The Myth of the Digital Nomad: What Life as a Remote Worker Is Really Like
Getting paid while traveling the world is the dream of many. Over the last few years, technology has made it possible for people to actually live that dream and lead a life as a digital nomad. One analysis even suggests that there will be 1 billion digital nomads by 2035. But, does the image of the globetrotting millennial that hops from exotic island to exotic island while making lots of money from his laptop really pass the reality check?
I lived the nomad life for almost three years, running my own online business and working remotely for various tech startups; my conclusion: life as a nomad is not what you think it is. Here are the three most common misconceptions about the lifestyle.
The digital nomad lifestyle is all about sipping margaritas at the beach,
Life as a remote worker is less about sipping margaritas at the beach than it is about actually getting real work done. Wi-Fi at the beach is notoriously unreliable.
Here is an example of a regular day as a remote worker while I lived in South America while working remotely for a tech startup: You stay at a fun, young hostel together with lots of other young people and get up late in the morning, as most hostel dormitories are rather noisy at night. After breakfast, while the backpackers leave for the beach, you collect your laptop and venture into the city to find a coffee shop. The average cafe is fine with digital workers pulling out their laptops for an hour or two but are not too happy to provide permanent office space. So, you get as much work done as you can until you head out to catch the next bus or connecting flight.
The constant balancing of work responsibilities and travel is draining, which makes it harder to simply enjoy the time spent traveling. In a recent study by AND CO from Fiverr and Remote Year (full disclosure: I run a Facebook group for AND CO) of over 3,700 remote workers, over a third of respondents said their top productivity blocker was having trouble disconnecting from work.
Digital nomads hop from one city to another.
The above-described routine works well for a few months or even a year but in most cases doesn't provide you with enough stability to build a career. The ambitious ones among us especially will want to do their work well, which will require a more stable work environment.
AND CO and Remote Year's study doesn't call what we do being a digital nomad. Instead, they argue that the lifestyle is more that of an "anywhere worker." The data proves what I've been experiencing myself: Remote workers do not necessarily travel as much as you would think. Instead of hopping from city to city, remote workers end up traveling less or more slowly than most digital nomads.
According to the study, about a quarter of remote workers describe themselves as digital nomads. Only 17 percent of them travel to more than five countries a year. This data suggests two things: First, the majority of remote workers chooses the lifestyle for the freedom it provides rather than the constant travel; second, even those that do see themselves as digital nomads usually stay in every place for a minimum of three months, setting up a home base, which was exactly what I did, too.
Nomads run online businesses and only work four hours per week.
Employers are slowly adjusting to the demands of millennial workers. While I did have my own startup while traveling, I still mainly supported myself as a contractor for various tech startups and so did the majority of successful nomads that I met on the road. It's a misconception that most nomads run online businesses or support themselves by jumping from (low pay) freelance gig to freelance gig. If you want to make it as a digital nomad and still keep a relatively good salary, your best bet would be to look for remote contractor positions, which are becoming more and more common. Almost a quarter of respondents in the "anywhere workers" study said their employer's organization was fully remote. Nearly 40 percent of remote workers in the study were employed by global companies, and the number is growing.
The same study shows that remote workers don't actually make as much money as many people think. The majority of them make less than $50,000 per year. Freedom comes at a cost. Only the top 10 percent of remote talent can count on an income of over $100,000 per year. Remote workers and digital nomads are less motivated by money and would rather accept a pay cut than give up their flexibility. What this means for employers is that they may be able to hire and retain highly skilled talent for less than the average price tag if they open up to the idea of remote work.
And this is where the trend is going: More and more employers will jump on the bandwagon and let their workers work from anywhere. The future workforce will have more freedom to live and work wherever they want to. Will this mean that they will all go and travel the world? No. In my own experience, the thrill of living the digital nomad life usually wears off after a few months or years. The future "anywhere workers" will want the flexibility to live life on their own terms and not be bound by the confines of an office space or strict work hours -- not to sip margaritas on the beach instead of working but to know that they are in control of their own productivity and results.