COMMENTARY: What is a Digital Nomad? Introducing the New Nomadic Workforce

Alma Andino Frydman, Stanford University

Those of us who often scroll through TikTok or Instagram must have at least once stumbled across a video of a tan, smiling girl sitting on a white sand beach, sipping a well-decorated chilled drink as she works remotely from her laptop. This lifestyle seems fictional and too good to be true, yet more and more content creators of this kind have emerged in the last two years. You may have read things like “I work a corporate job from paradise, and YOU CAN DO IT TOO!” or “Destinations that will practically PAY YOU to travel as a digital nomad.” Maybe you too have asked yourself whether that life is actually possible and what it entails. But who exactly are these digital nomads? What does a day in their lives look like?

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically transformed how people work. Before the pandemic, only 5% of American workdays were WFH (“working from home”); as the pandemic engulfed the world, this number rose to a staggering 50%. For many, the pandemic forced a natural divergence from the “9 to 5” work structure. Many workers realized they were just as, if not more, productive working at their own pace, and for many, there was no going back to the office.

Some companies soon began to implement WFA (“work from anywhere”) policies, and the results have consistently demonstrated workers’ preference for location independence—not being tied to one work location. When Airbnb announced that their employees could live and work anywhere, their careers page experienced a surge in viewership: 800,000 visits in a single week. In February 2021, Spotify announced its own WFA model. Fast forward to today and attrition rates are down 15% compared to the same quarter in 2019. In contrast, when the reverse was implemented, as Apple announced its return to an in-office work scheme, approximately 56% of its employees stated they were planning on leaving as a result. It is clear that location independence is a significant priority for remote workers.

A particular group of workers capitalized on their newfound location independence to work while they traveled the world. First described in Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners’ book Digital Nomad, digital nomads are location-independent professionals who rely on personal technologies to travel while working remotely. They can travel domestically or internationally while the internet allows them to stay connected to jobs, colleagues, and clients. Digital nomads are often knowledge workers, whose responsibilities primarily consist of manipulating and transmitting ideas within professions such as software engineering, digital marketing, and accounting. This means that digital nomads generally earn high salaries but spend their incomes in cheaper countries via traveling. 

Facilitated by advancements in information and communication technologies (ICTs), this laptop-bound group of workers gained a reputation for building careers from Bali and the Caribbean. It was the pandemic, however, that caused the trend to skyrocket. In 2022, a staggering 16.9 million Americans described themselves as digital nomads, a 131% increase from 2019. As the shift to remote work started to appear somewhat permanent, many countries began issuing “digital nomad visas.” Nations like Colombia, Costa Rica, and Portugal are among the 46 countries promising tax-free living as long as workers can provide proof of income. This list is only growing as more and more workers leave office jobs for greener, sandier pastures.

While the explosion of digital nomadism has been recognized by the private sector and foreign governments, academic research on these workers remains sparse. I, Alma Andino, the author of this commentary, spent the summer of 2022 conducting an economic study on the rise of digital nomadism in Mexico. I stayed in “coworking hostels”—hostels with built-in offices in these Westernized bubbles—in an effort to understand who these workers were and the way they made decisions about their lives and careers. After 50 interviews, here is what I found:

Digital nomads are young, adventurous, and very detached; almost all were single and childless, and generally from affluent and highly educated backgrounds. Instead of buying houses and apartments, nomads bounce between beaches and party towns, as well as new cities, seeking adventures while working from high-end hostels. Their lack of geographic or relational stability means that they often lose touch with their national identity, home country politics, or religious affiliation. They travel to Mexico because it is convenient for their time zone and cheap for their foreign-earned income.

It is no surprise that young, independent, adventurous, high-earning professionals would flock to a place like Mexico if presented with the opportunity. What was striking about my findings, however, was the commitment digital nomads made to this lifestyle; when asked how much of a raise they would need to consider a hybrid return to the office (meaning they could no longer travel full time), 70% of subjects said they would quit. For these digital nomads, the freedom to live anywhere to pursue a lifestyle they desire is worth more than any raise. Why, you may ask?

Many digital nomads I spoke with value the new perspectives, experiences, and connections they gain abroad above the alternative wage raise. Traveling offers nomadic workers diverse learning opportunities and a global network inaccessible from a traditional office environment. 

Many nomads, however, explained the inherent loneliness of working in transient communities. Though their work-life balance improved, digital nomads had to navigate constant distractions in working from a paradisiacal place. 

While their situation may seem ideal, digital nomads may unintentionally harm the communities to which they travel by fueling gentrification. Knowledge workers tend to be high-earning, white-collar workers in their home countries, and thus their arrival represents an influx of Western income with which locals are unable to compete. Since digital nomads seek integration into local culture, they do not remain in tourist enclaves like resorts. As such, they directly compete with locals in trendy neighborhoods. 

The migration of digital nomads to these areas is so substantial and rapid that pushback is already being felt. In June 2022, the LA Times published an article about remote workers moving to Mexico City and the backlash they have faced from their neighbors in these areas. To further the conversation, future research should investigate the markers of gentrification in these neighborhoods, the growing resentment toward digital nomads among local populations, and the migratory patterns of locals leaving urban centers that are now unaffordable. 

So, is being a digital nomad too good to be true? It is clear these workers are lonelier, and staying motivated is perhaps more challenging, but many remote workers are still pulling off building careers from tropical beaches and vibrant new cities. Nevertheless, the effects digital nomads will have on local economies must be studied closely, considering the migration of capital that accompanies them. One thing is for certain, though: Work has undoubtedly changed forever, and for digital nomads, the world is irreversibly their office. 

Leave a Reply