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The Rise of Digital Nomads

What's next for the work from anywhere movement?

Lauren Razavi
Lauren Razavi
6 min read
The Rise of Digital Nomads

Before remote work became the status quo, a small group of early adopters spent years experimenting with its potential in the background. They became known as digital nomads. I was, and continue to be, one of them.

I started remote working straight out of college. I’ve built freedom, fun, and flexibility into the way I live, work and play since the first day of my career. I’ve lived in six places each year, visiting more than 40 countries over the last eight. I’ve worked as a travel writer, foreign reporter, ghostwriter, tech editor and, at one point, even founded a startup (RIP).

Lauren and her partner Jesse on a train from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth, Malaysia, Feb 2020
Me and my partner Jesse on a train from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth in Malaysia, Feb 2020

For me, location is, and always has been, fluid and flexible rather than fixed. That’s probably because of my family background. My experience of love and life has never been restricted to just one place, so I saw no reason work should be either.

I grew up in two countries and across three cultures. My dad was a refugee from Iran to the U.K. in the 1980s. He’s the youngest of eight children now spread across the world as part of the Iranian diaspora. Growing up, vacations took us around the world to visit family. There, we’d stay in pockets of Iran inside apartment buildings or suburban houses in Hamburg, London, Connecticut, other cities. I learned to build relationships with my cousins across borders and cultures.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, I’d just quit my remote job as a tech editor with a vague plan to “go independent.” I ended up launching a newsletter about borderless living and writing a book about digital nomads. These projects have provided unique insights into the cultural shifts of the past 18 months. Not only in terms of work, but in terms of life and politics too. Today, I want to share some thoughts on what comes next for the nomad movement.

The Remote Work Boom

In March 2020, the world entered its largest-ever experiment with remote work. A year later, McKinsey predicted that 25% of workers in advanced economies would work remotely going forward, and 10% in emerging economies. The mainstream conversation may still be stuck on the “return to the office” narrative, but the dynamics of work have changed for good. In the context of remote work, timezone matters more than proximity to the office. For many tasks, timezone doesn’t matter much either.

When decisions about work and location are separate, individuals hold more power than ever before. We’re entering an era where the fundamentals of a person’s life are determined by what they want, not what their employer wants.

What Is a Digital Nomad?

Pieter Levels, founder of Nomad List and an influential voice in the nomad community, predicts there’ll be a billion digital nomads by the year 2035. That’s equivalent to 12% of the global population today.

Before diving into the implications of this potential shift, let’s set out a definition of the term “digital nomad” (borrowed from my upcoming book, Global Natives):

A digital nomad is a remote working person who lives away from their homebase for at least part of the year.

People often think digital nomads are constantly in motion, moving to new locations every week or two. In reality, most nomads stay somewhere as much time as their visa allows and will keep returning to the destinations they like the best. The most important feature of the nomad mindset is not the pace of their travel but their flexible attitude towards location.

Pre-order my book Global Natives: The New Frontiers of Work, Travel, and Innovation today!

A Network of Knowledge Hubs

The earliest “nomad capitals” already exist, optimized for the remote economy through fast WiFi speeds, affordable short-stay rentals, and coworking spaces. The remote work community is so strong in hubs like Bali and Chiang Mai, people visit for the nomad counterculture almost as often as they do for the tourist sites.

When I was living in the Balinese town of Ubud, I kept bumping into people I’d met halfway across the world — the same way you might run into a neighbour at the local coffee shop. Some nomads migrate around the world in groups, hopping from one place to another when the season changes, and knowing they’ll see the same faces in their next destination.

Slowly, a global network of destinations is forming — knowledge hubs that attract remote workers from all over the world, just as the hippie trail once attracted artists from all over the world. Around the world, ambitious policymakers are hoping to take advantage.

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The Battle for Remote Talent

Big tech companies have normalized borderless hiring over recent decades. When they need particular skills, they seek out knowledge workers and relocate them from wherever they are. Those same companies were the first to offer remote work options before Covid-19, which helped the nomad movement grow in the 2010s. Now, though, it’s not just companies battling for knowledge workers, but governments too.

In June 2020, Barbados made history by announcing it would launch the world’s first nomad visa. More than 20 such visa programs have emerged since then. Greece and Italy have gone a step further, offering generous tax reductions for nomads who base there. Some regions in the U.S. are so keen to attract remote talent that they’re offering cash incentives of up to $15k for incoming residents.

Digital Nomads as a Reverse Diaspora

The term “reverse diaspora” originates with investor and technologist Balaji S. Srinivasan. It refers to a community that forms on the internet, builds a culture online, then comes together in person. These communities, he says, are the foundations of a new phenomenon called “internet countries.” So, what happens if we apply this idea to digital nomads?

The movement first came about when people started using the internet to share info on visa laws, cheap flights, air pollution, and places to stay, via forums, blogs, and social media. Early adopters experimented in the real world, then shared back the results. The movement swelled: Seeing people take off and work from anywhere encouraged others to experiment.

Nomads definitely came together as a community on the internet and built their own culture online. Just look at the growth of the r/DigitalNomad community on Reddit — from 43 members in 2012 to more than 1.1 million members in 2021:

This decade, the community is maturing. In a handful of places, nomads are moving offline with nomad villages, coliving communities, and coworking spaces. Right now, I live full-time in a micro-apartment at Zoku Amsterdam, a remote work hotel that’s like a nomad neighborhood in a building. It’s not just remote work that’s going mainstream, but a whole new way of living.

Nomads are also beginning to organize politically for the first time. The Plumia project aims to create the global infrastructure for borderless living, away from traditional nations, and democratize the ability for people to move freely around the world. We want to see people’s global mobility rights protected by default, not just treated as a privilege for those with powerful passports or extreme wealth.

The Fight for Global Mobility Rights

Beginning in the 1980s, the ultra-wealthy could access global mobility via “citizenship by investment” programs, i.e., buying a new passport that grants seamless movement across borders. Now, a new global middle class of knowledge workers is gaining access to mobility rights through nomad visas. Yet millions of people are still excluded from participating: those from low passport power countries, refugees, the displaced, and the stateless. Why? Because they were audacious enough to be born in the wrong country.

Mobility restrictions produce fundamental inequalities that are difficult to justify in a world of remote work. Trade, capital, knowledge, and communication flow freely across borders — yet human beings still face restrictions. The internet enables us to work from anywhere, but until we fix the bugs in the systems governing global movement, we’ll fail to unlock the potential of that shift. Digital nomads represent a new way of seeing and navigating the world — one that lets individuals share in the fruits of globalization.

If you enjoyed this post, pre-order Global Natives: The New Frontiers of Work, Travel, and Innovation via Holloway now. Early supporters will also receive an invite to the Global Natives Book Club, a series of exclusive virtual events featuring special guests from the global nomad and creator communities.

I’m Lauren, an award-winning writer, speaker, and activist who has lived and worked as a digital nomad since 2013. My writing appears in The Guardian, Wired, VICE, and CityLab, and I’m a regular press and media commentator on the future of work, technology, migration, and global mobility.

Want to keep in touch? I tweet @LaurenRazavi and write a free newsletter about borderless living.

Lauren Razavi

Maker and troublemaker. Interested in distributed work, borderless living and the craft of writing. Author of Global Natives (book) and Counterflows (newsletter).