Digital Nomads: The Big Picture

A comprehensive look into the lifestyle where you travel and work your way around the globe.

Marc Knaup
Oct 30 · 6 min read
A glimpse into Hubud, a co-working space for Digital Nomads in Bali

The Big Picture

What got me curious

While browsing YouTube, I came across Conni Biesalski and Chris the Freelancer. They identified as Digital Nomads and their videos give deep insight into their daily lives. They cover a lot of the highs but also the lows of the lifestyle.

One week of living in Bali with Chris the Freelancer

Their videos helped me to picture myself living a similar life without even having to change my job. I could explore foreign countries, cultures, and exotic locations. I could work from home, cafés, and coworking spaces. I could surround myself with like-minded people from every corner of the globe who share my interests.

After about a year spent researching, I was ready to take the next steps. I sold most of my stuff, gave up my apartment, and set off on my nomadic journey.

In this series of articles, I’ve put together everything that I’ve learned so far.

What is a Digital Nomad?

Let’s look at the term’s two components.

Digital refers to people who earn a considerable part of their income through digital means. If they can do that from anywhere, they are location independent. A common example is a software developer who can work from home.

Location-independent is often used as a synonym for a Digital Nomad. Although, just because someone is location independent doesn’t mean that they’re taking advantage of it.

Nomad refers to people who roam — those who repeatedly change the place where they live.

These are rough definitions. What we can now do is to create a spectrum that ranges from barely qualifying to strongly qualifying as Digital Nomad. To locate where one sits on the spectrum, we consider the three preconditions that are essential to the lifestyle.

Source of income: from fully analog to fully digital

The more income a nomadic person earns by digital means, the more they qualify as a “Digital Nomad.” Even if a job involves some physical work, living as a Digital Nomad can still be possible to some degree.

The majority of jobs associated with Digital Nomads are fully digital. In many cases, that enables location independence from the start.

Frequency of relocation: from never to very often

Some travel slowly — about every few years. They may enjoy being in the same place, staying around friends, and exploring their area for a while. They may prefer to plan ahead.

Some prefer more frequent changes to their environment — about every few months. They love to travel but also want to save money and stay productive. They try to keep a good balance between traveling and the downsides of relocating.

Then there are those who rarely stay still for more than a few weeks. They may be hopping between events and speaking gigs. They may be visiting places located along the way from one long-term stay to the next one. Or they may have just started on their nomadic journey — full of excitement and energy to see and do as much as possible.

Over time, many slow down and focus on places where they would love to stay for longer.

Many Digital Nomads have no intention of ending their travels anytime soon. But there are also plenty who live and work in various places just for a while. Afterward, they either remain in a place they love or head back to their previous “hometown.” They’re part-time Digital Nomads. They discover new places and then settle for a while.

Distance of relocation: from local to global

For many, remote work starts at a small scale. They work from home occasionally and once comfortable with it more often. They may mix things up a little and work from cafés and coworking spaces. At some point, they may combine work and travel.

Over time, they can get more comfortable with the idea of not just working from different places but also living there — at least for a while. Some of them travel more locally—in the same country or continent—while others set out to explore the entire world.

We can consider everyone to be some kind of Nomad as long as they’re relocating beyond their neighborhood. Once they remain in a place for longer, they slowly transition into a life as a local or an expat.

How many Digital Nomads are there?

The term Digital Nomad remains broad and refers to a diverse crowd that is scattered around the world. Therefore, it’s hard to find exact numbers on how many there are or what the trend is. I’ve come across a few noteworthy sources that can give us an idea:

State of Independence in America 2019

For their yearly report, MBO Partners interviews working Americans all over the USA. Since 2018, they’re asking if workers see themselves as Digital Nomads or plan to become one.

According to their study, 4.1 million independent workers identify themselves as Digital Nomads. That’s 10% of America’s independent workforce.

Even more interesting is that 16.1 million Americans plan on becoming a Digital Nomad over the next two to three years. And 41 million Americans at least consider it as a lifestyle option.

MBO Partners has considered 3,985 responses of U.S. residents aged 21 and older. That includes 1,046 independent workers.

Remote Work & Digital Nomads Study 2018

This report by Fiverr states that 24% of remote workers see themselves as Digital Nomads.

Unfortunately, there’s no information about how many responses Fiverr has considered. There’s also no mention of how they have selected survey participants.

State of Remote Work 2019

This report by Buffer highlights that remote workers like working remote. 30% have stated that working from any location is the biggest benefit they see in remote work. 44% travel and work between one week to one month per year. 19% do so between one to six months and 6% for more than six months per year.

Buffer considers 2,471 responses by remote workers from various countries.

Freelancing in America 2018

Upwork states that 84% of freelancers rank lifestyle over earnings. Only 64% of non-freelance workers do so. It would be interesting to know whether there is a causal relation between lifestyle priority and freelancing. Does being a freelancer increase the priority of lifestyle? Does an increased priority of lifestyle lead to more freelancers?

Upwork considers 6,001 responses by U.S. adults who have done paid work in the past twelve months.

Conclusion

With a growing amount of remote work and digital income sources, we’re becoming more location independent. Digital Nomadism is about making better use of that independence and growing in popularity.


Quantitative data about Digital Nomads are scarce and difficult to collect without bias. Much more interesting and helpful is to understand the trends that enable and contribute to the growth of Digital Nomadism.

Continue reading in Part 2: Trends.

Marc Knaup

Written by

❤️ building things, breaking things, writing software, discovering electronic music, living everywhere, and learning about life — knaup.io

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