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In search of a digital nomad: defining the phenomenon

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This paper defines the rapidly emerging mobile lifestyle of digital nomads, who work while traveling and travel while working. Digital nomadism is driven by important societal changes, such as the ubiquity of mobility and technology in everyday lives and increasingly flexible and precarious employment. Despite the growing prevalence of this lifestyle, there is a lack of common understanding of and holistic perspective on the phenomenon. The emerging literature on digital nomadism is fragmented and scattered through different disciplines and perspectives. This paper looks into digital nomadism against the array of contemporary lifestyle-led mobilities and location independent work to develop a comprehensive perspective of the phenomenon. The paper also suggests a conceptual framing of digital nomadism within lifestyle mobilities. A limited number of empirical studies on digital nomads narrows the scope of analytical discussion in this paper. Thus, the paper defines aspects and directions for further conceptualization of the phenomenon.
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Information Technology & Tourism
https://doi.org/10.1007/s40558-020-00177-z
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ORIGINAL RESEARCH
In search ofa digital nomad: defining thephenomenon
OlgaHannonen1
Received: 27 October 2019 / Revised: 27 March 2020 / Accepted: 15 April 2020
© The Author(s) 2020, corrected publication 2021
Abstract
This paper defines the rapidly emerging mobile lifestyle of digital nomads, who
work while traveling and travel while working. Digital nomadism is driven by
important societal changes, such as theubiquity of mobility and technology in eve-
ryday lives and increasingly flexible and precarious employment. Despite the grow-
ing prevalence of this lifestyle, there is a lack of common understanding of and
holistic perspective on the phenomenon. The emerging literature on digital nomad-
ism is fragmented and scattered through different disciplines and perspectives. This
paper looks into digital nomadism against the array of contemporary lifestyle-led
mobilities and location independent work to develop a comprehensive perspective
ofthe phenomenon. The paper also suggestsa conceptual framing of digital nomad-
ism within lifestyle mobilities.A limited number of empirical studies on digital
nomads narrows the scope of analytical discussion in this paper. Thus, the paper
defines aspects and directions for further conceptualization of the phenomenon.
Keywords Digital nomad· Digital nomadism· Lifestyle mobility· Location
independence
1 Introduction
Increasing international mobility of individuals driven by personal desires for a
change in lifestyle, freedom of choice and self-fulfillment has become a worldwide
trend sincethe 1980s. These mobilities have taken a number of forms in a variety of
empirical contexts and include second-home tourism, residential tourism, seasonal
and lifestyle migration, global/neo-nomadism, flashpacking, bohemian lifestyle
migration and digital nomadism (Åkerlund 2013; D’Andrea 2016; Hannonen 2016,
2018; Korpela 2019; Müller 2016; O’Reilly and Benson 2009; Paris 2012; Reichen-
berger 2018).
* Olga Hannonen
olga.hannonen@uef.fi
1 Karelian Institute, University ofEastern Finland, Yliopistokatu 2, 80101Joensuu, Finland
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O.Hannonen
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The rapid growth of these mobilities is connected to socio-political factors such
as globalization, individualization, increased international experiences and mobility,
ease of movement, wireless communication technologies and advancement in trans-
portation systems, the digitalization of real estate, flexibility of working lives and
increases in global relative wealth (Hannonen 2018; Makimoto and Manners 1997;
Müller 2016; O’Reilly and Benson 2009; Orel 2019). D’Andrea (2016) states that it
is important to understand wider perspectives of globalization to assess the features
of contemporary lifestyle-led mobilities and global nomadism in particular. Con-
temporary processes of formation of global markets, and thedevelopment of trans-
portation and communication technologies lead to new social formations, patterns
and opportunities. Indeed, thedigitalization and incorporation of mobility intothe
everyday (both as physical relocation and technological connectivity) have resulted
in the expansion of leisure and mobile lifestyles both nationally and internationally
(Paris 2011; Urry 2007).
These fluid and flexible mobilities stand ‘in-between’ tourism and migration and
have been collectively framed as lifestyle mobility (Åkerlund 2013; Hannonen 2016;
Cohen etal. 2015). One of the most recent trends in lifestyle mobilities is digital
nomadism. It resembles and contrasts other types of lifestyle-led1 mobilities in a
number of ways. Digital nomadism is a novel mobility type that is a result of the
incorporation of mobile technologies in everyday life and different types of work
settings. This growing lifestyle undermines traditional sedentary perspectives and
attachments to home, work and even nation-state. The mobile lifestyle of digital
nomads has potentially farreaching implications for societies in terms of family life
and working cultures.
Studies on digital nomadism are growing, but the term is used in a varietyof, and
often contradicting, ways. The emerging literature on digital nomadism is primarily
focused on descriptions of their lifestyles with less attention totheoretically framing
digital nomadism (Wang etal. 2018, 1). This highlights the need todevelop compre-
hensive terminological and conceptual perspectives ondigital nomadism to frame it
as a proper research category and rapidly emerging mobility practice to serve future
studies on the phenomenon. To address this issue the paper discusses digital nomad-
ism through related lifestyle and work phenomena. The aim of the paper is to offer
terminological and conceptual perspectives on digital nomadism.
The term “digital nomad” was introduced by Makimoto and Manners in 1997
to describe an outcome of technological advancement on people’s lives (Makimoto
and Manners 1997). They predicted how mobile and portable technologies would
augment work and leisure and produce a new lifestyle, in which “people are freed
from constraints of time and location” (Makimoto 2013, 40). Thus, the term “digi-
tal nomad” describes a category of mobile professionals, who perform their work
remotely from anywhere in the world, utilizing digital technologies, while “digital
nomadism” refers to the lifestyle that is developed by these highly mobile location
independent professionals.
1 For convenience I use ‘lifestyle-led mobilities’ as an umbrella term to collectively refer to the variety
of mobilities that the category of ‘lifestyle mobility’ encompasses. Cohen etal. (2015) introduce and use
‘lifestyle-led mobilities’ for the same purpose.
