Is the digital nomad lifestyle all it’s cracked up to be?

Notepad and open book on a wooden outdoor table next to a backpack with a laptop sticking out of it.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Glamour and excitement belie harsh reality

Travel blogger Tom Stevenson recently shared a post as part of Medium’s Post Graduate Survival Guide, ‘The Digital Nomad Lifestyle Isn’t As Great As You Think‘, reflecting on his experiences as a digital nomad. The article is short but insightful, and he eloquently expresses his thoughts on the issues you encounter when pursuing this way of life.

Many of us will have felt the pull of the digital nomad lifestyle. Getting to work wherever and whenever you want, and going where your feet take you, is undeniably appealing. Over the past few decades we have seen a marked changed in how young people choose to organise their careers. Gone are the days of staying in the same company until you retire. Partly driven by greater job precarity and weaker unions, younger people are more likely to flit between jobs, climbing the ladder and gaining skills as they go. I for one could never imagine holding down the same job for a decade. Personal and professional growth have become more important, but so has the desire for greater freedom of choice, and from convention. There is perhaps no greater expression of this than the digital nomad. Not everyone will have the appropriate skills to pull this off, but for those who do, it is sorely tempting.

Personal and professional growth have become more important, but so has the desire for greater freedom of choice

Stevenson however carefully pinpoints the coldness at the heart of the digital nomad’s life. One of the things that strikes most from his account is his experience of loneliness. An increasing issues in the modern world, it is unsurprising that this most trendy of career aspirations should be plagued by it too. Friendships are forged quickly, but they are abandoned just as quickly, as you move from city to city. The separation from a sense of community seems to be what hit Stevenson the most. For all the excitement of travelling, it is sharing experiences with people we love that makes it most enjoyable. This could be called an argument for being a digital nomad couple, but access to a wider community of friends can be just as important for long-term happiness.

Sometimes the structure of annual leave and being able to properly ‘switch off’ is a blessing, even if it comes with sacrifices

The lifestyle could sound like one long gap-year, but Stevenson points out that the downside is that you still have to do all the work you’d do in your normal life. You still have to put in the hours. Whether you’re blogging, copywriting, software developing, or whatever, you still have to make your money to keep going. And once you’re doing that while travelling, you’re not going to be able to appreciate the places you visit in the same way. Sometimes the structure of annual leave and being able to properly ‘switch off’ is a blessing, even if it comes its own sacrifices.

Our identity will hugely impact our experiences as travelers

Stevenson touches on what I think is a key issue in the digital nomad lifestyles: it is ultimately one of privilege. Your experience of travel is going to be heavily influenced by who you are and where you’re from. The assumption that you can just hop on a plane and go wherever you want is a white, straight, cis and male one. There are lots of popular travel destinations (such as the Maldives, Morocco and St Lucia) where being gay is illegal. It is consistently reported that travelling as a black person can be a totally different experience to travelling as a white person, and that black travelers face frequent discrimination, from micro-aggressions to outright violence. While lone female travelers are increasingly common, we can’t deny that misogyny can negatively impact our lives in other countries just as much as it does at home. Our identity will hugely impact our experiences as travelers, and therefore whether we’d actually enjoy life as a digital nomad. Not to mention the financial privilege of being able to save up enough money to pay for regular travel as well as covering things like student debt.

We have to consider the environmental impact of air travel

On top of this we have to consider the environmental impact of air travel. Few digital nomads are able to support their lifestyle through only green modes of transport, though this would be an exciting challenge. One person travelling every few weeks isn’t going to do that much to the world’s carbon footprint, and the onus ultimately lies with governments to ensure necessary changes are implemented. But the glamourisation of frequent air travel must be balanced with an awareness of the impact this can have on our planet. At a time when we’re trying to encourage more companies to allow working from home, for its mental health and environmental benefits (and it will be interesting to see how this is impacted by the coronavirus situation), is it really a good idea to be encouraging a whole other subset of people to fly all over the world for work when they don’t need to? If you can be a green nomad more power to you (true nomadic living is about as green as it gets!), but if you need to get on a plane every few weeks, maybe give it a miss.

What Stevenson shows is that for all its good publicity, his digital nomad experience taught him the joys of staying put. A steady group of supportive friends, structured routines, and sleeping in the same bed may not have the glamour of international travel, but they come with their own rewards.

The digital nomad lifestyle could be for you: if you’ve got a strong sense of independence, are a great self-motivator, and don’t mind being on your own, it presents a thrilling and potentially fulfilling opportunity. But if that doesn’t sound sustainable, and you value friendships as much as the number of stamps in your passport, you might be happier and healthier staying at home.

Have you experienced the digital nomad lifestyle? Do you see the appeal or are you happier building a cosy home? I love travel, but have to admit I’m always happy to get home to old haunts and familiar faces. Please do share your thoughts in the comments below!

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