Contemporary nomads – Aleksandra Trapp

In my opinion, digital nomadism results from several coinciding phenomena. The main idea is that we earn money where they pay us best and we live in cheap and nice places. – Justyna Fabijańczyk

Nomadism has existed since the beginning of humankind. There have always been groups or individuals with a strong need for independence and for them, being mobile and constantly migrating were among the primary values, which also underlined their personal freedom. There are many definitions of traditional nomadism, but the most frequent notions appearing in this context include nomads, wanderers and vagabonds. Today, such a lifestyle remains popular among Bedouins, Tuareg or Roma people. Nowadays, however, the notion of nomadism is used to describe people who migrate around their countries or the world, work remotely and live in many different places, often with no permanent address, hence the notion of “contemporary nomadism”.It is still a new phenomenon with an ambiguous definition, so we decided to take a closer look at this group and see if this trend is also present in Poland. We managed to interview 35 people leading lifestyles compatible with the definition of contemporary nomadism or who consider themselves to be contemporary nomads (their statements are quoted in the text). Additionally, we conducted a quantitative study using the CAWI method (Computer-Assisted Web Interview) – responsive electronic questionnaires distributed through websites, Internet forums and email accounts of digital nomads. For comparison, we collected the opinions of 1022 Polish internet users (the sample structure was adjusted using analytical weight to reflect the structure of Polish
Internet users aged 15+ regarding their gender, age and the population of the place of residence) about digital nomadism. The results were collected in a report published in collaboration with Allegro Travellers. A Report on Contemporary Nomads.

In this study, as many as 86% of respondents admitted that they had never heard of the notion of digital or contemporary nomadism. Respondents who declared that they knew who digital nomads were, associated them quite clearly with new technologies and the internet. Interestingly, when the same people were asked to define the phenomenon they included into the group of digital nomads those who combine working remotely with travelling, as well as those who work in an office, but the majority of whose work is done on the Internet or who use new technologies for work. Mobility resulting from the term “nomadism” is, therefore, generally understood in two ways: as a possibility to move in physical space, travelling, wandering (in a similar way to traditional nomads) or as mobility related to the fact that today each owner of a smartphone or laptop with Internet access has all the world at hand, regardless where they currently reside in the world. Such a wide understanding of what digital nomadism is indicates that this phenomenon is not very common or widely recognised and its definition for the majority of people remains unclear and quite wide-ranging.

In addition, people who consider themselves to be digital nomads define this notion in various ways. Some of them focus on the digital aspect and point to contemporary opportunities afforded by technological development or access to cheap flights, as well as the possibilities offered by remote work made possible thanks to professions which can be practised from any place in the world, as long as there is internet access.

I can leave any time, any day, because if I want to work, I can do it anywhere. As long as there is Internet access.

– Piotr Fedorczyk

Nowadays the Internet offers wide opportunities for remote work. We meet many IT specialists, programmers and graphic designers, and also people who, for example, make money by playing poker online professionally. There are also journalists, bloggers, translators. They can all work remotely thanks to the Internet.

– Gosia Koper

Others claim that digital nomadism is something more than remote work and travelling. It is a lifestyle, an opportunity to fulfil one’s dreams and interests, constant learning, experiencing the world, getting to know new cultures, people, making one’s own choices.

In my opinion, digital nomads have similar lifestyles and share similar values. For them, not only work matters but free time, health and sport are also important. As for me, the most important values include independence, self-fulfilment, freedom and mobility. Freedom for me means no restrictions. It means having choices.

– Justyna Fabiańczyk

The notion of “digital nomadism” is relatively new. The first attempts to define this phenomenon date back to 2007. The publishing of Timothy Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek, which soon became an international bestseller, probably contributed to this. Since then, the popularity of the phrase “digital nomadism” has kept growing. There is no precise statistical data revealing the number of people living this way, partly due to the fact that the definition is so wide, unclear and appears in various contexts. However, at the DNX Global conference, it was estimated that by 2035 around a billion people will fit the notion of digital nomads.

There is no denying that today nomadism as a lifestyle is a growing trend. It is caused by both social and technological changes, including common access to the Internet, the so-called network society and the growing role of technology. It is also facilitated by the development of the economy based on knowledge and the increasing importance of occupations associated with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), which can be exercised remotely. The popularity of platforms facilitating employers’ access to freelancers from all over the world is also growing. The website has over 20 million registered users, and over 2 million. According to estimates by the McKinsey company, by 2025, the number of users of such platforms may even reach about 540 million. The fact that the growing number of people choosing this kind of lifestyle is also influenced by the dynamic development of cheap airlines, common accessibility and competitive prices of flights, as well as ongoing urban development making small Asian cities as convenient as cities in Europe or America. It should also be noted that generational changes and work-related expectations of generations Y and Z support the development of this trend. Instead of full-time jobs in companies and corporations, such people often choose self-employment or working as freelancers (the so-called gig economy). Additionally, young people today have higher expectations and a stronger need for experiences than previous generations, so they don’t want to regret missing out on something in their lives, not fulfilling some dream. Combining their passions and need for experiences with potential gainful employment seems very attractive.