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In search ofa digital nomad: defining thephenomenon
Empirically, existing studies on digital nomads have focused on various facets of
the phenomenon, positioning digital nomadism as a product of changing working
cultures and other societal changes, as well as diversifying travel patterns (Müller
2016; Nash etal. 2018; Reichenberger 2018; Thompson 2018, 2019; Wang etal.
2018). These studies show a twofold approach to digital nomadism that is strongly
influenced by a particular research discipline that theauthors represent. They define
the phenomenon either from the work life perspective or through the lifestyle angle
(cf. Sect. 2). Therefore, this paper offers a critical assessment of contemporary
definitions, including statistical definition of the term, in order to bridge these two
angles and suggest a holistic perspective on digital nomadism.
Contemporary studies offer littleconceptual framing of digital nomadism, which
can be explained by the novelty of the phenomenon. Digital nomadism has been
approached as a form of creative tourism (Putra and Agirachman 2016) and a type
of leisure activity (Reichenberger 2018), as a novel type of location independent
workforce (Orel 2019; Wang et al. 2018), and as a new economic activity and a
cultural phenomenon (Wang etal. 2018) (cf. Sect.5.1). These studies provide ini-
tialtheoretical elaborations on this new phenomenon that, similar to the definition
of digital nomadism, tend to take either a lifestyle or a work life perspective. Despite
their one-sidedness, existing approaches offer a starting point for further conceptual
developments on digital nomadism. This paper proposes further theoretical fram-
ing of the phenomenon within lifestyle mobilities through critical engagements with
contemporary approaches to lifestyle-led mobilities. Theoretical conceptualisation
of digital nomadism is important for understanding it as a new form of rapidly grow-
ing mobility and social phenomenon.
To achieve its objective, this paper discusses the following aspects of the phe-
nomenon. First, digital nomadism is introduced and defined based on existing stud-
ies of the phenomenon and statistical records. To enhance the understanding of
digital nomadism, it is presented and discussed through related lifestyle phenom-
ena. Second, it is illuminated through the work-related mobilities, including the
elaboration of the ‘work’ component in digital nomadism. Next, digital nomadism
is reviewed through other contemporary nomadic mobilities, which simultaneously
defines major features of digital nomadism. Finally, contemporary approaches to
digital nomadism are discussed beforethe proposition of aconceptual framing of
the phenomenon within lifestyle mobilities.
This paper therefore continues earlier elaborations and attempts to develop a
holistic definition of digital nomadism through a comparative analysis with related
phenomena and offers a conceptual framing of digital nomadism. This paper is lim-
ited to empirical evidence that originates from existing studies on digital nomads.
2 In words andnumbers: approaching digital nomadism
“Marooned on a desert island, still running your business or doing your job”
(Makimoto and Manners 1997, 39)
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O.Hannonen
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Digital nomadism as a lifestyle phenomenon is well represented in business and
professional publications. Research has been slow  to acknowledge this growing
mobility trend (Reichenberger 2018; Thompson 2018). As a research category, digi-
tal nomads have appeared in academic publications only during the last decade (see
e.g. Makimoto 2013; Müller 2016). The number of research papers and study cases
on the phenomenon in different parts of the world has been steadily growing. Con-
temporary studies provide various perspectives, definitions and categorizations of
digital nomads butlack a coherent understanding of the term and phenomenon. This
raises the relevance of the goalof this paper: to elaborate a comprehensive definition
of digital nomadism.
This section discusses approaches to digital nomadism through existing empirical
studies on the phenomenon. Contemporary approaches to digital nomadism can be
divided into two groups: the work life perspective and the lifestyle angle. Thework
life perspective refers to digital nomads as a group or type of remote mobile work-
ers. Liegl (2014, 163) calls a digital nomad “a mobile knowledge worker equipped
with digital technologies to work ‘anytime, anywhere’.” Müller (2016, 344) defines
digital nomads as “a new generation of location independent freelancers, young
entrepreneurs, online self-employed persons.” These approaches look at digital
nomadism as an outcome of changing working conditions and increases in mobile
and distance work. In this perspective location independent lifestyle is secondary.
Müller (2016, 344) provides a comprehensive definition of the term from a mobile
work perspective, which defines digital nomads as “people who no longer rely on
work in a conventional office; instead, they can decide freely when and where to
work. They can essentially work anywhere, as long as they have their laptop with
them and access to a good internet connection.”
Thelocation independent work of digital nomads is accompanied by a purpose-
ful engagement in travel. This turns remote work into a lifestyle: “Digital nomads
are teleworkers who […] choose to work from everywhere, living a life of ongoing
interleaved work and travel” (Wang etal. 2018, 2, 9). Theauthors emphasize that it
is not just a new lifestyle, but a new way of performing and organizing work (Wang
etal. 2018). As a lifestyle, digital nomadism is defined as “the ability for individuals
to work remotely from their laptop and use their freedom from an office to travel the
world” (Thompson 2019, 27). The “urge to travel” is an essential component of digi-
tal nomadism coupled with the ability to do so (Makimoto and Manners 1997, 17).
Both approaches demonstrate that employment relationships, or labor produc-
tivity in general, arean essential component of digital nomadism. Another impor-
tant characteristic is international travel on a semi-permanent or ongoing basis.
While the duration of travel varies significantly depending on lifestyle preferences,
visa regimes and other factors, the international component has been defined as a
core element of such travels (Reichenberger 2018; Thompson 2018, 2019). These
two rather obvious elements are important to highlight as they are significant fac-
tors in differentiating digital nomadism from other similarphenomena that are dis-
cussed later in this paper. Digital nomads choose to be mobile and purposefully
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In search ofa digital nomad: defining thephenomenon
engage in international and virtual travel to work remotely in different societal and
online settings.
