The rise of the Digital Nomad

Want to work from home, from a cafe, from… pretty much anywhere in the world? A whole new attractive and unconventional lifestyle is now possible thanks to the rise of the gig economy and the ease with which opportunities can be accessed.

With the advances of communications technologies over the past 20 years, it’s possible to carry out many jobs from anywhere on the planet. The rise of the pre-university Gap Year popularised the idea of working your way around the world as a temporary measure, before settling down in gainful employment. Nowadays, though, prospects for good employment are a lot thinner on the ground than they used to be, and there’s something about a traditional Career that doesn’t really appeal to a lot of people any more anyway. More and more people are adopting this approach as a long-term lifestyle, eschewing the nine-to-five for something more flexible and satisfying – and often no less lucrative than that office job.

What is a digital nomad?

A ‘digital nomad’ is the term for someone who can work from anywhere, generally using only their laptop, and who uses the opportunity to travel the world while paying for it by remaining in some form of employment. Ubiquitous wifi means it’s easy to stay in touch with employers, whether this is a long-term job or a series of ad hoc arrangements in the growing gig economy.

The popular perception of a digital nomad is of a millennial who works from their laptop on a beach and parties all night, living the dream while their contemporaries are shackled to a traditional job and a dreary, predictable life. In practice, though, a large proportion of digital nomads are older and more experienced than that, having built up a reputation and successful business in their chosen field over many years. These are established entrepreneurs and freelancers in their thirties and forties who simply decide there is no reason to work from home when the world can be their office.

Leaving the office behind

These nomads have long since acted upon what so many of us know at heart: some of us are just not cut out for the corporate life. There are plenty of reasons to avoid that conventional office job. Perhaps it’s the politics, or the behind-the-back sniping, or being passed over for promotion in favour of someone manifestly less well-qualified. It might be the realisation that you can jump through all the right hoops every day but will never really break free. It’s a rat race, and the Sisyphean nature of it all is brought home to you every time you fasten the tie around your neck like a noose or find brief respite chatting with the colleagues you don’t like while drinking icy water from a flimsy cone-shaped cup at the cooler.

There’s no shortage of reasons to ditch that life, if indeed you ever started it. Many of the digital nomads around now started out 15 years ago. It’s a highly self-selective club, and those that survived the distance are now well off, seasoned professionals who can access the best work opportunities, know the best places to live and who migrate to a new home at their next stop around the world when the seasons change: a perpetual summer where great surroundings and healthy work/life balance are part of the deal.

For those just starting out, there’s great promise in the lifestyle of a digital nomad – but equally, it can have its downsides.

Pros and cons

There are plenty of advantages to becoming a digital nomad:

  • Flexibility. Work from anywhere, travelling the world as you make your own hours and set your own targets.
  • Global market. Similarly, as a remote freelancer you will access opportunities from around the world, ensuring you’re not tied to any single employer.
  • The Experience. Most people won’t see in a whole lifetime the places you’ll be able to visit in a year. Being a digital nomad can bring both financial and cultural benefits – and it’s hard to put a price tag on the latter.
  • Work-life balance. Once you know what you’re doing, you can set your own timetable, working as much as you need and want to. The rest of the time? That’s yours to enjoy however you want.

But equally, there are some problems and pitfalls to take into account:

  • Lack of security. Working in the gig economy means your employer won’t be bound by employment law, and having a job today doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have one tomorrow.
  • Lack of traditional benefits. No automatic pension scheme, no paid holiday, no sick pay. Basically, you’re on your own.
  • Being away from home. If you don’t have ties, it’s a lot easier. For those with responsibilities towards family, or who don’t want to be separated from their loved ones for more than a few months at a time, it gets exponentially harder.

That’s why it’s worth taking the time to understand what being a digital nomad will really be like, and preparing for some of the most likely eventualities.

What you’ll need

You might become a digital nomad as a lifestyle choice, or – like many people just starting out – as a way to fund travelling or as a temporary measure if you’re out of the regular jobs market for a while, for one reason or another.

Either way, you’ll immediately realise that some things are different – very different – and you will need to take these into account if you’re going to make a success of it. Here are some of the things you’ll need.

Setting a base

Sure, many jobs don’t need a physical location, but you do. You need somewhere secure and safe to stay, not least because you don’t want your laptop to get stolen. A hostel might be ok for a night or two, but you’re going to want something more permanent than that. You will probably be staying in the same location for weeks or months at a time (any less isn’t really conducive to a good work rhythm). Hotels will be too expensive – unless your skills are really in demand – but you will find there are sites like AirBnb or Couchsurfing that offer a good compromise, keeping costs down while ensuring you have some personal space. You may also gravitate towards countries and cities with a lower cost of living.

A reliable wifi connection, in the right place

The Always-on culture means that many jobs are possible to do from anywhere in the world. The flipside of that is that without a connection to the internet, you’re utterly cut off from your source of income. While there are few places without any internet access nowadays, it’s worth doing some research to cut down the amount of time you spend looking for that wifi hotspot. Sure, lots of cafes have a connection and at a pinch you might be able to connect via your phone, but they’re hardly convenient. You can’t put in a quality morning’s work from Starbucks (even if you can put up with the noise, they often restrict you to an hour online.) Plus, public connections aren’t always secure. Identity theft should not figure into your plans.

A little research will again pay dividends. Libraries and certain other public spaces might be suitable, and some cities have made a particular effort with their digital infrastructure – providing free public wifi everywhere within a given area.

