Is the ‘Digital Nomad’ Life as Good as It Sounds? Travel companies are creating a generation of digital nomads, flying gig workers and tech nerds to exotic locales where they can pursue dream jobs. These brands make it their business to solve the significant logistical problems that come up when trying to get work done while abroad—but can they solve the problem of other people? Nia Howard, a recent college graduate from California, seems comfortable living 8,000 miles from home with a group of complete strangers, many of them old enough to how Do Digital Nomads Make Money her parents. The French doors are open, letting in the sounds of roosters, wind chimes, and neighbors shouting in Indonesian.
People mill in and out of the living room and make vague plans to order lunch. Sara Pezzolesi, an Italian photographer and designer in her late thirties, fills a glass with water and adjusts her wrist brace, which I assumed was for carpal tunnel but turns out to be the result of an injury sustained while scrambling up a temple. For weeks the living room had been a de facto office space, and it seems reasonable to expect maybe not dead silence, but at least the absence of Guy Fieri’s voice. People shoot the dude bemused glances. As a millennial with a college degree, no debt or dependents, more or less unlimited professional autonomy, and a passport, I am a case study in what it means to be free to live and work where I choose. But how does someone live when they can work wherever they please? It’s a question I should have been able to answer for myself just by looking in the mirror. Instead, I flew halfway around the world to find out. I landed in Bali in late October, amid travel warnings about the imminent eruption of 10,000-foot Mount Agung.
About 40 years later, the sandalwood-scented air that Nin inhaled had a top note of diesel. But I wasn’t in Bali to document ecological degradation or to track the process by which a tropical paradise gets gentrified by spiritually dissatisfied tourists. The people I came to observe are part of a new generation of workers enabled by the gig and sharing economies to ditch the cubicle and earn a living while traveling the world. Headlines and business consultants call them digital nomads. Not quite expats, not quite tourists, these remote workers tend to be self-employed, or at least employed in fields that permit telework: graphic design, coding, IT consulting. Like the birth-control pill—a transformational technology that quickly reshaped countless aspects of daily life—global connectivity is reorganizing society in elemental ways. More important, the companies vet and assemble the strangers who will live together under a shared roof for weeks or months at a time. They strive to facilitate a lifestyle that combines income generation with the communal benefits once provided by parks, coffee shops, and churches. Though these outfits all charge roughly the same amount for their services, business models vary.
1,800, depending on location and whether you prefer a shared or private room. That monthly fee covers housing and the privilege to be part of the community, but not visas or travel expenses like airfare. Some of these companies require members to provide proof of employment. Others promise to help them negotiate telework contracts. The industry functions by cobbling together various gig economies: Airbnb to lodge clients, Uber to transport them, the increasing pervasiveness of remote work to attract them in the first place. I worked in an office during my first year out of college and decided never again.
The idea of living in an office—even if it’s right on the beach—is even less appealing. Nobody would describe me as especially social or good in groups. I have a decent number of close friendships, but they were not forged at exercise class, while wine tasting, or under any conditions that were wildly outside of my control. The desire to live cheaply abroad while remaining part of a like-minded social group makes a certain amount of sense. But how can you be confident that a random collection of fellow travelers won’t undermine your productivity and happiness, to say nothing of being fun or intellectually stimulating? Maybe I just have a bad attitude, but in my experience, most people are a little annoying, even the ones with good hearts and minds. These new digital-nomad companies make it their business to solve the significant problems that come up when trying to get work done while abroad.
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But can they solve the problem of other people? Julia Kallweit, 27, was working as a freelance marketing manager and e-commerce consultant, while Diego Gerke, 25, was collaborating with tech startups. They met in Cologne, Germany, after Gerke sent out a mass e-mail to his extended professional and social networks asking if anyone wanted to join him at his father’s house in Bolivia. It would be an extended work retreat, he wrote. 22-year-olds whose parents were paying for a postcollegiate work-abroad program.
Or maybe I’d meet a bunch of Silicon Valley drones doing an end run around Bay Area rental prices. But they abandoned that idea after hearing from middle-aged people who wanted to join and talking to younger members who said they wouldn’t object. Andrea Ottolina, a 37-year-old software developer from outside Milan who has the suntan of a teenager. What do you like about a community? Why do you love the people you love? Roughly half had never done anything like this before, and of those who had, some had met during previous stays in Central or South America.
Some shared rooms, while others had singles, depending on the membership level they’d chosen. Reich sold his apartment and car in Berlin two years ago, at the age of 26, and has been traveling ever since. He didn’t think he’d return to Germany full-time. Like everyone else in the house, he had fun on the weekends—partied by the ocean, went camping—but spent weekdays focused on his job. He didn’t sleep in too late or shirk responsibility. Italian app developer told me, echoing many others I spoke with.
I’ve stopped keeping my Facebook so updated. I was beginning to get passive-aggressive messages from friends who seemed a bit jealous. Naturally, living away from home comes with challenges—food poisoning in developing countries, language barriers, intermittent debit-card functionality—as well as the kind of hassles that geographical distance creates. One afternoon I spotted the Canadian music producer sitting outside, feet in the pool, yelling into his phone. Finally he hung up and stormed inside.