Existing studies on digital nomads have referred to statistics on self-employed
workers (Thompson 2018) and co-working space users (Orel 2019) to scale the
phenomenon. The difficulty of measuring the phenomenon comes from its scale, as
digital nomadism spans several categories and types of employees, including both
traditional and independent workers (cf. Sect.3, Fig.1). Reports on independent
workers, freelancers and telecommuters (cf. Freelancing in America 2018; Manyika
etal. 2016) do not show the scale of digital nomadism, as it is unknown how many
(if any) freelancers, self-employed workers or telecommuters choose to adopt a loca-
tion independent lifestyle. While these statistical records do not give an accurate
representation of digital nomadism, they still indicate the rapid growth and scale of
theflexible independent workforce in Western societies. Pieter Levels, the founder
of the nomad list (nomadlist.com), states that every third freelancer becomes a digi-
tal nomad. He estimates that 60% of the working population will be freelancing by
2035 with the scale of digital nomadism reaching one billion people by the same
year (Jacobs and Gussekloo 2016, 15). Taking into account the growing pace of
freelancing, Levels’ estimations are feasible (for example, in the US freelancing has
grown from 7 to 35% in 5years, cf. Freelancing in America 2018).
Since 2018 digital nomads have been included as a separate category in the State
of Independence in America annual research report. TheState of Independence in
America report is the first and currently only statistical estimation of digital nomad-
ism. These reports are survey based and only providean estimation of the phenom-
enon. Yet the report places digital nomadism as a growing mainstream trend that
requires adequate conceptualization and definition. The 2019 survey, conducted
with 3985 Americanresidents whoreflect the population demographics, states that
about 4.1 million independent workers and 3.2 million traditional workers in the US
Work-related mobility Lifestyle mobility
Telecommuting Backpackers
Freelancers Flashpackers
Traveling professionals Global/Neo-nomads
ted mobility
Lifestyl
mmuting
Back
ancers
Flash
rofessionals
DIGITAL
DIG
DIG
GITAL
GITAL
L
L
NOMADS
NOM
NOM
MADS
MADS
Fig. 1 Interrelations of digital nomadism with related phenomena
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O.Hannonen
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currently describe themselves as digital nomads (State of Independence in Amer-
ica 2019). In the US alone, an additional 16.1 million Americans aspire to become
nomadic someday, which indicates the extent of interest in this location independent
lifestyle (State of Independence in America 2019).2 The report claims that a signifi-
cant and growing core of digital nomads is taking place in the independent work-
force. Thus, with the increase in independent and remote workforce in the US and
other regions of the world, digital nomadism is expected to continue to grow.
Despite the importance of these reports as a measure to frame digital nomadism,
they havesome shortcomings that should be noted. The two reports do not providea
uniform definition of digital nomadism. Digital nomads are defined as “people who
choose to embrace a location-independent, technology-enabled lifestyle that allows
them to travel and work remotely, anywhere in the world” (State of Independence in
America 2018). However, reports categorize digital nomads as both intermittently
mobile remote workers and ongoing travelers:
“There are digital nomads who travel for years, regularly moving across coun-
tries and continents. Others are nomadic for shorter periods, taking “workca-
tions” and working sabbaticals lasting from several weeks to many months.
[…] United by a passion for travel and new adventures, digital nomads enjoy
the ability to work anywhere they can connect to the Internet” (State of Inde-
pendence in America 2018, 1).
These descriptions show that the State of Independence in America reports
(2018, 2019) define digital nomadism as remote work with mobility as a possibility
but not a condition, which does not fully align with the original understanding of
the phenomenon. Makimoto and Manners (1997, 72) define digital nomadism as a
further development of existing travel patterns and habits: “From the extensive, but
sporadic, nomadism of today, technology’s spur could turn nomadism into a main-
stream lifestyle.”This presumes that nomadism is an on-going state and a lifestyle.
Jacobs and Gussekloo (2016) state that it is impossible to define and categorize
mobility of digital nomads, thus the term should rely on the self-identification of
individuals as digital nomads. For this very reason the existing empirical studies on
and with digital nomads are used as the main data source in this paper, as they pro-
vide first-hand information about nomads through their life stories. Emerged mis-
conceptions in defining and categorizing digital nomads emphasize once more the
need to provide a comprehensive description of this lifestyle. Thus, in order to fur-
ther develop a definition of digital nomadism, it requires differentiation from other
mobile individuals and non-mobile workers. The following sections discuss digital
nomads along related lifestyle phenomena—flashpacking, global and neo-nomad-
ism, and flexible work types—freelancing and telecommuting.
2 A year earlier the number of self-identified digital nomads was 4.8 million people (State of Independ-
ence in America 2018).
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In search ofa digital nomad: defining thephenomenon
3 Work, travel anddigital nomadism
Terminological uncertainty in defining digital nomads is growing along withstudies
on the phenomenon. Some authors define frequently traveled young adults as digital
nomads (Richards 2015), workers or settlers of tech hubs (McElroy 2019), others
use more general categories, likeglobal nomads, that include digital nomadsamong
others (Kannisto 2014). Digital nomads are viewed as the intersection of travel, lei-
sure and work, and have alsobeen referred to as mobile workers (Orel 2019), tele-
workers, a hybrid of a traveling businessperson and a backpacker (Wang etal. 2018),
and independent or remote workers (State of Independence in America 2018).
Some other studies on digital nomads also differentiate them into groups depend-
ing on their mobility level. For example, Reichenberger (2018) classifies digital
nomads as (1) flexible workers without incorporating travel, (2) extensive travelers
retaining permanent residence and (3) lifestyle movers without a place ofpermanent
residence. In a similar vein, Toussaint (2009) distinguishes three different types of
digital nomads: (1) continuous travelers whoare on a continuous trip, living a life as
simple as possible to save money and attemptto earn it by asking for donations or
have sponsors; (2) independent workers whoare fond of traveling and choose a pro-
fession that allows them to do so, conducting work through various communication
techniques; (3) business travelers whotravel around the world running their busi-
ness, e.g. meeting clients, and find a living environment that serves their require-
mentsfora good habitat. While all these groups are regarded by the authors as digi-
tal nomads, some of these categories are examples of teleworkers, nomads and other
(im)mobile professionals. In relation to the original term, onlya few of these catego-
ries can be regarded as a digital nomadic lifestyle.
Richards (2015) suggests that there are three forms of nomads nowadays: the
backpacker, the flashpacker and the global nomad. The main differentiation between
digital nomads and backpackers is that the latter travel for touristic or lifestyle rea-
sons without theneed to work or work odd jobs to supporttheir journey (Maura-
tidis 2018). The other two categories, flashpackers and global nomads, bring some
terminological confusion in relation to digital nomads and require a more detailed
examination.