Another option is to find somewhere purpose-designed for people like you. Look around for co-working spaces where you’ll be able to rent a desk on a short- or long-term basis, as well as enjoy free wifi, coffee on demand and the company of lots of other people in the same boat as you. How much you get out of a shared office depends on your personality and what you’re doing, but if you need to put in some long hours here and there then it’s hugely valuable to have a dedicated space to work in. Plus there are the networking and socialising opportunities that come with rubbing shoulders with other digital nomads.

The right kind of job

It should go without saying that some jobs aren’t suitable for the aspiring digital nomad. If that’s you, then you’ll need to think of pivoting, retraining or trying your hand at something new. Digital marketing (in all its many different forms) is a good option; developers and some kinds of graphic designers will be fine, as will bloggers and many journalists. If you’ve established your own business or a network of freelance clients, you’re well on the way already – all the more so if your work doesn’t involve meetings in person. (If so, both parties may have to adapt to meeting via Skype.)

The right attitude and personality

You’ll need to be a self-starter who doesn’t need anyone looking over their shoulder or telling them what they should be doing next. You take setbacks in your stride and are capable of managing your own time. You won’t just be capable of working outside of traditional company structures, you’ll thrive on it. Additionally, you’ll be used to and happy with travelling light; unless you’re putting down semi-permanent roots in a given location, you won’t want to schlep masses of belongings with you across continents every few months.

Smart financial arrangements

The mainstream financial system is not great at moving money across borders, and there are lots of points of friction. If you’re working in several different countries, you’ll need financial arrangements that reflect that as efficiently as possible. While it’s possible to use credit cards anywhere, it can be expensive and when you’re moving money between currencies, the banks just love to charge you monstrous fees that include a nice fat margin for them. Again, research, research, research. Talk to other people, find out the best international and regional solutions – other digital nomads in the know will have some hacks around this for sure.

Cryptocurrency offers fast, borderless payments and is an excellent way to earn money, so long as you can establish a secure gateway to the banking system in your home country. In some instances, you won’t even need that, if there’s a good peer-to-peer market in your chosen location – a rarity, but still worth looking for. Ultimately, the fewer ‘hops’ your money has to do, the better. Crypto can be about as direct as it’s possible to be. Failing that, find a good exchange – Bitstamp, Uphold, Coinbase and so on – and figure out the best options for moving fiat seamlessly into the currency you need. (Different exchanges have different banking relationships, and are more efficient with dollars or euros, etc.) Try to avoid changing currencies more than once if you can.

What to watch

The freedoms of the digitally nomadic lifestyle are also its pitfalls. Being unencumbered means there’s no safety net, and no one doing the admin and legwork that a corporate employer generally will. Some of the potential issues to see coming and mitigate include:

  • Tax. As a self-employed freelancer you’re solely responsible for this. Moving around and working for companies in different locations around the world complicates matters, but make no mistake: some government, somewhere is going to want a cut of your earnings. It is not worth finding that out too late and getting knotted up in red tape or rushing to find money you’ve already spent. Figure out who you owe, how much, and put it to one side so it’s ready when it comes due. You might even hire a tax accountant for a one-off consultation: it might be one of the best investments you ever make.
  • Emergencies. They happen. Illness and injury, loss of income, family crises. Maybe you need a plane ticket home, fast. Put aside a pot of money to cover such eventualities. Ring fence it and make sure you’re not tempted to dip into it for day-to-day expenses. If it ever comes to it, you’ll be glad you’ve got it when you need it.
  • Lost clients. So long as you’ve got regular earnings coming into your account and you can live within your means, it’s all good. That’s why repeat gigs or longer-term arrangements are great: both sides know the deal and neither has to be continually looking to fill the gap. But if you do lose a client for one reason or another, especially if it’s a large one, you may need to replace them fast. Once again, do your research and figure out where to find new work if it ever becomes necessary – that way you can just put Plan B into action.
  • Computer trouble. You’re laptop dependent, so have a plan if yours gets lost, broken or stolen. The money you need, access to the right shop, the right computer and the right price. Keep whatever data you need in the cloud, and make sure you have access to the passwords you need to log back into all the different services you use so you can continue work uninterrupted.
  • Timezones. Being based in different countries you may occasionally need to work at odd times to match office hours in your employer’s location. This is not a major concern but bear in mind that in certain timezones that could impinge on your sleep and social life.

Conclusion

In a world in which everyone is connected and career prospects are less certain than they were for previous generations, the life of a digital nomad has become more and more attractive for a growing segment of the population. While some of these traveller-freelancers are recently out of university, many are well-established and have been pioneering the lifestyle for ten or fifteen years, making a good living and living well into the bargain.

Being a digital nomad can mean a kind of ad hoc, ‘zero hours’ arrangement that can be extremely stressful, but with the right skillset, experience and planning the rewards can be huge. This is an opportunity to leave behind the daily grind and the shackles of the office, and to travel the globe – enjoying the best culture and weather the world has to offer, without relying on menial backpacker jobs to make ends meet.

If this is something you want to explore, then do your research, put together the packages of services and contingencies you’ll need to do it properly and stay safe, and go for it. In short: think carefully, plan carefully – and enjoy!

Last week we made a survey among the ChronoBank user community to know what they think about the concept of working on the road and the nomadic lifestyle. And here are the results:

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