Completing your day's work on the beach of some sunny country, pina colada in hand, always sounded dreamy to many. But months of lockdowns and travel restrictions have made the vision of working abroad particularly appealing. Add in the fact that remote working has now become acceptable to many more bosses than ever before, and it’s easy to see why people are predicting that the number of ‘digital nomads’ (people who work remotely while travelling) is about to skyrocket. Indeed, it may already be happening: one American study found that there were 50 percent more digital nomads in mid-2020compared to 2019.
Travel makes a lot of people very happy, and as such the opportunity to pursue a digital nomad lifestyle could provide a huge wellbeing boost to those who undertake it. It could also give them access to a host of economic and social benefits like learning new languages, meeting people from different cultures and generally gaining new experiences.
Digital nomads can also benefit the economies of the countries they travel to - because nomads often spend lots of their wages on living, eating and generally enjoying themselves in local businesses. This benefit is particularly large because most digital nomads are relatively well-off; they’re likely to come from a rich country and/or hold a well-paying, white-collar job. They're also relatively unlikely to be a strain on the country's public services. Digital nomads are usually quite young and fit, for example, so won't require as much healthcare (and especially in poorer countries, are likely to pay to go private if they do).
This profile, incidentally, is also one of the reasons many people think the idea of a humongous increase in digital nomads is absurd, because only a tiny minority of people are in a position to undertake that sort of lifestyle. There are many jobs - perhaps even a majority of jobs - that are simply not possible to do from a beach resort in Bali: hairdressers, factory hands, firefighters, retail workers and receptionists are just a few examples of occupations which require your presence on site in order to complete your work. Even many office jobs require people to come in at least some of the time; to attend important meetings, say. And of course, many people also have local commitments they can't leave or take with them: partners with non-remote jobs, say, or elderly parents who require care.
Another blocker to mass take-up of the digital nomad lifestyle is that the types of work which are best suited to it - those well-paying, white-collar office jobs - are also roles that are correlated with a certain level of socio-economic status. For plenty of people lower down the salary ladder, the cost of things like visas, plane tickets and insurance would prohibit them from travelling while working even if their actual job was 100 percent remote.
Socio-economic inequality also provides a flip side to the benefits digital nomads provide to the countries they travel to. When well-off foreigners cluster together in beautiful areas of poorer countries they can inadvertently cause the prices of accommodation, food and other goods and services to rise, as businesses owners put up their prices to what the rich newcomers will pay. That can benefit those businesses, of course, but it also prices locals out of the area.
It’s not just about what you do, it’s where you do it. Workplaces can create and cut jobs, borrow money and interact with the financial market, and buy and sell products from other workplaces, affecting their financial situations. There’s also the question of whether our workplaces should be taking care of us, or whether that’s the government’s job…