nomads have the opportunity to get to know many of them personally!
Nacho, founder of the co-working space CoworkingC in Gran Canaria
I came across the DN movement when we opened our coworking space in Las Palmas. We realized that the movement had a lot to offer to our local community and to our coworkers, which is why we have focused our efforts to attract more DNs to Gran Canaria. Building strong relationships with like-minded people from different parts of the world is priceless.
My own personal opinion, regarding the DN community, is that I hope they take their experience in a slow way, otherwise it will become another product they consume and the whole movement will lose sense. Each location is different, but in our Las Palmas it will take some time to really get to know people, and there are plenty of things to do to allow you to spend some time in the location. In order to respect the people you meet locally, DN´s should not book their next ticket before arriving at a new location. How much effort do you make to get to know somebody that you know is leaving in 10 days?
My transition into #buslife over the last few years has given me the opportunity to do some reflection. It’s been both an access point to true freedom (no ‘proper job’/mortgage/kids/reason to be or not be anywhere) but has equally made me much more vulnerable. I don’t own land so I don’t have a safe space to call ‘home’. But the act of ninja-parking (pretending I don’t really live in my bus) out on streets and in car parks in different cities or remote country towns inevitably connects me to people I would never have met otherwise, seeing the world through eyes I would never have accessed if I had flown past overhead. These random conversations with strangers make me feel so much more connected to the diversity of the world than I ever did when I lived in an apartment and worked in an office.
So those were some of our ideas and visions which are obviously not complete or put in stone! Many thanks to all the people who contributed their thoughts and ideas and helped to set a common ground for discussion and exchange on the topic. Thanks Anja, Ben, Fee, Heather, Mand, Matthias, Nacho, Tim and Tobias!
What do you think? Do some of the above points resonate with you or do you have a totally opposite opinion? We would love to hear from you with feedback, ideas, and thoughts. Where does the journey lead us in your opinion?