An Era of Global Natives

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Updated May 4, 2022
Global Natives

You’re reading an excerpt from Global Natives: The New Frontiers of Work, Travel, and Innovation, a guide to digital nomads and the work-from-anywhere movement, by Lauren Razavi. Purchase the book for instant digital access.

In a 2016 speech, former British Prime Minister Theresa May made a bold declaration: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship is.”*

To a politician like May, countries are fixed and citizenship is absolute, so restricting people’s movements and rights based on their country of origin makes perfect sense. Only, countries aren’t actually like that. They disappear, appear, and fail, and the name and borders of the country you were born in can change during your lifetime. Citizenship can be bought, sold, renounced, and revoked, yet it’s still the coincidence of a person’s birthplace or heritage that determines their ability to move around the world; where they can go, when, how, and for how long. The benefits and restrictions that come with your citizenship, or citizenships, can shift too.

Technology and global trade have diluted the ties between nationals and strengthened the bonds between geographical strangers. As we’ve learned in this book, to be from and connected to just one place is becoming rarer, and people feel increasingly disconnected from the nation-states issuing their birth certificates and passports.

The early signals—like visas and tax breaks—suggest there will be more digital nomads in the years ahead, and there’s a lot at stake in how that future unfolds. Unless nomads have a voice in how global mobility is managed, there’s no guarantee our rights will be protected. The nomadic lifestyle could be outlawed before it’s possible for more people to experience it. We could see harsher border restrictions, raids on coworking spaces, work equipment confiscated at customs, and nomads regularly deported back to their country of origin. Or, nomads could be understood in the context of a much larger story of global mobility and human freedom.

Now that remote work is mainstream, a much broader spectrum of people will navigate decisions about their work and lives differently. I call them “global natives”—a generation of globalized people, raised in a globalized world, who are not “from” a single place. For us, travel is not a luxury. It’s what allows us to connect with our loved ones across borders, how we learn about ourselves and the world. Some communities celebrate their common nationality; global natives recognize our common humanity as well.

Figure: Taiye Selasi speaking at a TED Talk, 2015.*

The writer Taiye Selasi believes our identities today are based on a set of experiences rather than a single community in a single place.* Memories and connections, she says, are made across different geographies, in a wide variety of contexts, and for many different reasons. The 21st century is a time of multi-localism, when anybody can be a “local” of multiple places:

We are not nationals. We are locals. Some of us, multi-locals. Our relationship is not with a nation, but with our hometown, the city we went to university, the town square of our first kiss. Our experience is where we’re from.

In our globalized, interconnected, and multicultural world, people’s lack of mobility rights prevent them from living globally. Policymakers need to understand nomads as early adopters that signal a wider shift towards multi-localism. Increasingly, our sense of self privileges culture over country.

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Countries are stories, concepts, invented by people just like you and me. And we can invent new stories, concepts, and culture based on shared, global experiences. People will continue to travel, as they always have, to places with better opportunities, fewer threats, and more fun to be had. Yet as the world becomes more global and technologically advanced, not everyone gets to participate beyond one locality, and protecting free movement is often overlooked. That’s why our systems need to adapt. Governments and companies need to deliver new infrastructure to keep up with the pace of technology, its impact, and its potential.

Nomad visas begin to democratize global mobility from the ultra-wealthy to the mainstream, by prioritizing income and profession over country of origin. But unless we go further, these changes will only exacerbate the inequalities between the citizens of different countries. Global mobility can be a great equalizer, or the catalyst for new forms of exploitation. We need a global system that doesn’t only afford rights and privileges to the wealthy but instead champions human potential, by default and on principle.

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison said in a 1998 interview: “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.”* At this moment in history, those born in the wrong place are the ones barred from entry.

Today’s nomads start from a position of relative wealth or passport privilege, but what about the rest? Right now, there are more refugees than there have been since World War II. Even without nomads, more people will move in the coming decades in response to war, economic instability, and climate change. Those burdened with refugee status have few rights and face many restrictions. International law only protects a person’s right to move within national borders, not between different countries. This is where things need to change, and the situation is becoming more urgent. Researchers predict there will be at least 1.2 billion new refugees as a result of natural disasters and weather events by 2050.* The UK and the US have already seen their first “climate refugees,” and some countries, like the Polynesian island of Tuvalu, will become completely uninhabitable within a matter of decades.*

Given the inevitable increases in migration already taking place, there’s no viable path forward if we abide by strict national boundaries and barriers to economic opportunity. Nationality and citizenship status usually have nothing to do with whether someone is the best person for the job. Reducing the barriers to remote work and learning from nomad practices present the most promising changes in favor of global equality that we could possibly make.

Currently, borders restrict a person’s ability to pick up their laptop and start over elsewhere. If a nation-state fails, its citizens have to wait years to be allowed to work in another country or engage with the global economy through the internet. A refugee who works as a graphic designer or web developer can’t log in to online platforms and keep working overseas like a digital nomad can, because the right to do so depends on the power of their passport.

We need to upgrade passports for the internet era, and use these and other tools to achieve a more equitable future. We need to update not only our technology, but the values driving the system. That’s the mission I’m working on in my job at SafetyWing, where we aim to launch a fully-functional nomad passport within 10 years, starting with the Nomad Border Pass, a new global mobility tool allowing nomads to live and work across many countries from one visa application. We need to protect global mobility as a universal human right, and design for true meritocracy at the global level.

As we build new solutions, we’re guided by the same principles I advocate for in this book:

  • Mobility: protecting people’s right to move from place to place legitimately

  • Participation: ensuring the ability to participate in society based on residency, not birthplace

  • Integration: facilitating dialogue and interaction between locals and globals

These are the pillars we need to raise in an era of global natives, principles for a world of equal opportunity, equal access, and equal freedom. If we design with intention, we can use them to create new pathways for a broader demographic than nomads alone, improving outcomes for refugees and displaced people too.

The media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said that technology would turn the world into a global village.* He was right; the internet has delivered his vision. Now we need the systems to build and sustain our village: new, global institutions for the borderless, digital lives of the 21st century. The infrastructure we create for global natives must be more ambitious than what has come before. It must allow people living everywhere the freedom to live anywhere, and deliver an equality of opportunity across borders.

What we do in the 2020s, as remote work rises, will define our trajectory for the rest of the century. The opportunity we have now is to design a global system that supports instead of exploits. We can wield geography to further entrench inequalities, or we can bridge communities across the world using technology we already have. We can trap ourselves within arbitrary borders—or we can embrace the values of borderless living, which recognize the shared humanity no border can erase.

The choice is ours, and the journey has already begun.

Thank you for reading Global Natives! Please support the author: Follow Lauren Razavi on Twitter, subscribe to her newsletter, Counterflows, and join the Plumia community to hear more about the Nomad Border Pass.

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