Aflashpacker is a technology savvy backpacker, who uses technology as a con-
nectivity tool to plan, book and execute their journeys and stay in touch with their
social networks. Flashpackers use technology to stay connected online and share
experiences through digital channels, such as blogs, video channels and social media
sites. Their physical mobility and online/virtual connectivity are interrelated (Paris
2012). As this category of traveler connects technology and travel, they “seem-
ingly, embody both the backpacker culture and that of the ‘digital nomad’” (Paris
2012, 1095). Flashpackers and digital nomads are overlapping phenomena, as
digital nomads also share their travel experiences online (Jacobs and Gussekloo
2016). Flashpackers do not commonly make use of technology and connectivity to
work while traveling, though they might do so on occasion, blurring the boundary
between flashpacking and digital nomadism. Some authors use these terms as syno-
nyms. For example, in his study on young travelers Richards (2015)concludes that
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flashpackers (who are synonymous withdigital nomads in his study) travel an aver-
age of62days per year, undertaking about four trips in 5years (Richards 2015).
Such a travel pattern contradicts the empirical evidence from other studies on digital
nomads that emphasize engagement in (semi)permanent or even uninterrupted travel
(Nash etal. 2018; Thompson 2018, 2019). Thus, travel and the use of technology
on the road does not make one a digital nomad. It requires theaccomplishment of
work-related tasks and professional activities while traveling.
Working on the move or location independence bridges digital nomadism with
other types of flexible and location independent work, such as freelancing and
telecommuting. Earlier discussion on statistical records in this paper has already
distanced digital nomadism from these types of remote work. It is however
important tore-examine these phenomena since freelancing and telecommuting
have preceded and, to a certain extent, produced digital nomadism.
Telecommuting is defined as “a work arrangement in a traditional work setting
wherein individuals spend some portion of their time away from the conventional
workplace, working from home, and communicate by way of computer-based tech-
nology” (Golden and Gajendran 2019, 56). It is important to note that telecommut-
ing is not an aspect of technologically enabled interaction from home as a distinct
geographical location, but a context and a form of such interactions and connections.
In other words, telecommuting fulfils the job requirement of interacting with other
members, so its nature remains the same whether “they work from home as a tel-
ecommuter or from an office” (Golden and Gajendran 2019, 56). Telecommuting is
related to some extent to geographical immobility that is substituted with high tech-
nological connectivity and interaction. Telecommuting is part of digital nomads’
daily job performance from various locations around the world. Thompson (2018,
3) states that digital nomadism is an extension of telecommuting and remote work:
“Remote workers, for the most part, often have a stable household in one town
and work from home, or a mixture of local places. However, digital nomads
take this location independence further. They travel and do so frequently; both
domestically and internationally.”
Moreover, digital nomads select their location based on leisure and lifestyle con-
siderations, rather than work or employment (Thompson 2018, 2019). Telecommut-
ing concerns the balancing between family duties and employment, whiledigital
nomadism is the balancing between leisure and work (Thompson 2019). Thus, digi-
tal nomads can be regarded as telecommuters whopractice the location-independent
lifestyle and engage in travel.
Travel is also a differentiating component between digital nomads and freelanc-
ers. The boundaries between these two categories are, however, fluid. Freelancers
are defined as professionals who are self-employed predominantly by choice. They
do not have a traditional job and are flexible in terms of location. Kong etal. (2019,
10) note that similar to freelancers, “digital nomads need to work with clients out-
side the standard nine to five work which leads to the blurring of work life bounda-
ries” by mobile communication technologies. Freelancers do not generally pursue
the lifestyle of on-going travel as digital nomadsdo (Freelancing in America 2018;
Mauratidis 2018). Those who do, however, might also be considered digital nomads.
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In search ofa digital nomad: defining thephenomenon
Thus, while some digital nomads are freelancers, but not all freelancers are digital
nomads (see Fig.1).
Another important distinction should be made between traveling professionals
and digital nomads. The main difference between the two is that mobility is a choice
in thecase of digital nomads but a working condition or requirement inthe case
of traveling professionals (Mauratidis 2018). The juxtaposition of digital nomad-
ism with related phenomena of mobile work shows that neither thetechnologically
advanced lifestyle travel of flashpackers, northe location independent work of free-
lancers and telecommuting are digital nomadism. Such comparative discussion has
helped to outline themain constitutive features of digital nomadism. The interre-
lation of the discussed categories has been summarized in Fig. 1. Differentiation
between digital nomads and other categories of contemporary nomads requires
additional scrutiny, as digital nomads have not been positioned within contemporary
nomadic mobilities. The next section looks at various categories of nomads in more
detail.
4 Nomads: global, neo‑, digital
The assumption that travel is a “normal” way of life or lifestyle is not new in aca-
demic discourses (Cohen 2010). One of the very first typologies of tourists, devel-
oped by Eric Cohen (1972), defines a “drifter” and an “explorer”—the categories of
travelers that are considered to be archetypes of modern travelers, such as backpack-
ers and nomads (Cohen 2004; Richards and Wilson 2004). These archetypal travel-
ers venture “away from the beaten track and from the accustomed ways of life of
his home country,” keep some basic routines and show some involvement into host
societies that they visit (Cohen 1972, 168). Nomadism has been referred to as the
lifestyle of a free people that spans diverse cultures that inverses dwelling or being
(cf. Kaplan 1996, 89, 91). Drifters, explorers and nomads have been positioned as
alternative, independently-minded travelers, who avoid major tourist destinations
and metropolitan locations (Cohen 1972, 2004; D’Andrea 2007; Kaplan 1996). Con-
temporary categories of nomadic travelers include global nomads, neo-nomads and
digital nomads. Additionaldiscussion in this section differentiates these groups to
better define the category of digital nomads.
An analysis of studies on global and neo-nomads shows that the distinction
between the terms relies on a subjective terminological choice rather than concep-
tual and structural differences. Authors use these terms interchangeably (see e.g.
D’Andrea 2007, 2016; Naz 2017; Richards 2015). In addition to global nomads and
neo-nomads, D’Andrea (2016) synonymously uses the terms of expressive and/or
hypermobile expatriates.
