Back in 2018, the MBO Partners State of Independence Research Brief estimated that 4.8 million Americans now considered themselves to be “digital nomads”.
They also found that another 17 million one day aspired to live the digital nomad lifestyle.
Yet, in 2020, a rogue cold virus – Covid-19 – seems to have derailed the digital nomad lifestyle for the time being. And potentially, permanently.
Are we witnessing the death of the digital nomad or will this aspirational lifestyle survive in the new normal?
The Signs Are Not Good
Remote Year, the company which dedicated itself to ensuring that nomads always had a place with working Wi-Fi to call their home, is in trouble.
They’ve shed more than half their workforce, so far, and they shut down many of their operations without giving any real notice to people taking part in their programs.
It’s hard to imagine that those left stranded with nowhere to live in the middle of a global pandemic are ever going to spend any money on “co-living experiences” again.
The company plans to offer more “US only” experiences but given that it hasn’t even provided refunds to those left on the curb by its actions, we remain skeptical that it will do them any good.
Travel Will Cost More For Future Digital Nomads
Then there’s the slight problem of the effects of the global shutdown on transport infrastructure.
Airlines have been particularly badly hit. They’ve shed thousands of jobs, mothballed planes and had to fly routes nearly empty for months. There’s worse to come.
They’ve lost a fortune and anyone who wants to travel in the “new normal” is going to be expected to shoulder the burden of the airlines’ operating losses. That means more expensive flights.
In fact, at this moment in time, flights appear to be about 3-5 times as expensive than in pre-Covid times.
Given that digital nomads are often moved to travel to save money, this is going to make it much harder to keep their costs down.
Co-Working Spaces Are Hit Hard
72% of coworking spaces report a drop in custom. 41% say they’re not getting the renewals they expected. 67% have fewer membership enquiries too. The future plans don’t look too inviting.
Most coworking spaces seem intent on ditching all their social elements, removing shared kitchen areas, kettles, etc.
This may be a sensible precaution against disease but it seems unlikely that a digital nomad would leave home to seek out isolation in a paid office – why not work at home, instead?
Hotspots Are Hit Harder
Chiang Mai, the world’s best-known nomad hotspot, has a tourism industry in ruins.
Bali, the other big digital nomad hub in Southeast Asia is in trouble too.
Without tourists and nomads spending money there, the workforce is shrinking, businesses are dying.
The question is, will there be anything worth traveling for once the lockdowns end?
After all, a main attraction of seeing the world as a digital nomad is geo-arbitrage – the chance to live a cheaper, better life than at home and not the chance to live a developing world existence.
Our View: It’s Not Over For Digital Nomads
It’s certainly true that 2020 has been a disastrous year for digital nomads.
Given the collapse of the industries which serve this once vibrant community – even if you could travel, you might not want to.
Don’t worry. This is not forever. There will be a new normal eventually that will look more like the old normal. Same same, but different?
But there may never be a wholesale return to traditional offices once employers see that remote work can be effective. If not, more effective.
And during this transitional period there will be a rush of new entrepreneurs looking to cater to the new-breed of digital nomads whose numbers have swelled during a pandemic where nearly everyone has had to learn to work remotely.
Those who never dreamed of becoming nomads may find that when the dust settles from the pandemic that they are overcome with an urge to see the world. Or at least their own country.
Whether they are at home or on the road, it looks like 2021 will definitely be the year of the remote worker.
Who knows, nomads might embrace van life and the urge to hit the highways and byways of their native lands.
We look forward to reporting on the emerging future of digital nomadism as it happens.
See you on the road!
If you’d like to immediately move into a van down by the river then check out our breakdown of the Best Camper Vans for 2021.
Nicholas Barang has lived in Asia for nearly 15 years. He makes his living as a writer, marketer, and blogger. His passions include photography, reading and Heavy Metal. He’s the co-founder of Nomad Talk.