A contemporary nomad is usually depicted as a young man, single, without obligations, working for the IT industry. As it has turned out, this image is in many aspects stereotypical. Studies show that contemporary nomads are indeed usually quite young (88% of respondents were 25-44 years old), but their gender is not a differentiating factor: the study included 51% male and 49% female respondents. The idea that nomads work solely for the IT industry is also a stereotype. They represent many other occupations, such as graphic designers, copywriters, teachers, bloggers or even psychologists. As for their family status, only 31% of respondents declared having a traditional family understood as having a husband/wife/children. At the same time, however, 60% declared being in a relationship.

At first glance, contemporary nomads seem to be a very diverse group, but a deeper analysis reveals some common characteristics, especially in terms of values. Almost all participants agreed that the most important aspect of contemporary nomadism was independence. The vast majority (79%) also declared that they agreed with the statement: “independence and freedom are very important to me”.

For me, freedom means a lack of constraints. It means having choices. A lack of restraints, not needing to adjust to patterns or conditions which I don’t agree with, I don’t understand or which are incompatible with what I feel or think.

– Justyna Fabijańczyk

For me, happiness means freedom which comes from the awareness of your choices. The possibility to shape your own life.

– Michał Majewski

The third most commonly mentioned value is the need for self-fulfilment. This was a common characteristic of all participants. They often talked about developing their potential and passions, accomplishing their goals. All participants of in-depth interviews could be described as ambitious and challenging themselves. Each emphasised, that they wanted to continue their development, learn new skills and keep learning.

My career is for me. It is not about working in order to travel. I want to develop. If you want to succeed, have a career, you don’t have to sit in an office for many hours. I also have interesting projects, I continue learning.

– Michał Molenda

Asked about the biggest advantages of this kind of lifestyle, the respondents also indicated the opportunity to learn about new cultures (63%), the possibility of development (54%), a lack of monotony in life (52%) and collecting memories (51%). Asked about their weaknesses, they usually mentioned impatience and getting bored easily (which is why they need changes and engage in too many projects at once), as well as, interestingly, too much ingenuity and creativity. They also mentioned shyness, which can undoubtedly hinder this kind of lifestyle, and the inability to establish lasting relationships.

Independence, freedom and a lack of stability are also characteristics most often associated with people who describe themselves as non-nomads. However, some of their answers would suggest that they had a stereotypical image of the phenomenon of nomadism. Asked about characteristics they associated with a digital nomad, they also recalled negative associations: 15% said that these people are on constant vacation and 12% stated that this is a lifestyle of irresponsible and lazy people.

In fact, however, diligence is one of the most important features of nomads. They are aware that they can travel and lead this lifestyle also thanks to their work.

My work is important for me because working and carrying out my responsibilities allows me to travel and live this life I have chosen. If I were lazy and didn’t carry out my tasks well and on time, this journey would soon be over.

– Gosia Koper

Studies show that for digital nomads the most attractive forms of work are self-employment, running their own business and freelancing – in total, 91% of respondents selected these forms. A contemporary nomad is not always a freelancer, there are also people employed by a company, but working remotely from any place in the world (either their employer does not require their presence in the office, or they are in charge of projects requiring frequent travel). Some of the nomads are also start-up and business owners.

My company has advisers in the USA and developers in Gdańsk, and it works very well. Thanks to the Internet, we don’t feel the need to have an actual office in any place. We don’t want to wonder whether we would find the right people in Poznań or Wrocław because we can function more efficiently having such an open and split structure.

– Michał Majewski

Every person deciding to lead the lifestyle described as contemporary nomadism has their own story. They had various motivations to begin this life, sometimes very personal, but one thing that appeared in virtually every story was an everlasting need for freedom and independence, an inner dream of living this way.

When I turned 20, I decided to move to England. This adventure and short stay turned into 10 years of stable life. I worked in London and didn’t like my job. When I went to Thailand for the first time, I suddenly realised, that things could be different. And then I had an important conversation; I told someone that I had always wanted to write for a living, and I heard them say: “What’s the problem? Just start doing it”.

– Joanna Szreder

Another frequently mentioned motivation to adopt the nomadic lifestyle was the claim that our dreams are worth fighting for, that we should experience many things in life, so that we wouldn’t regret missing out on opportunities available nowadays; 45% of respondents living the nomadic lifestyle declared that one of its advantages was the opportunity to fulfil their dreams.

I once came across a blog where a contemporary nomad described his travels, and I realised that today you can combine your work and dreams. Instead of buying bread in Poznań, you can have your favourite bakery in Thailand. It fascinated me. I decided that I wanted to live like this before I turned 30. I wanted to try. Later I read in an interview: “I regret not spending more time in Asia before I had a wife, children, responsibilities”, and I thought that I wouldn’t want to have such regrets.

– Tomasz Maciejewski

Other motivations to begin this lifestyle included a hunger for travel, the need to see the world, learning about new places and people. The opportunity to experience other cultures ranked quite high on the list (third place) among the most frequently indicated advantages of being a contemporary nomad. More prosaic reasons, although also often mentioned, included the weather. Some people decide to spend the European autumn and winter in warmer places and to come back to the continent for spring and summer.

