The Prosperous Migrants
They are all over social media and all over the world. A hashtag search on TikTok offers up a plethora of their content, regarding tips and trips and anything you can imagine. The “digital nomad” is the latest creature enabled by virtual culture. Taken literally, the term refers to anyone who has given up a permanent residence in favor of moving from one place to another. Digital nomads generally have jobs that enable them to work from anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection. When they get to a new destination—Bali in Indonesia is a particular favorite—they simply set up in hostels or rooms for rent and stake out cafes and coffee houses. In one TikTok I watched a few weeks ago, the camera panned a beachside coffee house full of nomadic Westerners.
Perhaps because most digital nomads belong to the “very online” crowd, the internet is almost exploding with their exploits. Some extol the cost savings, noting that it is far cheaper to live in beachside towns in Mexico or Portugal or Costa Rica than it is to live in a large to medium-sized city in the United States. Others, such as a woman with the handle “themomtrotter” (1.7 million followers), show how lovely it is to luxuriate in a pool with one’s partner between business meetings. Most are inflected with at least some small bit of disdain toward viewers who could—and still do not—choose to embark on their digital nomad journey. After all, who would not want to travel to a lovely country, save money, and see the world, while perhaps becoming an influencer in the process?
Even though digital nomads may pretend they are thumbing their noses to the constrictions of capitalism, they are of course creatures of it. The world’s visa regimes privilege the citizens of wealthy and Western democracies to move easily about. Poor but beautiful countries have incentives to try to attract them. There are benefits to the hosting nation, since digital nomads tend to stay longer than the typical tourist flitting from one place to another. And while they stay, they bolster local economies by spending money on restaurants, coffee shops, guided trips, and other similar indulgences. Since their jobs are elsewhere, they are not technically taking jobs away from local populations. The longer length of their stay also means that there is a possibility that digital nomads actually get a better understanding of the culture and customs of a place than a hurried tourist cramming a vacation into a weekend.
Then again, the low level of commitment means that if one ends up in a place that does not meet expectations or where expat or digital nomad communities are not so fun, one can easily uproot and leave. Ironically, however, it is consistency that appears to matter most in life as a digital nomad; a solid routine that can be followed regardless of where one may be means that work productivity is not sacrificed as one moves from one time zone to the other.
The digital nomad lifestyle, along with its contribution to local economies, centers on passport privilege. This means that it’s mostly citizens of wealthy Western nation who can partake of the hop, skip, and jump of the new nomadism. The people of the countries themselves, say Indonesians from Bali, are not provided the same courtesy in the Western nations that prosperous nomads come from. The flow in the opposite direction, attested to by the crowds of migrants stuck in places like Lesbos in Greece, Nauru near Australia and the southern U.S-Mexico border meets resistance; few of the countries where they seek entry are interested in creating special visas from them. A refugee or a migrant is in a category marked by desperation while the passport privilege of the digital nomad signals ease. Once they are done taking in the world they will return to their country of origin. They may insist that they do not have a home but for all their insistence, the privileges of Western wealthy countries are such that home is always home.
So it follows that the people who are forced to travel, to migrate from their villages and towns and cities must leave their homes and become the unwanted while those choosing to travel are beckoned with special visas and privileges. The forty-six countries that offer or are setting up special travel visas include Australia, Panama, Antigua, Cambodia, Norway, and Brazil, just to name a few, according to Harvard Business Review. Nearly all require proof of employment—that remote job that will keep the nomad in question solvent and able to spend money in their countries. Many even throw in perks like tax holidays to get an edge over their competitors. It’s a solid bet: many countries that have faced big losses to their tourism sector can recoup some costs and attract lost travelers through offering these digital nomad visas.
In the post-normalizing-of-Covid world, in which everyone has gotten used to being an island unto themselves, digital nomadism offers up the opportunity to move the location of one’s island. With existing relationships enfeebled by distance and disuse, the idea of being alone traveling the world, all the while meeting similar expendable acquaintances and friends, has advantages. It could make people more adaptable and self-aware. This is likely how things will be in the short-term and for people who choose to be nomads for a short while or every now and then.
For others who are planning on becoming permanent nomads roadblocks may ensue. The country of citizenship could place additional tax requirements or simply become more stringent about collecting taxes from digital nomads (who tend to believe they’re somehow invisible because they have no permanent address). The most threatening prospect is the loss of the jobs keeping the digital travelers afloat. Currently, new start-ups are offering full remote options meant to attract workers in an increasingly competitive market. Companies such as Airbnb continue to have physical offices but also support employees to work from home.
This sort of labor market and need for talent will not be the case forever. Cost-cutting managers faced by entirely remote teams will eventually begin to ask if the “remote” job has to be done with an expensive American worker or could be outsourced to countries that have ample high-skilled labor but few jobs to sustain them. With remote employment, it could make more sense to hire software developers or engineers in India or the Philippines, or any other country. Unlike earlier, companies do not have to wait for visas to be processed and the employees to show up in the United States with their paperwork in order. If an employee is willing to keep American hours (as many American digital nomads do) they could be anywhere and cost considerably less than the laborers who make up the populations of digital nomadism today.
Countries can move to protect their own high-skilled jobs and workers and set up regulations that discourage hiring foreign remote workers or place extra taxation requirements on companies that do, but this will require legislation and a will to intervene in market forces. Governments already do this to protect sectors like agriculture, which gleans big subsidies in the United States and Europe; they may choose to do so with tech and other remote jobs as well. The digital nomads of today, high on beaches and beauty and days spent in bars, are not considering these policies. The surge in young, mostly white people on the road to fun and frolic will likely continue for the immediate future; a sort of nomadic bacchanal that rebels against forcible Covid restrictions of the past few years. But even as digital nomads keep hopping around and companies watch employees coyly setting backgrounds on their laptops that disguise their locations, they too are calculating costs. It is not only cheaper to live somewhere other than expensive North American and European countries, but it can also be cheaper to find workers there.