Global/neo-nomads are “people from affluent industrialised nations who do not
live permanently in a specific location but move in the global arena and make their
living along the way, in the various places in which they reside” (Korpela 2019).
Studies on global and neo-nomads show that they move to semi-peripheral locations
of the world with favorable climates to engage in adifferent lifestyle. To support
such a lifestyle, they seek alternative employment possibilities at the destinations,
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O.Hannonen
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such as in entertainment, catering and wellness to get by, but in some cases do not
necessarily work (D’Andrea 2007, 2016; Kannisto 2014). For these types of nomads
“work is their own creation” (Kannisto 2014, 96).
In her study on design solutions for location independent professionals, Naz
(2017) brings a rather contradictory perspective on neo-nomads. She uses the term
“neo-nomads” to define the new class of highly mobile workers, but at the same
time includes expatriates, migrants, global workers, as well as frequent travelers in
this category. Ultimately, her definition of neo-nomads is closer to digital nomads:
“the new-generation information technology professionals, entrepreneurs and free-
lancers.” It emphasizes employment at the core of this category, which, however,
does not necessarily include travel (Naz 2017, 6). Such terminological uncertainty
demonstrates the ambiguity of existing concepts and absence of clear-cut boundaries
between different categories of travellers.
Employment relationships and the nature of work in travel separates digital
nomads from other categories of contemporary nomads. Digital nomads bring their
work with them, often working the prescribed office hours (Thompson 2018). While
global nomads might also work, many of them do sedentary jobs to earn enough
money to get by and move on (Kannisto 2014). Moreover, “contrary to digital
nomads, global nomads do not necessarily use technology as the main means of
their survival on the go” (Mauratidis 2018, 31). Studies show that digital nomads
do not necessarily long for peripheral locations, but stay in big metropolitan centers
with sufficient infrastructure, such as co-working spaces, and stable WiFi to support
their working and personal routines (Nash etal. 2018; Orel 2019; Thompson 2019).
Global and digital nomads are also alike in many ways. Onecommon feature
is downshifting or departure from consumerism (D’Andrea 2016; Kannisto 2014;
Nash etal. 2018). Downshifting includes practices of slow travel, alternative forms
of exchange, and minimalist lifestyles. These attitudes are not necessarily as wide-
spread among other kinds of travelers (Kannisto 2014). Empirical evidence shows
that digital nomads largely rely on thesharing economy, in accommodation sector
in particular. Most of the accommodation is booked through theAirBnB.com plat-
form (Kong etal. 2019; Thompson 2018; Wang etal. 2018). The use of the plat-
form is often two-sided, asa small proportion of digital nomads who own properties
also rent them out. Unlike digital nomads, the sharing economy in accommodation
choice at the destination is not a common option for global nomads (Kannisto 2014).
Thelife of perpetual travel of both global and digital nomads also demands a
minimalistic lifestyle: “The nomads’ prime requirement is clearly portability and
that means a tool stripped of all non-essentials” (Makimoto and Manners 1997, 119;
see also Nash etal. 2018). This means that the quantity of possessions is limited
to the amount that one can physically carry or that is permitted by airline baggage
allowances. Another downshifting feature of global nomads is the prioritization
of leisure over work: “They rather consume less and keep their freedom than earn
more money” (Kannisto 2014, 116). Studies on digital nomads do not yet provide a
comprehensive picture to support this statement. While in relation to their education
and social status digital nomads are underemployed (in comparison to their settled
peers), such a professional down-shift is connected to major societal changes and
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In search ofa digital nomad: defining thephenomenon
theprecariousness of employment in Western societies (see e.g. Thompson 2018,
2019), rather than a personal choice of favoring leisure over work.
Presently it can be concluded that downshifting is present to different extents
in global and digital nomadism. Global nomads as downshifters “choose to spend
more time with their families, enjoy a healthier lifestyle, and do things they consider
meaningful instead of just earning money and paying bills” (Kannisto 2014, 118).
Whilea more meaningful and happier lifestyle is an integral part of digital nomad-
ism, it is not opposed to work and labor productivity as in case of global nomads.
Digital nomadism as a lifestyle is promoted by digital nomads themselves through
their active online presence such as personal blogs, books and social media chan-
nels. It is portrayed as a happier and more fulfilling life of location free living and
working (Jacobs and Gussekloo 2016). However, more research is needed to better
address this issue in digital nomadic lifestyle.
Detachment from a nationstate, its regimes and societal order is another bridg-
ing factor between global, neo- and digital nomads. The definition of nomadic life-
style in general has always been associated with the attitude thatdefines and cri-
tiques the settlement, art and power of the state (Kaplan 1996). D’Andrea (2016,
100) points out that the neo-nomadic lifestyle manifests the “desire and rejection
of mainstream (sedentary) societies toward countercultural (nomadic) lifestyles.”
He argues that global nomads “despise homeland-centric identities” and create new
forms of subjectivity and bonding based on lifestyle (D’Andrea 2016, 102). Korpela
(2019) also points out that neo-nomads and lifestyle travelers “seek the company of
the like-minded people” in different locations to “spend their time with people who
share similar lifestyle and values.” This perspective has been gaining support also
in studies on digital nomadism. Already in 1997 Makimoto and Manners predicted
the loosening of nationality-based ties that would be replaced by other connections.
Co-working spaces, joint nomadic unconferences, cruises and other retreats are
examples of products that are developed and sustained by digital nomadism. These
events and services are evidence oflifestyle-based bondingthat replaceother attach-
ments and belongings, such as a traditional workplace community, residential neigh-
borhoods and even nationstates.
Emerging hotspots of digital nomads around the world, such as Chiang Mai,
Thailand and Bali, Indonesia, that successfully accommodate the needs of lifestyle
travelers through co-working and co-living industries are vivid examples of life-
style-led destinations that continue toattract more digital nomads (Thompson 2018;
Wang etal. 2018). These deterritorialized communities and supranational forms of
togetherness of digital nomads continue the neo-nomadic tradition of anti-seden-
tarist perspectives towardssocieties.3
Lifestyle-based bonding with like-minded people often results in thecreation of
‘communities within communities’ in digital nomad destinations. Employingthe
3 It should howeverbe noted that the institution of citizenship does not allow oneto detach completely
from a nation state. While the digital nomadic lifestyle is regarded as a manifestation of freedom of
choice and disruption with conventional societal structures, many still keep their taxes and healthcare
benefits with their home countries (Thompson 2018).
