Digital nomads are symbolic of the modern remote working era. This term often paints a picture of a writer or tech professional wandering through picturesque foreign streets or tapping away on their laptop at a beachfront café. They watch the world go by, meet new people, and work on their own time.
Nevertheless, digital nomads come in many forms. Some are freelancers or contractors; others are entrepreneurs building their businesses; and others work in full-time remote roles for global companies. They may be salaried or paid per task, and generally, these professionals have strong administrative skills and education levels.
Expert data and anecdotal evidence indicate a rise in digital nomads, with a notable surge due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Precise numbers are challenging to pinpoint, but a 2022 report from US consultancy firm MBO Partners suggests a staggering 131% increase in US digital nomads since 2019, amounting to millions.
The Allure of Hawaii for Digital Nomads
Hawaii has long been an alluring destination for digital nomads. The breathtaking landscapes provide ample inspiration, while the island's recreational activities, from surfing to hiking, add an exciting dimension to their work-life balance. The Aloha spirit, friendly locals, and rich Polynesian culture create a welcoming environment, making the transition to island life a breeze. Further, the state's considerable technological infrastructure, including reliable internet connectivity, ensures seamless remote working.
The Exodus: Why Digital Nomads are Leaving Hawaii
However, recently, a reverse trend has been noticed - digital nomads are leaving Hawaii. The high cost of living is a significant factor. From pricey accommodations to everyday expenses, Hawaii can stretch a nomad's budget. Connectivity issues, despite the overall robust infrastructure, can be a damper, especially considering the substantial time difference with mainland USA and other continents, which poses a challenge for client interactions. Additionally, the nomadic lifestyle, while initially exhilarating, can become isolating over time. Many digital nomads are seeking more stable environments where they can establish a sense of community and routine.
The lifestyle's allure often masks its less glamorous reality and digital nomads have spoken of the toll it takes on their mental and physical health, ultimately impacting their professional satisfaction. Some have relinquished their ocean views and nomadic lifestyle.
The Dark Side of Digital Nomadism
In 2011, Lauren Juliff left her UK supermarket job to travel the world. She initiated a travel website to fund her explorations, and to her astonishment, within a year, she began earning enough to become a digital nomad.
However, after a span of five years, the exhilaration for the global nomadic lifestyle began to wane. Now at 34, Juliff shares that her journey - which initially seemed idyllic, akin to a dream - evolved into an exhausting obligation that she was desperate to relinquish.
Living and working amidst constant flux had unforeseen repercussions on her physical and mental well-being. "I began experiencing panic attacks daily, that would only cease when I visualized myself having a home," she shares.
The absence of a stable community culminated in the loss of long-term friendships, engendering feelings of loneliness and depression. Juliff's health was compromised due to recurring infections and food poisoning.
Without access to a kitchen or gym, she shares that her lifestyle was not conducive to health. Juliff relied on restaurant meals thrice a day, every day, for years. Her personal life was likewise adversely impacted.
I relished traveling. My aspiration had always been to witness as much of the world as possible, and once I transformed that aspiration into reality, I was resolute about never relinquishing it. Immersing myself in new nations filled me with a sense of vitality and presented daily opportunities to learn - about diverse cultures and about my own personal growth.
Research on Digital Nomadism
Sociologist Beverly Thompson from Siena College in the US, who studies digital nomadism, explains that those who opt for this lifestyle often aren't prepared for the downsides. The community often presents an idealized image online, hiding negative aspects like loneliness, mental health issues, and financial struggles.
However, digital nomadism isn't for everyone. "You're entirely restricted by your passport," Thompson states. One requires a 'powerful' passport, with more restricted passports limiting the number of countries one can visit as a tourist.
Challenges in Digital Nomadism
The hurdles of bureaucracy made their presence known to Darius Foroux in his initial foray into the digital nomad lifestyle. His introductory months, filled with warm sunshine and palm-fringed beaches, were joyous. However, he soon realized that to establish an appropriate remote work environment, a home base was essential.
I didn't expect this. I moved to Spain thinking that the cost of living would be lower, but it ended up being as expensive as in the Netherlands. Essentially, I was paying a premium for the pleasant weather.
Upon embarking on his search for a permanent apartment, Foroux encountered a process far more challenging than initially anticipated. The maze of legal procedures and a multi-month timeline proved to be a hard puzzle to solve.
Adding to his woes was the skyrocketing real estate market in the Málaga and Marbella regions of Spain. A surge in demand precipitated a steep increase in rental prices, with no regulation in place to cap what agencies could demand. Foroux was taken aback by the substantial deposit requirements and exorbitant agency fees.
Following less than half a year in Spain, Foroux found himself retreating to the Netherlands, seeking a life of stability and the much-needed focus his profession as a writer and micro-entrepreneur demanded.Though many people still find success in digital nomadism, it does pose challenges to productivity, health, and personal relationships. And while the number of digital nomads has risen, they remain a small percentage of global professionals, often concentrated in certain countries.
The trend is not going away, according to Thompson. Younger people might try to be digital nomads for a few years, but many are observing the lifestyle's reality. Meanwhile, companies are keen to bring employees back to offices, suggesting the trend might slow down but continue."
The Future of Digital Nomadism
While this exodus may seem alarming, it's essential to look at the broader picture. Perhaps this shift is not an ending but an evolution of the digital nomad lifestyle. It is a chance for policymakers to strategize on how to make the archipelago more accommodating for this modern workforce. Measures such as developing co-working spaces, facilitating affordable long-term accommodation, and enhancing digital infrastructure can go a long way in retaining and attracting digital nomads. The current exodus might be an indicator of changing nomadic preferences, prompting us to reconsider what digital nomadism entails in a post-pandemic world.