How Many Nomads Are There?

5 minutes, 8 links

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.

Because nomads are such a fluid group, few governments, institutions, or organizations invested in surveys and research related to them in the 2010s. There just wasn’t much incentive while nomadism was still a fringe movement. Today, though, visa and border policy are beginning to modernize, spurred by the global shift to remote work. We’ll explore how this is playing out in the later parts of the book, but what you need to know for now is that who exactly nomads are is difficult to measure, quantify, and analyze.

Since 2018, the consultancy firm MBO Partners has published a yearly State of Independence in America survey, one of few studies to collect data about digital nomads. While the survey only covers US residents, the 2021 edition found that 15.5 million Americans already identify as digital nomads (up from 10.9 million in 2020 and 7.3 million in 2019).* It also indicated that 65 million Americans are either planning to become digital nomads within three years, or are considering it. If those numbers prove accurate, 25% of the US population could be nomadic by the middle of the decade.

Figure: Growth in American digital nomads, from a survey by MBO Partners.*

A digital nomad named Pieter Levels, who we’ll learn more about later in the book, gave a conference talk about the future of digital nomads back in 2015. In it, he considers the implications of five ongoing global trends:

  1. Faster, cheaper internet

  2. Faster, cheaper air travel

  3. More freelancers

  4. Fewer marriages

  5. Less home ownership

Based on these shifts, Levels predicted there would be one billion digital nomads in the world by the year 2035. That’s equivalent to around 12% of the global population today. Even to those of us who were nomadic at the time, that figure sounded crazy. Nevertheless, respectable media brands like the Economist, Guardian and BBC all ran it in their stories.

But will Levels’s napkin math be proven right?

The growth of digital nomads will largely depend on the availability of remote jobs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many positions that had previously been in-office jobs suddenly became “anywhere jobs,” meaning they can be done remotely as efficiently or more efficiently than in a physical office.* Reflecting on this change, a McKinsey report from February 2021 estimated that up to 25% of the workforce in advanced economies would work remotely going forward.* For emerging economies, their projection was 10%. That’s a fivefold increase in the number of remote workers worldwide compared to 2019. The trend of employees quitting their jobs in favor of remote, flexible roles—“the Great Resignation”—suggests these will become the default work models in the near future.

Of course, being a digital nomad became more difficult as border closures and new travel requirements swept across the world in response to COVID-19. Still, there are many who continued despite the increase in stress, complexity, and expanse. Lockdowns in major European and American cities saw many people spend more time online, leading them to discover the possibility of digital nomadism. It didn’t take long for them to start dreaming about their ideal lifestyle, or for the media to begin referring to nomads as a cohesive group for the first time. Excited headlines like “COVID-19 Ushers in a New Era of Full-Time Travel” (Wall Street Journal, December 7th, 2020) and “Remote Work Made Digital Nomads Possible. The Pandemic Made Them Essential” (Fast Company, May 13th, 2021) brought digital nomadism to wider audiences than ever before.

In this context, one billion nomads by 2035 doesn’t seem nearly so outlandish. The internet, and especially the remote work it enables, fundamentally alters the human relationship with place.

There are now growing incentives for governments to examine who is and isn’t a nomad, and to understand more about their habits and needs, but it will likely take years to set up effective monitoring and gather meaningful data sets. Even once the structures are created, designing the right incentives for nomads to report their status will be tough. The way nomads live has never been outlawed, as such, but it has existed outside the usual purposes of travel. Sharing too many details with the authorities can result in delays, hassle, attention, and other undesirable consequences. When both business and pleasure are at stake, the easiest option is to tick the box that will prompt the fewest questions at the border.

The Nomad Work Philosophy

One of the rare early studies about digital nomads was initiated by a Harvard Professor named Beth Altringer.

Working across design, behavioral science, and innovation, Altringer was used to hearing about the latest hubs, ideas, and trends from around the world. In 2014, everybody she spoke to seemed to mention the same place: an Indonesian town of 30,000 where a group of expats had launched a vibrant new coworking space. Just a year after opening, it was now home to a disproportionately large startup community, and the town had become known as a global hotspot for entrepreneurship and sustainable design.

The name of that town was Ubud, and the name of the coworking space Altringer kept hearing about was Hubud, the same place I met Hacker Paradise in Bali. She decided to take a trip, interested in investigating whether this success could be replicated elsewhere.* She spent several weeks working from Hubud, meeting digital nomads in the wild and trying out the lifestyle for herself. The questions that compelled her most were around nomad finances, so she returned to Harvard and launched a survey.

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