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Culture | 11 November '17
What is a digital nomad?
When Remote Year launched in 2015, it received over 25,000 applicants. These applicants didn't know if the program would be any good, or whether their promise to send cohorts of 75 young working professionals on a year's travel around the world for $27,000 was a pipe dream. Application numbers have continued to surge. 100,000 people applied to join the most recent cohort. Meet the digital nomads who call themselves the future of remote work.
Digital nomads are "a thing," but are they chilling beachside in Bali or urban professionals with a frequent flier card in hand? What jobs do digital nomads have? Since us Journy-ers are always looking for an excuse to pack our hard sided suitcase and jet off, we set out to uncover the truth about the digital nomad lifestyle.
Although Remote Year isn't the only company that promotes remote work for digital nomads, it's quickly become one of the most noted. Plenty of other companies riff on the theme. Hacker Paradise operates 3-month long remote working tours specially designed for developers, designers and entrepreneurs; WiFly Nomads gathers aspiring location-independent entrepreneurs in Bali for a two-week intensive on how to launch a successful digital business; Remote Experience runs programs similar to Remote Year, but for durations of four, eight and twelve months.
Before applying to one of these programs, consider the fact that what sounds great trapped behind your desk might not sound great when living from a suitcase. "[By the end of the year] I was exhausted—Remote Year was fight or flight mode where you were constantly 'on.' By my last 2 months, I found myself not even exploring the cities I was in. I was just exhausted and craved some stability," writes blogger and former Remote Year participant Katelyn Smith.
While having a company take care of all the logistics for your is no doubt freeing, it puts you on someone else's schedule. For digital nomads who prefer to emphasize the digital part of their title as opposed to the nomadic bit, you might prefer taking the time to chart out your own itinerary.
Although group travel garners headlines, co-living spaces are another option for remote workers looking to live with a group. Nomad House operates a worldwide network of living spaces, which host communities of 10-15 people for 30 days. During this time aspiring nomads attend workshops and tutorials to learn how to launch side hustles and succeed as a remote worker.
Roam offers a less structured co-living experience. Located in the cities most popular for remote workers, each Roam house supplies a range of amenities. You'll get reliable wifi, comfortable offices and well-equipped kitchens that take the guesswork out of living abroad. Prices range from $500 for a week to $1800 for a month-long stay.
But consider other options for embracing local flavor. Roam's Ubud property has been accused of providing a whitewashed experience and transforming the surrounding area into a gentrified conglomeration of boutique yoga studios and beach-loving foreigners.
Still, residents praise the diversity of guests. "People were checking in and leaving, coming back from a trip, catching up with each other and moving out again. Some would stay some would be floating around Bali like butterflies… I'll never forget this feeling of belonging to one easygoing lovely and spirited tribe," writes former Roam Ubud resident and digital nomad Christoph Fahle on Medium.
Not all remote workers use co-living or group travel as a way to launch their explorations. If you're willing to put in the research, traveling solo gives you the freedom to work where you're most interested in and go at your own pace.
Detractors argue that the prices are inflated for what the average remote worker really needs. Then there's the non-stop social factor, which can be distracting from the actual work part of remote working.
The prevalence of wifi around the world has made remote working possible, but that doesn't mean you're guaranteed wifi at every destination. Many remote workers use pocket wifi instead of local internet services for improved reliability and security. This adds an extra cost of living, although is about the same as your average internet provider at home probably costs.
Some destinations will be completely off the table because of their spotty wifi coverage. Wifi coverage isn't only a concern when working in cafes, it's also a concern in your residency as they won't all offer the lightening fast speeds you're used to. Many digital nomads head to Chiang Mai, Thailand for their reliable wifi—yeah, there's a reason Thailand is the backpacker cliche.
"We only take those pictures to show off. The sand will destroy your laptop and sometimes it's way too hot to stay productive," writes remote worker Johannes Voelkner. Just like New Yorkers don't go to see Broadway shows all the time, working in Bali doesn't mean a constant beach vacation.
It is true that remote workers are attached to their computer, but that doesn't mean they're productive everywhere. In fact, many freelancers complain that the overwhelming choice makes their job harder. As backpacker Eva Guiterrez writes, "the pro of being a digital nomad is that I can go anywhere I want, whenever I want. The con of being a digital nomad is that this has the dangerous potential to genuinely make you go crazy."
"The biggest misconception about digital nomads is that they actually have money and live an extraordinarily lavish life of non-stop travel and adventure. Most are broke, lonely, and trying to live for as cheaply as possible," says Adam Kitchen, an English digital nomad/biohacker based in Hong Kong and Bangkok.
This isn't wholly surprising given the cost of travel and maintaining a life outside of visa requirements. The popularity of Southeast Asia as a place to embrace nomadism is in part due to the low living cost. Nomad List, an online community for digital nomads, cites the average cost of living in Bangkok as $1,230 USD per month. A month in Hanoi averages $657 per month. Compare this to the cost of living in London ($2837) or San Francisco (up to $4000) and it's evident that there are different places for nomads to set up house depending on their lifestyle and income.
Living as a digital nomad is one phase of your working life. People who have trekked around the globe cite the stress, the uncertainty and the loneliness as common detractors.
Growing a digital nomad family can also be a challenge, even if both spouses are fully on board with constant lifestyle upheavals. For families with children, the problems are increased. While some kids find it easy to make friends despite changing house frequently, others struggle to find roots. "For us having standard rituals, like a bedtime ritual helps a lot. The house, room, and bed might be different, but reading a bedtime story every night from the same books always comes after we brushed our teeth," writes user Gawin on NomadList, a message board for remote workers.
Then there are the creature comforts that you lose working on the go. You can't have your plush monitor setup. You're limited to what you can pack in your suitcase.
While many people keep up the nomadic lifestyle for even ten plus years, most people recognize that it's a period in their life. A fun one full of unique challenges, but not a career in and of itself.
If you looked at the media, it would seem that all digital nomads are web developers, coders or involved in the tech space. While it is true that remote workers need to be involved with work that's majority online, not all digital nomad jobs are for tech nerds.
Location independent work can include freelance writing, monetized blogging, tutoring online, freelance translation or digital consulting. These jobs do, however, require you to be an expert in your niche. They're not exactly for people looking to launch careers.
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