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O.Hannonen
1 3
example of Western lifestyle migrants in India, Korpela (2019) accurately summa-
rizes this trend:
“instead of immersing themselves in local cultures, they move within the
(Western) bohemian—alternative—space and, rather than being at home eve-
rywhere, they are with people who share their lifestyle and values. It is thus
not simply migration to a specific place but migration to a specific alternative
social scene that exists in various places”.
Existing empirical evidence on digital nomads supports such segregation from
local people and local communities (Thompson 2018, 2019). Kannisto (2014)
argues that global nomads try to immersethemselves in local cultures in their tem-
porary locations. This, however, is questioned by the ephemeralnature of theirstay
at destinations, which is often pre-determined by entry regulations.
Further comparison and juxtaposition of global, neo- and digital nomads could
be continued along numerous aspects of these lifestylesbut they extend beyondthe
limits and scope of this paper. Thus, the present comparison is limited to those facets
that enhance the understanding of digital nomadism. Based on existing approaches
to digital nomadism and the given comparison with similarphenomena, the follow-
ing definition of digital nomadism is proposed.The term ‘digital nomad’ refers to a
rapidly emerging class of highly mobile professionals, whose work is location inde-
pendent. Thus, they work while traveling on (semi)permanent basis and vice versa,
forming a new mobile lifestyle. In the following section I discuss contemporary
approaches to digital nomadism and suggest a conceptual framing of the phenom-
enon within lifestyle mobilities.
5 Locating digital nomadism withinlifestyle mobilities
5.1 Approaches todigital nomadism
A few studies presentconceptual approaches to digital nomadism. These concep-
tual perspectives, however, tend to fragment the phenomenon, locating it either as
a leisure activity or employment. Putra and Agirachman (2016) approached digital
nomadism as a form of creative tourism and Reichenberger (2018) as a leisure activ-
ity, while Orel (2019) positioned digital nomads as a location independent work-
force and an alternative to traditional employment. Similarly, Wang etal. (2018)
proposed to look at digital nomadism as a new form of working and organizinglife.
Other perspectives include digital nomads as a cultural phenomenon and a new form
of economic activity (Wang etal. 2018).
Putra and Agirachman (2016) define digital nomadism as a touristic activity
based on novelty as a major motivation in digital nomadism. Novelty is a core moti-
vation in tourism and travel. Indeed, digital nomads as ongoing travelers visit new
destinations and create novel experiences. However, digital nomads are not tour-
ists as “they seek out resources, which allow them to accomplish nomadic work”
(Nash etal. 2018, 214). While recreation is a significant a part of their travels, it is
questionable whether it is an underlying purpose of such travels (Mauratidis 2018;
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1 3
In search ofa digital nomad: defining thephenomenon
Orel 2019). On the other hand, unlike digital nomads, tourists and other groups of
travelers, such as backpackers, also travel, but do not work. Reichenberger (2018)
looks at leisure as an integral component of digital nomadism. She argues that digi-
tal nomads transfer leisure components, such as enjoyment and self-control, to their
working environments and even perceive employment-related work as leisure.
Thecategorization of digital nomadism as an alternative and/or independent
work reflects the work studies approach towards the phenomenon (Liegl 2014;
Müller 2016; Wang etal. 2018). It has categorized digital nomads as a new type
of independent workers and co-working space users. On the one hand, studies
on co-working emphasize the significance of a sense of togetherness and com-
munity (Jackson 2017; Mouratidis 2018; Orel 2019). This perspective is impor-
tant to understanding digital nomadism also as a lifestyle, in which community
replace other attachments, such as place of residence, permanent office space
and nationality. On the other hand, studies on co-working and telecommuting do
not look into the wider mobility trajectories of individuals, includingthe inter-
national scale of travel and de-territorialization of work and home, which are
performed by digital nomads. Digital nomads, as a modern type of mobile pro-
fessionals, have been placed between digital, nomadic, gig workers and global
adventure travelers, as they incorporate features of these phenomena (Nash etal.
2018; see also Fig.1). Studies of work explicatethe effects of precariousness of
employment on changing working cultures (Premji 2017), which is an impor-
tant aspect in understanding the production of digital nomadism. In relation to
mobility, contemporary studies of work focus on two perspectives: employment
related geographical mobility and thedigitalization of movement though plat-
form work and telecommuting (Bissell 2018; Cresswell etal. 2016; Golden and
Gajendran 2019). These perspectives look at mobility between thefixed loca-
tions of home and work(place) with the emphasis on geographical relocation as
a necessity. Thus, digital nomads are left out of the scope of research on labor
mobilities as they perform “non-location based employment” (Thompson 2018,
17). At the same time work, as a part of digital nomadic lifestyle, has not been
fully conceptualized in contemporary studies on digital nomads. This shows the
need for further conceptual developments on work in digital nomadic mobilities.
Wang etal. (2018) suggest atheoretical framing of digital nomadism as a
new economic model and a cultural phenomenon. They base this perspective
on the new forms of production and consumption performed by digital nomads,
such as digital work, digital platforms, andthe digitalization of consumed envi-
ronments. Digital nomads have been developing into a particular subculture of
“journeymen” (Wang etal. 2018). Theyhave become a specific customer seg-
ment and facilitated development of new services and products. It is important
to note that destinations around the world have quickly responded to the new
phenomenon and started to market themselves as digital nomad friendly—pro-
jecting themselves as ideal locales for this lifestyle segment to live and work
(such as the ranking of world cities at nomadlist.com). A number of countries
have established attractive taxation, visa-free stays, e-residency, and digital
nomad visa schemes to welcome more temporary residents and digital nomads
(such as smart visa in Thailand and digital nomad visa in Estonia). The number
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O.Hannonen
1 3
of emerging businesses serving the needs of this new lifestyle include (co-)liv-
ing and (co-)working spaces, digital nomad house rentals (digitalnomadhouse.
net), leisure programs, conferences, banking, healthcare insurance, magazines
(nomadsmagazine.com) and even a nomad nation project (Digital Nomads
Nation 2019). These perspectives can be further developed from economic and
cultural perspectives based on thegrowing services, social and cultural activities
targeting digital nomads. Taking into account the presented approaches to digi-
tal nomadism, I further propose aconceptualization of digital nomadism within
lifestyle mobilities that embraces and addresses both travel and work compo-
nents of this lifestyle trend.
