More Americans Try The Digital Nomad Lifestyle
Diego Bejaran Gerke, 29, is in the business of bringing remote workers together—at locations around the planet. His company WiFi tribe, arranges for groups of gig workers, entrepreneurs and remote workers to live together in group housing in a place such as Bolivia, Bali or Oman—where he was living when we spoke recently—for a month at a time.
The idea is to give the residents a chance to truly get to know each other in an informal setting—an experience that is increasingly scarce in an app-driven world.
“What really matters to people is they are going to be with other amazing people and form deep, meaningful connections when they travel,” says Gerke, a graduate of the University of Kent in the U.K., who founded his community in 2016. He grew up in Germany but became accustomed to moving every two or three years because of his father’s career in the oil industry.
Gerke is part of a fast-growing trend: Digital nomadism. Digital nomads use technology to make a living wherever they happen to be on the planet. The idea was popularized early by Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, and is now the focus of communities such as Tropical MBA, as well as a wide array of podcasts and even a class at the tech bootcamp General Assembly. For many digital nomads, the lifestyle is exciting because it offers them a chance to see the world while still earning a living.
7.3 million Americans describe themselves as digital nomads, according to recent research by MBO Partners, a provider of back-office services to independent workers that studies the freelance economy. That is an increase of 2.3 million from the previous year. MBO Partners surveyed 3,985 U.S. residents in March 2019 with support from Emergent Research and Rockbridge Associates and released the results recently.
“If you are in the creative space or an IT developer, and you know you can do the work and deliver it based on your results, not by working by the hour, you could really do it from anywhere,” says Gene Zaino, chairman of MBO partners. “It’s a way for people to have much more of a work-life balance and do the things they want to do at different times in their life.”
Solo entrepreneurs are driving the trend, starting businesses they can run from anywhere in the world that has a decent internet connection.
Independent workers are more likely to embrace the remote work trend than others. In MBO Partners’ research, 4.1 million or 56% said they are full-time or independent workers—such as freelancers, independent contractors and self-employed workers.
Among independent workers, 83% report working remotely at least some of the time, and 37 percent work remotely full time, according to MBO Partners’ research.
However, the trend isn’t confined to the self-employed. A sizable minority of digital nomads—3. 1 million or 44%—told MBO partners they have a traditional job.
“It’s just become something that is naturally evolving,” says Zaino. “Tech is the driver.”
The work digital nomads do runs the gamut, Respondents’ to MBO Partners’ research found that they worked in consulting, coaching and research (13%); sales, marketing and PR (13%), information technology (9%) and creative services (9%).
The work they do does tend to require unique skills. 65% of digital nomads say their work demands specialized, training, education or expertise, compared to 48% of people who are not digital nomads. Among digital nomads, 51% have a college degree or higher, compared to 35% of adult Americans.
Most digital nomads (79%) say they are highly satisfied or satisfied (9%) with their work and lifestyle, with 60% saying they planned to continue as digital nomads for at least two years, the survey found.
The digital-nomad trend crosses generations, MBO Partners found. It is most popular among millennials, with 59% of digital nomads falling into this group; another 29% are Gen Xers and 33% are Baby Boomers.
Promoting the growth of the trend are coworking and co-living spaces, digital nomad tour services, and online talent marketplaces and websites advertising remote jobs, according to MBO Partners.
Gerke, at WiFi Tribe, says his global community of entrepreneurs has grown to more than 700 people. To participate in his co-living trips, participants pay monthly rent ranging from $1,100 to $2,000 for a private room or $900 to $1,800 for a shared room. They can take a single month-long trip or travel to five or more locations over a year, he says.
What the future holds for digital nomads remains to be seen, given how many are independent professionals. With organized-labor backed AB-5 set to take effect on Jan. 1 in California and a similar bill, SB 4204 under consideration in New Jersey, many independent contractors are worried that such legislation—which imposes stricter rules for designating someone as an independent contractor to prevent misclassification—will take away the freedom of those who do not want jobs and prefer to work independently, when and wherever they want. Similar laws are under consideration in other freelance hotbeds such as New York, Oregon and Washington.
A brief by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor, Research and Education estimates that only 9% of current independent contractors in California—either highly compensated professionals such as lawyers, accountants, doctors and dentists or real estate agents—will be able to remain independent contractors when AB-5 takes effect. Twenty-seven percent of contractors in fields with mid-range pay—among them construction workers, hairdressers, barbers, designers and other artists, writers, editors and photographers and sales reps—may be able to qualify if strict conditions are met, the Berkeley researchers determined.
For the moment, though, the digital nomad trend continues to grow. With more people across the age spectrum looking to experience the world while working on their own terms, it’s likely to continue to accelerate, along with technology, in the immediate future.
“When you are doing digital work, it doesn’t really matter where you are, as long as you have your laptop,” says Zaino.
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