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.
The highest earners in Altringer’s study were finance professionals, serial entrepreneurs, and top-tier software engineers, bringing in $8K per month on average and carrying minimal debt. Some of this group were motivated primarily by the tax advantages of a location-independent lifestyle, an issue we’ll explore in the next section of the book. Other high earners included the early employees of successful startups, salaried employees of big tech companies, and elite freelance coders represented by talent managers. Many of these people considered nomadism a long-term lifestyle, though some of them traveled within their home country rather than going overseas. The most successful nomads in the study tended to have in-demand skills, have already proven themselves professionally, and held their own interpretation of what constitutes a good life.
Below this group were mostly software engineers and some of the more successful online marketers. At lower income levels, the most common careers were in online sales and marketing, life coaching, and blogging. Nearly 60% of this group carried more than $60K in debt.
Typically, the nomads Altringer met opted for remote career tracks that were more flexible than those they left behind. These workers were often more concerned with day-to-day happiness than financial success, though Altringer questioned the sustainability of this position:
On average, nomads make around $1,000 a month, which at first glance goes very far in a low-cost location. But this $1,000 average doesn’t tell the full story. It is heavily skewed by exceptionally high earners, which hides the fact that the majority of nomads are making very modest salaries, not saving adequately for the future, and consistently struggling to keep their skills at a level that will allow them to return home where they left off.
The original data from Altringer’s survey is not public. From the scant information available, it seems a few hundred nomads filled in an online questionnaire (still viewable here) and then Altringer wrote up the results as a standalone Forbes article in December 2015. There’s also an archived version of a Q&A with her published on Nomad List, but this, too, is light on detail.*
According to the MBO Partners study of American nomads, 21% were earning less than $25K per year and 44% more than $75K in 2021.* It would be easy to conclude that many nomads are in a precarious position, choosing a path that leaves them worse off in their careers and with less financial security than the alternative. But this assessment misses the nuance in how nomads think about work and money. The traditional measure of monthly income may tell a very different story than the nomads themselves.
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Some nomads are remote employees for overseas companies, in which case their income is predictable and they can choose where to live and travel according to the value of their salary, work obligations, and individual preferences. Others, however, take on consulting gigs or freelance projects to generate a pot of cash and then use it as a personal runway (a term borrowed from the startup world) to fund their lifestyle for a stretch of months or even years on the road. Just a few weeks of work might comfortably sustain them for the rest of the year in a low-cost destination. There are, of course, also nomads who struggle to make ends meet, as Altringer’s research shows, and there are even those who take on financial losses to pursue the lifestyle in the first place.
Nomads don’t do one type of work in a single industry, but in general, they pursue some form of knowledge work. That means they make money from their skills and expertise, whether it be as a remote worker for a company, as a service provider to clients, or as a digital maker creating their own products. Nomads can be coders, writers, artists, designers, consultants, entrepreneurs, marketers, crypto-anarchists, and just about anything else you can accomplish using a laptop and an internet connection. Tech professionals tend to be overrepresented, given that remote and flexible work has been normalized in their field for years.
A nomad may be junior or senior in their profession, earning a high or low salary by the standards of a global city, and could fall into almost any age bracket (though the demographics often skew younger, since it’s easier for those without partners, children, and mortgages to deal with the practicalities of long-term travel).
This diversity leads to a common question in nomad forums: “What kind of job should I get to become a digital nomad?” There is no good answer to this question, because their occupation isn’t what nomads have in common—the way they live is. For a movement so often externally defined by where and how they work, nomads themselves are generally more concerned with the other parts of their lives.
The traditional 9–5 work week requires people’s presence at an office and sets them up to spend the rest of their time chasing the nebulous concept of work/life balance. Few ever claim to have accomplished this mystical feat. That isn’t surprising when you consider that this work pattern usually requires another 10 hours of commute time each week, for which workers are not even paid. A 30-minute commute five days a week equates to almost eleven whole days and nights of a person’s life spent in transit each year.
If 40 hours are spent on work each week, 10 hours on commuting, 10 hours on washing and personal care, 10 hours on food (buying, cooking, and eating), and 56 hours on sleep, that leaves around 50 hours per week for other activities like dating, relationships, hobbies, exercise, reading, and socializing. The idea of finding “balance” in a lifestyle that requires as many hours for work and related activities as it does for sleep is a farce.
Nomads take a more intentional approach. Rather than focusing on balance, they focus on integration. They consider work’s role alongside every other aspect of their lives. They may not work consistent hours, sprinting a few times a day rather than enduring eight hours straight, and they often blur the lines between work and play. They might take days off midweek to avoid the tourist crowds on Saturdays, or spend leisure time learning new skills that relate to their work.
Remote tools like Slack, Gmail, and Zoom make a nomad’s virtual work environment consistent wherever they go. Knowledge work can be solitary, requiring deep, focused hours in front of a computer screen each day. If this work can be performed anywhere, there is incentive to optimize the rest of your life, and especially your location, around other priorities. According to MBO Partners, 81% of American nomads are “highly satisfied” and 9% “satisfied” with their work and lifestyle. It’s little surprise that people with flexibility, freedom, and control over their lives are satisfied with their choices.
Reid Hoffman, best known as LinkedIn’s co-founder, argues in the 2014 book The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age that the whole world is in transition from a status quo of lifetime employment to one of “temporary, sporadic, and informal” work performed on a project-by-project basis. In the future, he says, an individual’s ability to cultivate useful, broad, and deep networks will be the primary metric of career success. If Hoffman’s vision proves accurate, nomads may be an early glimpse of an emerging global middle class that navigates the world very differently than their predecessors.
There’s a lot to learn from examining people’s desire for global mobility, and how they’ve accomplished it by exploiting cracks in the current systems. Because nomads lack formal recognition, reforms and innovations that could make travel, global work, and freelancing simpler and safer for everyone often go overlooked or unrepresented. In today’s world of nation-state infrastructure, nomadic life can be precarious and full of friction. Remote workers who choose to hit the road are largely on their own, because a social safety net doesn’t exist beyond the borders of a country.
Now, as more people experiment with the nomad lifestyle, policymakers have to decide how to address their needs, or risk losing these travelers—and their own citizens—to destinations with a more attractive offer. We’ll explore this shift in later parts of the book, and visit some of the nomad hubs that are leading the transition to global, remote work.