Pre-pandemic, digital nomads were typically known as hypebeast-adjacent or hipster millennials freelance-working from a remote beach. The phrase “digital nomads” might have even garnered some blank stares from most people.
But the lifestyle has since gained traction as remote work accelerated the trend of employees hauling around their laptops as they traveled the world: The number of Americans who identified as digital nomads increased by 131% from 2019 to 2022, according to a report from consultant group MBO Partners.
The growing popularity has naturally led to a greater variety of digital nomads beyond the stereotypical millennial. In a new paper published by World Leisure Journal, anthropologist Dave Cook sorted them into five categories.
Cook examined countless studies, research, and interviews on how digital nomads self-identified both pre- and post-pandemic. He found that the term “digital nomad” was used rather loosely and needed a more precise definition after it became integrated into conversations about remote work. So, he classified the different types of digital nomads based on six factors: “autonomy over mobility, homebase practices, domestic vs. transnational travel, legal legitimacy, work-life balance, and co-working space usage.”
Which one are you?
- The freelance digital nomad
These digital nomads can send emails from a café in Spain rather than a fluorescent office because they’re not tethered to any one job. Rather, they’re freelancing in creative or technical fields like graphic design, journalism, YouTube content creation, or software development. Most digital nomad research focused on this group until 2020, Cook writes. They fit the original stereotype of the digital nomad and are still highly prevalent today, with greater autonomy over their schedule and location.
- The digital nomad business owner
Digital nomad business owners are often confused with freelance digital nomads, but they’re not as common and their situation is a bit more complicated—they have contracted employees, greater inventory, or bigger business systems, Cook writes (consider the money coach who moved to Portugal on a digital nomad visa). You’re probably thinking of an entrepreneur, and you’d be partially right. That term is more general as it can encompass aspirational entrepreneurs, Cook says, making “digital nomad business owner” more accurate.
- The salaried digital nomad
This group largely emerged during the pandemic, defined as those who work and travel to at least three locations a year. But it’s hard to know how much this cohort has grown lately, as Cook points out that little research was dedicated to this group before the past couple of years. Their existence destabilizes our conceptions of work and exposes a divide in our work culture. The difference between companies who encourage work-from-anywhere situations versus those who want workers at their office desks “highlights a cultural tension emerging in the workplace,” Cook writes.
- The experimental digital nomad
If you’re taking a stab at being a digital nomad but not making enough money to support such a lifestyle, you’re not alone—just tell your worried mother you’re an experimental digital nomad. An adventurous group, these digital nomads might be trying out the lifestyle before committing to it. They’re managing their time around work constructs or starting a business, and are often spotted at co-working spaces or conferences. Such intentions means they’re not tourists, Cook writes, but “backpackers may be combining tourism with the practice of performative work.”
- The armchair nomad
Dreaming of a digital nomad style from the sidelines counts for something. Armchair nomads are doing just that, and while they’re not yet traveling, they’re earning money and saving up to potentially embark on digital nomadism down the line. While the future of flexibility at work is uncertain, interest in being a digital nomad continues to grow; Cook points to MBO’s estimations that there are 72 million armchair nomads in the U.S. who are looking to become digital nomads in the coming years.
Between golden visas and discrete “hush trips,” all of these digital nomads have made the lifestyle their own. But the influx of employees traveling and working elsewhere can have ramifications if it goes unchecked; some countries have halted their visa programs due to the disruption of the economy and displacement of locals as a result of digital nomadism.
“These new types of infrastructures impact urban planning, housing supply, [and] increase demand for short-term rentals, and some scholars argue this fuels gentrification,” Cook writes. He argues that better classification of digital nomads can help “governments, institutions, and individuals decide whether digital nomadism is an opportunity or a threat.”