Nomadism is not the future

It’s a trend based on fleeting foundations

I spent the year 2019 as a nomad. It was almost accidental. I was finishing up my degree in a place where the cost of living was very high, and since I had no courses left to take, and only to write a thesis, I’d be better off finishing it from a location where the cost of living was lower (I didn’t tell my professors, and they didn’t ask). With one year to write a thesis, I certainly was in no hurry, and so I procrastinated by getting myself involved in two startups: my own, and another one run by a friend.

Needless to say I had things to do. So I was a nomad only because I was neither at home, nor on vacation. I’ll admit I was also curious about the nomad lifestyle, so while I say it was accidental, I certainly did have other options (i.e. living at home). So I decided to take the leap.

Over the course of that year, I nomaded in about 6 cities across four countries in Asia. My experiences in each specific location would be better explained in blog format, so I’ll leave out the details here. But the general experiences across all of them doesn’t vary much, because my role, as a nomad, didn’t change. That’s the nature of being a nomad. The places change, but what you do on a daily basis, doesn’t.

The disappointing truth of nomadic life.

There are benefits to nomadic life for sure: freedom to make your own schedule, eating out everyday, seeing new places/meeting new people, working from wherever, not having to adhere the formalities of corporate life such as dress code, inane lunch conversations, etc.

And let’s not forget the co-working spaces! Beautifully decorated places filled with good looking young people gettin’ work done with big smiles on their faces, unlimited coffee, and a view of the neighboring village/beach/farm/mountain.

That’s sarcasm, of course. A co-working space, no matter how it may look, is simply an office. It’s meant for work. And at the end of the day, work is work. And the way work is done almost everywhere in the world… well, works. That is, in a fixed location, on a fixed schedule, with a generally minimalist work environment. Familiar, unelaborate surroundings are less conducive to distraction.

Routine, meanwhile, eliminates the effort spent thinking “how should I spend my day today?”. Yes, I’m saying that freedom is overrated. Being in a foreign city, without any specific working hours or workplace makes it hard to optimize one’s time. It’s very tempting to go to sleep late: wake up at noon, meander to a cafe/co-working space by 1 or 2 o clock, spend 3–4 hours on the computer (half of that on Twitter or Medium rather than working), and then call it a day. It feels extremely awkward to keep working when an entire city is on their way home, loosening up, making noise — the general energy is enough to be distracting,unless you are either A) alone (which, FYI, gets lonely), B) surrounded by other nomads who are on a similar schedule, or C) have some supernatural level of self-control.

But wait, those are only the surface problems of nomadic life. It gets deeper.

The fundamental flaws of nomadism.

Take a moment to think of one of your biggest life goals. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Then think about whether that goal can be accomplished when moving from place to place every month or two. Chances are, it can’t. If your goal involves anything related to career, relationships, or family, being a nomad makes all of those things unnecessarily difficult. Not impossible, but awkward and uncomfortable. That’s because humans, as a rule, inevitably seek stability. Stability allows us to focus on the things that matter, namely, making progress towards those big life goals.

And in order to achieve a level of stability, people usually converge towards a particular role, in a particular place. It is possible to enjoy hopping from place to place for a little while (which is what I did), but that becomes tiring when the wonder of being in a foreign place wears off. At that point it becomes much more advantageous to stay in one place, where you know people, you know the city and you can make progress toward those life goals instead of focusing on finding places to work, making new friends, and overcoming language and cultural barriers. If you choose to base yourself in a foreign country, you become an expat; if you choose to go home, you’re a former nomad. In the long run, the middle ground disappears.

[Side note: Some high-profile nomads have even endorsed the idea of a nomad village, where they’d live half the year, in one big nomadic community. This, sounds to me like an admission of what I’ve just described: staying in one place, leading a stable lifestyle, but with the implication that only people who call themselves nomads are worth being around for an extended period of time. To me, this sounds like an elitist group mentality, and nothing I’d personally like to be part of.]

But that’s not all. The very conditions that have enabled nomadism to become a thing at all, are quickly disappearing.

Why nomadism is not the future.

Right now, we’re in a sweet spot where “developing” nations are safer, cleaner, more technologically advanced than ever (fast wifi, cheap data), but living costs still have not reached the levels of US of Europe. This is a very transient set of circumstances, and costs of living will soon rise to be proportionate to the standards of living. This is the basic law of supply and demand. The more money, manpower, and business flowing into a market, the more people can capitalize and raise their prices. Higher prices lead to a demand for higher wages, and soon, the cost of living goes up.

That’s why nomadism is not the future — it’s a trend made possible by a set of ideal conditions which will soon no longer be ideal. That’s not to say we shouldn’t take advantage the conditions while they are in place. In fact, it’s a wise choice economically, and one which could even offset the economic changes going on in our own countries as a result of automation (a trend which won’t be going away anytime soon). But to consider it long term solution would be foolish. If nomadism were a stock, I would sell all my shares before the year is out.

The (best) possible scenario is that more people will decide to become expats, as standards of living in developing countries become similar to what we are used to at home, which would mean a rise in general racial tolerance, as well language education, both of which would be great, but that’s far from the nomadic utopia proponents have envisioned.

Coming to these conclusions after having myself lived the nomad life for a year is, in a way, admitting that I’ve wasted a year of my life trying to fit into an identity which is, at best, a fleeting phenomenon, and at worst, an elitist cult. But I can’t say I didn’t gain something from it. I’m a proponent of travel in general. And being a nomad has made me appreciate travel so much more.

Next time I take a trip, I’m not going to bring my laptop and work in a cafe off the beach. Instead, I’ll sit back and enjoy the view. ✌️

Helping Americans adapt to a globalizing world.