I know people from Poland who prefer spending winter in warmer places and coming back to Poland for the summer.

– Tomasz Maciejewski

Traditional nomads travelled (or still travel) with their whole families and belongings. Contemporary nomadism is, however, strongly associated with the idea of minimalism. It is to a large extent conditioned by travel and airline baggage standards – you can’t travel cheaply and comfortably with several suitcases. It is easier to pack one light backpack and move freely from one place to another.

I like to travel light. It makes logistics easier. I can, for example, rent a scooter, take my backpack and not worry about additional luggage. All my belongings are on my back.

– Piotr Fedorczyk

Contrary to traditional nomads, who always travelled in groups, a contemporary nomad usually travels alone. Every third respondent (32%) among nomads or people leading this lifestyle declared that they prefer travelling by themselves. Men are visibly overrepresented in this group (46%); the lower percentage of women choosing this response (18%) may be conditioned by safety concerns. Every fifth respondent (25%) indicated a preference for travelling alone.

It would appear that if you are constantly on the move, it might be more difficult to establish deeper relationships or long-lasting friendships. However, during in-depth interviews our respondents emphasised that one of the most important benefits of such a lifestyle is getting to know new people and establishing relationships and that their communities are very important for them: 43% declared that they agreed with the statement: “My friends are like a family to me”. Only 2% of respondents claimed that they had no need to meet new people during their travels, and 24% of digital nomads stayed in touch with people they had met in the past.

As many as 79% of nomads agreed with the statement that “the world is a global village, my home is wherever I am”, which might suggest a lack of attachment to their roots, but it may also result from their ability to adapt to new places easily or from the interpersonal skills typical for this group. Communities in which digital nomads function are usually quite impermanent and ephemeral. They are a kind of community, which exists physically in a certain place, for a short period of time, but very intensely. For the time being, it becomes a substitute for a family in a distant country. The definition of a traditional family thus becomes fairly extended and includes friends, acquaintances and sometimes even colleagues. Despite this liberal treatment of the notion of family in its traditional sense (parents, siblings) it remains very meaningful for contemporary nomads: 45% of respondents agreed with the statement: “family is very important for me”, and 43% with the statement “my friends are like family to me”. Loneliness and problematic contact with family were listed among the major disadvantages of nomadism by respondents who perceive themselves as nomads or who lead the nomadic lifestyle.

But I always meet a lot of people in places where I stay for a longer period of time and they become my family. In Chiang Mai in Thailand, everyone knows each other and these people became my family, in a sense that when I need something or lack something, when I am sick, I know someone will help me. You also have a sense of responsibility for others. When a friend had a scooter accident I was engaged, I visited her in a hospital and notified her family. In this community, it was natural. When you live in Thailand, you have friends from all over the world, Vietnam, Brazil, India, and they are all far from their homelands. It binds people together. This intimacy is stronger.

– Joanna Szreder

Sometimes such communities are transferred to a virtual world (especially when nomads move to another place in the physical world) in the form of Internet forum groups. Often such connections in this environment also have a business dimension.

Contemporary nomads don’t talk much about the future. Leading the lifestyle described as rather focusing on the “here and now”, they don’t look ahead in their plans. They treat their lives as flexible and dynamic, they are open to changes (as many as 81% of respondents confirmed that they adapted easily to change). Often they were unable to answer questions related to the way they imagined their future lives in 5 or 10 years.

We try to avoid any binding arrangements. Lately, after coming back from Asia, we were thinking about staying in Poland for a longer time. We were thinking about something more permanent, a place to live. After a few months, we were back on the road. So now we have stopped planning. We do have this more general plan to spend the whole Polish winter travelling and come back to Poland for a few months, but we will see what happens. We also don’t decide on specific destinations, it all happens rather spontaneously. – Gosia Koper and Michał Molenda

I don’t know what I will be doing in a few years. Now I am part of a start-up and if everything works out well, perhaps I will have more time to travel. It all depends. For now, I don’t know. We will see what happens. – Piotr Fedorczyk

Looking at the study results, it is difficult to decide categorically whether nomadism is just a phase or a life-time plan: 47% of respondents claimed that if nothing changed in their lives, they would continue this lifestyle. However, 53% planned to eventually settle in one place and treated their current lifestyle as a phase. Almost three quarters of these people were still undecided as to the place they would choose as their future residence. People who declared that they knew where they would live in the future named various places and none of them were significantly more frequent than others. They included places like Portugal, Spain, the USA, Indonesia, Italy, Ireland, England, Australia or the Karkonosze mountains in Poland. People who didn’t know where they would live (but declared that they would settle down in the future) explained that they still had a lot of time to decide, they had visited an insufficient number of countries to decide, they didn’t know how it would be in the next few years and they didn’t want to make plans or that they simply hadn’t found their perfect place yet.

Aleksandra Trapp

It’s just been published in the The Polish Migration Review 5


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