How would the world look if we were all digital nomads?

6. September 2017



One thing we have noticed here at Refuga is that the whole movement around digital nomads is really gaining traction. At the time when Refuga started and one year later, when I started to travel full-time myself, I didn’t even know the term. I remember meeting an American journalist in Beijing. He had offered his boss to step his salary a bit down if he could work from Beijing instead of Washington. He was more or less a digital nomad, but he never used that term and wasn’t part of a digital nomad community.

There is a lot of hype around digital nomads and media loves the stories of young people working from an exotic beach. They see it almost as a revolution in how we work and live. Somehow they are right, but it really depends on which perspective you see it in.

If you look at it in a big perspective and see the long history of humankind, it’s interesting to see that we have lived as nomads 99% of our history. So theoretically it’s not a revolutionizing idea, even though in a shorter perspective it’s a big change to how we work and live.

An interesting question would be; are we going back to being nomads? Is being nomadic maybe the most natural way of living for us? Is the rise of digital nomads just the beginning of the future possibilities that will become so normal, that everyone at least has the possibility of being more or less nomadic?

My guess is, that yes it is.

We will all become more nomadic

I don’t think everyone will be full blown nomads, but I think most will have the opportunities to be more flexible about what they work on and where they live, giving them the opportunity to live in other places for at least some periods of time.

The normal pattern of always living in the country where you were born and living in a city based on where your job is located, will not be normal in the future.You can work online, you can find a place to live on Airbnb and you can very cheaply fly to the other side of the planet. Therefore a lot of people will choose to try to live in other countries at least for a period.

Overall there will just be much more flexibility and opportunities. At the same time, what we are seeing now in the digital nomad space, is a snow ball effect. If you have never heard of working online and living where you want and moving location, it sounds crazy and impossible. But if you find someone online that you read about, that has done it, it becomes a bit more realistic. When you know someone, friend or family, who has done it, suddenly it becomes much more realistic.

What we are seeing is not a small sub trend in my opinion, but the beginning of a new normal.

But what would it mean if more were nomadic?

I have given a lot of thought to how the world would look like if there were a lot more nomadic people. It’s a difficult question to answer, especially because I’m part of it – I’m doing it myself – so I’m pretty positive about it.

But when I have been traveling around I have also experienced some of the more negative sides. Some of the challenges on a bigger scale would be:

The impact on local communities

The world is, in general, seeing more and more tourists and we have to learn how to travel better. A lot of us travel out to experience local living and learning about other cultures, but mass tourism can have a negative impact, simply destroying local culture. It’s happening in Venice and Barcelona, but it’s happening all over the world.

Digital nomads love digital nomad hubs, like Chiang Mai in Thailand and Bali in Indonesia. The problem with these hubs is that too many people go there to be part of a digital nomad community, to live cheaply and to be cool, rather than to experience the country and culture they are in. Of course, we all travel in different ways, but it’s important to support and respect local culture and business when you travel.

What about taxes?

Quite a few of the Western digital nomads that I have met in Asia brag about not paying taxes. They are not registered in their own country and they live in cheap countries on tourists visas.

I more or less do the same (I pay full tax in Denmark) because there is no better way. If a lot of us were nomadic, we would have to change our tax systems to fit this change of how we live. In the good old days, you could avoid paying taxes if you were rich and could afford the best lawyers. Nowadays you just have to be a digital nomad.

I would love some kind of global digital nomad citizenship, where you pay taxes based on a number of days you spent in each country.

Digital Nomad loneliness

One of the downsides of being a digital nomad can be loneliness. Yep, you’re thinking that it’s a real first world problem and you’re probably right, but it’s still a challenge for a lot. Being self-employed and switching locations from time to time, it can be a real challenge to create and develop relationships.

Loneliness is not just a problem for full-time travelers but globally. Never before have so many works alone, lived alone and eaten their dinner alone. A world with more nomads will probably mean more problems with loneliness, so solutions to that would have to be created.

Could the world become a better place with more people living as nomads?

There is no doubt where the movement is going and it’s clear that there are some challenges with a world with a lot more nomadic people, but what kind of positive impact would it have?

It’s more or less about freedom

If people have the opportunity to become digital nomads, it means that they have a lot of freedom. Freedom to decide what to do, where to live, which kind of people to spend time with and so on. And more freedom is a good thing that we should embrace.

Freedom is also smaller things, like working the way you want. Some people work better in the morning, some better in the evening. It’s the freedom of not having to go to the same office every day and thereby adding a daily commute to a life that is already busy. If you commute just 45 min each way, you’re effectively working 6 days per week, not 5.

More freedom will make people happier.

Hiring and find work will be based on skills, not geography

Meaningful work is a big part of thriving. Finding the right people is a big part of a company being able to compete on a global level. Global trade brings more peace.

In a world that is becoming more and more global and where borders mean less and less, being a digital nomad means that you have the flexibility to go where the opportunities are and if you’re a self-employed nomad, it also means you can hire the right people when and where you want.

Not being limited to geography will really be a big change.

Travel is one of the best ways to redistribute wealth

Travel is one of the biggest industries in the world and that’s why it has a great power to really change the world. When people travel, it’s effective redistribution of wealth.

With more and more people traveling it would hopefully also mean, that people travel further and not just to a few popular places, which would mean that money gets spread even more.

These are just some of the positives and negatives things that will be the results of more people being nomads. A development I think will continue to grow.

In future blog posts, we will dig deeper into some of these and other issues of the impact of digital nomads.