Photo by Jose Martinez
Artillery Row

Trapped in Nomad’s Land

The dark side of digital nomadism

Whilst on holiday in Indonesia earlier this year, I was struck by the number of “digital nomads” around the country. That is, people who work whilst they are travelling. In Bali, I stayed at a smart youth hostel specifically designed for these adventurous souls. They came from all over the world, but the two I got to know best were from Germany.

In many ways, these digital nomads have fantastic lives. They work wherever they want, sometimes logging on for only a few hours a day, surrounded by stunning landscapes. Typically their fortunes are vastly improved by getting away from their hometown, with much more disposable income freed up.

After the trip, though, I started to wonder if there’s a dark side to the digital nomad. It’s not that the nomads themselves are problematic — far from it; I was filled with nothing but admiration for those I met. It’s just that the lifestyle, and the romanticism surrounding it, absolves politicians from fixing long-term structural issues that led to this existence in the first place.

As most young adults know, it’s not all that unusual nowadays to hear friends and acquaintances think out loud about whether they want to emigrate — emboldened by the remote working that the pandemic allowed. The stats suggest people are acting on these impulses. In 2022, around 557,000 Brits emigrated, including thousands of doctors and teachers.

When reading figures like these, I always think of the Berlin Wall, which was commissioned by politicians in East Germany — partly because they did not want these types of people going. The wall was, of course, a terrible construction. It reminds you how significantly times have changed, though, with countries now haemorrhaging their young and talented, and leaders doing nothing about it. The current economic conditions in the UK are so repellent that it’s almost as if we have a “reverse wall” situation, with MPs encouraging young adults to go.

Politicians are relaxed about people leaving due to the nature of our immigration system. It has turned the country into something rather like a business, where people are units to be swapped in and out, depending on their value to company profits. When we have holes in industries, the political elite’s primary instinct is to import others from abroad. Never do they call for Britain, Inc. to work with what it’s already got.

Reliance on the young’s geographical transience is no new thing

The immigration system invariably makes life much harder for young adults, many of whom become “useful idiots” for politicians. They have tricked them into thinking it is “progressive” and “liberal” to have a high level of movement. In reality, the elite’s attitude to immigration is capitalist and cynical. The priority is cheap labour for them, whilst young adults and immigrants who pay the price. The UK housing crisis is undoubtedly evidence of this, as it is caused by demand grossly outweighing supply. This is a major part of the reason why so many Brits now emigrate. No one (apart from their loved ones) appears to want them back. The system essentially means they can be swapped for someone cheaper.

Instead of addressing these problems, politicians rely on the young’s enthusiasm for travel and being a “digital nomad” to get themselves off the hook. As with high levels of immigration, they can say that the young want this system to avoid criticism or reforms.

Reliance on the young’s geographical transience is no new thing. During Greece’s government-debt crisis, hundreds of thousands of young people left to find economic security elsewhere. It’s always been fashionable to think examples like this prove the importance of free movement. Instead, it feels as though states have created a shared babysitting service. Other countries can take the kids for a bit, whilst mum and dad clean up the house — except … they never do.

Whilst in Morocco a year ago, I met another digital nomad, a Brit, whose story wasn’t as dazzling as those I heard in Bali. He had been priced out of London, so he decided to stay at resorts in Europe, returning every few months to Blighty for tax purposes. One country he had visited was Portugal, where rents are now rising because it has become one of these “babysitting services” — absorbing Brits and others to the detriment of locals. If they were UK citizens, you can’t help thinking Portuguese locals would be tacitly encouraged to emigrate. The solution to more people moving to Britain and driving up house prices only ever seems to be that Brits should relocate.

Either way, I didn’t sense the British nomad was entirely happy. Yes, he enjoyed the sunshine — but everyone wants to “put down the boxes” eventually. A nation isn’t a series of interchanging economic units. Birth rates matter. Identities matter. The current set-up leaves us all in Nomad’s Land.

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