5.2 Defining digital nomadism asalifestyle mobility
Digital nomads are both a product and an example of the ubiquity of mobilities in
everyday lives. As our society rapidly transforms itself into a mobile society, in
which interactions are also mobilized, the “traditional segmentation of context dis-
solves, so private life can interrupt working life and vice versa” (Sørensen 2002,
1). Previously “discretionary” mobilities, such as tourism and recreational travel,
were categorized as separate from theeveryday: “travel undertaken voluntarily with
the disposable income left after basic necessities of life have been covered” (Cohen
and Cohen 2015, 157–158). Researchers note that nowadays travel has become an
inseparable part of life, rather than a break from it (Cohen 2010). The new emerging
lifestyle of digital nomads is an example of thistrend, as it merges work and travel
(Makimoto and Manners 1997; Nash etal. 2018).
The term “lifestyle traveller” describes individuals that engage in long-term
travel as a lifestyle (Cohen 2010, 64). Cohen etal. (2015, 155) state that lifestyle-led
mobility patterns break the boundaries between leisure, migration and travel as well
as “conventional binary divides between work and leisure”, they also destabilize the
concepts of ‘home’ and ‘away’. Thelifestyle mobility framework is useful in locat-
ing various modes of travel that existbetween permanent migration and temporary
mobilities, such as various forms of contemporary nomadic mobilities. Lifestyle
mobility is defined as “ongoing movements of varying durations”, which has “mul-
tiple moorings and has no immediate plans to return ‘home’” (Cohen etal. 2015,
162).4 The phenomenon of digital nomadism inductively indicates its conceptual fit
into this approach, as digital nomads are distinct through their “length of travel and
decision not to have a home base” (Nash etal. 2018, 212).
The definition of lifestyle mobility shows that there is no intention to return
(home): “lifestyle mobility pre-supposes the intention to move on, rather than move
back” (Cohen etal. 2015, 159). Yet, lifestyle mobility acknowledges the existence
of several ‘homes’ that are visited in a preferred manner. Thus, we mustquestion
how return is defined, apart from its differentiating condition between lifestyle
4 It is important to note that lifestyle mobility should not be confused with the concept of lifestyle migra-
tion. The latter concerns permanent or seasonal forms of lifestyle-led relocation. Thus, the umbrella term
of lifestyle-led mobilities excludes lifestyle migration (Cohen etal. 2015).
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In search ofa digital nomad: defining thephenomenon
mobility and other mobility types, such as lifestyle migration. By diminishing the
importance of ‘one’ home lifestyle mobility overlooks the possibility of occasional
visitations, suchas passingthrough destinations or visiting friends and relatives, and
other obligatory visits. ‘Noreturn’ is indeed a rather restrictive category for defin-
ing and framing mobilities under the concept of lifestyle mobility. Empirically there
are no limits of individual transition between various mobility states and concepts
(between permanent, semi-permanent mobility or immobility; return or noreturn).
If a digital nomad settles, does it mean a return home? Or couldit be a transition to
another research category, such as a lifestyle migrant, or a spiritual transition into a
global nomad or something else? These questions require a certain degree of flex-
ibility inthe conceptual framework. Thus, considering evolving lifestyle-led mobili-
ties, I propose to look at apossible return from the perspective of the life course
rather than through seasonality or circulation between lifestyle and ‘home’ locations.
Cohen etal. (2015) propose an ideal(istic) perspective on lifestyle mobility as a
freedom of travel opportunities. In fact, instead of just going anywhere, individuals
move within institutionally arranged frameworks that limit their ability to choose.
In this regard the issues of power geometries, inequalities of mobility and mobility
regimes cometo the surface and are vividly reflected inthe production of digital
nomadism. This perspective has longbeen overlooked in studies on lifestyle travel-
ers (Cohen 2004). As discussed earlier in the paper, when engaging themselves in a
state of perpetual travel, digital nomads do not and cannot completely detach them-
selves from home(state). The proposed freedom of mobility is often conditioned
byentry and exit mobility regimes, the validity of visas and passports that define
under which conditions and time periods one can visit a destination as well as exita
home country (Cohen 2004; Hannonen 2016). The latter is often tied to social secu-
rity, taxation, health benefits and other national obligations. This demonstrates that
while the concept of lifestyle mobilities emphasizes the freedom of mobility as one’s
individual choice, it pays less attention to the significance of structures and mobil-
ity regimes (Hannonen 2016; Korpela 2019). Another largely overlooked constraint
isinward confinements. Amobile lifestyle requires “competence, resourcefulness,
endurance and fortitude, as well as an ability to plan one’s moves” (Cohen 2004,
45). These show that the conceptualization of lifestyle mobility stilllacks asuffi-
cient empirical base, as lifestyle-led mobilities in general, and digital nomadism in
particular, have been thesubject of limited academic attention (Cohen etal. 2015;
Thompson 2018).
Thelifestyle mobility approach originally departed from the importance of geo-
graphical relocation or corporal travel for various lifestyle choices. Themobility
of digital nomads is a complex interrelation of physical relocation,the mobility of
capital, objects, information, knowledge, ideas and cultural practices and also inter-
actions, including connections at a distance and telecommuting. Various aspects and
entanglements ofthe virtual mobilities and connections of digital nomads as well as
digital and mobile work should be further conceptualized within lifestyle mobilities.
