The digital nomad lifestyle has become something of a holy grail for thousands of people around the world who want to escape the 9-5. What’s not to like? You could spend your life travelling to exotic destinations and spend a fraction of what you would at home, without having to give up your fulfilling career. Sounds amazing, right? I should know, I’m a digital nomad myself.
It’s true that few other career paths allow for this much freedom and adventure. After all, we get to experience different cultures, see incredible sights and meet interesting new people from around the world. But we also know the struggles of this lifestyle (ever searched for wifi in the Australian outback?) and the many misconceptions that come with it (no, I am not always on holiday). One thing that isn’t talked about enough is the sustainability of this lifestyle. Is it really possible to travel while working online indefinitely? Or is the Digital Nomad lifestyle just a phase, like a gap year for millennials?
Will most nomads return home after a few years of adventure are under their belts, craving the stability and convenience of a real home, network and routine? Let’s discuss some of the issues that face long-term digital nomads, and their potential solutions.
Arguably, the most common fear new nomads have is being lonely while travelling. Moving to a new country every few weeks means constantly meeting new people and having the same conversations over and over again (where are you from, what do you do, where have you been?). In the beginning, this is fun and exciting, but after a while it can become exhausting.
Considering the increasing number of online communities and real-life events that are targeting digital nomads, I think it’s safe to say that many of us have experienced loneliness at some stage in our journey. Workations and retreats bring digital nomads together in exotic locations to network, connect, collaborate and, of course, make friends. With your family and friends at home not being part of the nomad world, it’s important to connect with like-minded people who get you and your situation. To make this lifestyle work, it’s important to make a real effort to build an online and offline network.
A big draw of the location independent lifestyle is being able to live in a cheaper country. The concept of geoarbitrage was coined by Tim Ferriss in his bestseller ‘The 4-Hour-Work-Week’. Geoarbitrage means leveraging a modest Western income to live in comparative luxury in countries with weaker currencies. For example, $2000 might not stretch far in San Francisco, but will allow you to live very comfortably in Bangkok. I’ve seen so many articles promising that you can live like a king for under $300 in Thailand or the Philippines. If that’s your plan, great – book a budget holiday, backpack around and enjoy yourself. But the real idea behind geoarbitrage is to move to a cheaper country to bootstrap your business or freelance career, not to live off $600 a month forever. In reality, many nomads get stuck in a freelancing rut, never managing to build their businesses or make a Western living. That could be fine, unless you want to go home to visit friends and family regularly, which, for me, is a huge part of making this lifestyle sustainable. So, the most important step towards sustainability is creating a real income, rather than just scraping by in cheap countries, which can get old very quickly.
Travelling with kids
How to travel as a digital nomad with a family is probably among the most discussed topics in the community. Freedom and flexibility do not seem well matched with the strict routines and needs children have. It’s definitely doable – many digital nomads and long term travellers that travel with their families – but doable doesn’t mean easy. I think the turning point for many nomads comes when they need to decide between having a family or continuing their travels.
The solution to this problem seems to be settling in each place for several months to allow your kids to go to school, make friends and enjoy a routine.
What’s the long-term solution for digital nomads?
So, if you reach the point that the workations aren’t providing enough real human interaction for you, or you want your kids to attend one school, or moving every few weeks is stopping you from growing your business, or you’re burnt out and need a break – what then? Well, the solution to all these typical nomad problems is the same: travel slower, stay longer.
Instead of travelling continuously, more and more nomads are deciding to base themselves in hubs for longer periods of time. That’s why cities like Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Medellin, Lisbon, and Berlin are becoming nomad hotspots. They tick all the convenience boxes (wifi, affordability, community), while offering a rich cultural experience and a laidback lifestyle.
But are we still digital nomads if we’re not, well, nomadic?
That’s why I prefer the term ‘location independent’. It means you can move as much as you want, but doesn’t mean that you have to.
In all likelihood, most digital nomads will probably evolve into serial expat – staying in each base for 6-12 months, laying down some roots and immersing themselves in a new culture, before moving on to the next location.
Other new trends are also evolving from this lifestyle to offer a real alternative. For example, communal living is making a huge comeback under the trendier and less hippie-ish name of ‘coliving’. Combined coliving and coworking spaces are springing up around the world, catering to our need for a nest, community and stability, while allowing us to live in new locations whenever we like.
This new lifestyle will surely change and evolve as it becomes more mainstream and we will see new solutions that help digital nomads continue to travel long-term. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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