Work as a part of alocation independent lifestyle is underrepresented in lifestyle
mobility. Digital nomadism extends employment related geographical mobility as
it combines digital and physical relocation, with the latter being a personal choice
rather than an employment requirement. Cresswell etal. (2016) argue that studies
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O.Hannonen
1 3
of work have engaged with the growing body of mobility theory in limited ways,
while mobilities studies have taken a narrow perspective towards work and employ-
ment. Cohen etal. (2015, 162) note that “whilst lifestyle mobility can include work
and career, we see the dominant purpose of its associated movements as lifestyle-
led rather than driven by economic gain or a logic of production. As such, a career
is not a defining feature of lifestyle mobility”. On the contrary, in most cases, the
time commitment of lifestyle travel entails a move away from a career-dominated
way of life (Cohen 2010). The interrelationship between work and lifestyle in digi-
tal nomadism follows the proposed logic of lifestyle mobilities. While thevalue of
labor productivity is an important feature in the lifestyle of digital nomads (Müller
2016), they do not engage in travel because of work. As shown in the downshift-
ing discussion, career advancement is not the purpose of such mobility (Thomp-
son 2018). Scientific discussions, however, should further engage in defining mobile
work as an inseparable part of some lifestyle mobilities, such as digital nomadism.
In addition to theperspectiveon nomadism as a geographical relocation due to
lifestyle reasons, nomadicity is also a working condition (Ciolfi and Pinatti de Car-
valho 2014; Humphry 2014; Nash et al. 2018; Rossitto et al. 2014). Nomadicity
in work revealsa contemporary trend of postindustrial redistribution of the mate-
rial conditions that support work, which are increasingly shifted from employers to
individual workers (Humphry 2014). Ciolfi and Pinatti de Carvalho 2014 define at
least four perspectives on nomadicity in work settings. They include the absence of
a stable location in which work is accomplished, access to information and tech-
nological resources to accomplish location and time independent work,the mobi-
lization of resources to locations in which temporary workplaces are established
and the blurring of work-life boundaries in the lives of people who engage with it
(Ciolfi and Pinatti de Carvalho 2014, 129). Nomadicity as a working condition of
digital nomads also includes the movement from workplace to workplace (Nashet
al. 2018). This indicates the precariousness of employment and freelancing as a part
of digital nomadism that have been discussed in the paper. Authors argue that the
increases in technology-enabled nomadic work gives rise to other supportive envi-
ronments, physical and digital forms of commons and sociability, such as co-work-
ing spaces and technology platforms. Co-working spaces are defined as shared col-
laborative workspaces that offer a workstation, but also cafes, events and networking
opportunities (Jackson 2017; Orel 2019). Digital platforms, applications and pro-
grams are instruments and tools to find and conduct digital work and to produce
digital products, while online social platforms are places for personal connections
(Kong etal. 2019; Nash etal. 2018).
Atheoretical discussion of digital nomadism within lifestyle mobilities enhances
further understanding and framing of this lifestyle as a mobility phenomenon. While
lifestyle mobilities focus on lifestyle as the main driving component of such mobili-
ties, digital nomadism brings new facets to such discussions through its essential
work-component. This raises the need for future conceptual engagements between
digital nomadism and lifestyle mobilities with the support of empirical data.
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In search ofa digital nomad: defining thephenomenon
6 Conclusions
The phenomenon of digital nomadism is relatively new in academic discussions.
Publications on digital nomadism providedinformation on this emerging mobility
practice and offered multiple approaches and definitions. Theabundance of explica-
tions in relation to digital nomadism indicates the ambiguity of the practice itself.
Thus, in light of themultiple perspectives, this paper has aimed to enhance the con-
ceptual and terminological framing of digital nomadism. In order to doso, the paper
has looked into themain differentiating factors between digital nomadism and other
lifestyle-led mobilities and mobile remote work (see Fig.1). Through a comparative
discussion with related lifestyle phenomena andan analysis of existing studies on
digital nomads, themain aspects of the phenomenon in question have been defined,
such as the importance of labor productivity in digital nomadism, the state of inter-
national (semi)perpetual travel, downshifting, lifestyle-led bonding and communi-
ties and nomadicity of work.
Contemporary knowledge on nomadic mobilities and location independent
work provides auseful but fragmented understanding of digital nomadism. Digital
nomads are both highly mobile professionals and lifestyle travelers, whichcreates
additional difficulty in framing the phenomenon. Existing studies, approaches and
conceptual framings of the phenomenon tend to take either awork or leisure per-
spective towards digital nomads. Thus, in addition to elaborating a comprehensive
definition of the term ‘digital nomad’, this paper proposesa conceptual framing of
digital nomadism within lifestyle mobility approach. Italso defines the importance
of mobile work as an integral component of such lifestyle-led mobility. Work has yet
to be included in contemporary discussions of lifestyle mobilities.
The main limitation of this paper is the lack of empirical evidence on various
facets of digital nomadism to support the analytical discussion presented here.
Despite this limitation, the paper establishes the direction for future conceptualiza-
tion of digital nomadism. The conceptual framing of the phenomenon should fur-
ther focus on thevarious mobile connections and relocation of digital nomads and
on nomadic mobile work as a part of their lifestyle. Important issues to consider in
future research on the phenomenon is the duration of nomadism: Is it a stage in life
and do digital nomads settle? How isthe notion of home transformed in such mobil-
ity, and where is home for a digital nomad? It is also important to assess the impact
of digital nomadism onthe places that they visit and eventually leave behind.
Acknowledgement Open access funding provided by University of Eastern Finland (UEF) including
Kuopio University Hospital.
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License,
which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as
you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Com-
mons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article
are included in the article’s Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the
material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons licence and your intended use is
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This paper overviews key concepts about the digital nomad lifestyle, which is defined as the ability for individuals to work remotely from their laptop and use their freedom from an office to travel the world. This concept has found a lifestyle movement that sells itself via personal blogs, Instagram feeds, in-person conferences, news features, and numerous e-books. Based on interviews with thirty-eight self-described nomads, this paper overviews the digital nomad lifestyle around the themes of privilege, inequality, leisure, work, and community. Stebbins’ (International Journal of the Sociology of Leisure, 1, 43–53, 2018) concept of serious leisure provides one theoretical perspective, in addition to other sociological theories of leisure, work, and community.
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