My husband and I were spending a month in the Swiss Alps. We had just spent the day hiking up to the legendary Hotel Weisshorn and were enjoying a slice of blueberry pie with fellow backpackers as we took in the sunset.
“We had to wait until we retired to do what you’re doing now,” a Swiss couple next to us said. “We spent our careers in the office, used all of our vacation days to visit family, and didn’t have time to hike in our own backyard until now!”
We knew how good we had it. Though we’d taken some time off to hike famous Haute Route, we spent much of the trip working remotely, knocking out our tasks in the morning, then spending the day hiking before grabbing a wedge of cheese, a baguette, and a bottle of wine, and jumping on our Zoom calls in the evenings.
That trip wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago—at least not without quitting our jobs to become vagabonds. I couldn’t help but wonder: Twenty years from now, will my husband and I sit on a terrace in the Alps as youngsters tell us about the lives they get to live because of advancements in technology?
What kind of lives will the next generation have that we will never get to experience?
In “high tech pastoral as the new aesthetic,” Erik Hoel outlines the aesthetic of our time: A laptop sitting on a picnic table under the shade of an apple tree, Facetiming a friend on horseback, a man talking to an AI assistant on a sailboat; a Starlink dish flashing white on the roof of a camper van parked in the woods; a woman taking off a sleek VR helmet then stepping onto a Mediterranean terrace.
The aesthetic is a vision of the world made more pastoral by its use of technology. One where our laptops have decoupled us from the office, where Zoom has allowed us to participate in meetings while gardening, and Slack has made us accessible while on a walk in the park. Far from the WALL-E future we’ve been imagining, where we spend all of our time glued to screens and addicted to social media, we’ve actually been creating lives where those screens have freed us from the cubicle gloom and unleashed us into a technicolor life.
That “high-tech pastoral” setting is often the backdrop for our Zoom calls. Since our jobs became remote, my husband and I have spent a month working from Switzerland, another from my sister’s house in Maui, and another road-tripping through Canada. When my husband jumped on a Zoom call from the jungle, his boss was surprised to discover we’d been working from Costa Rica for a month. “We never know where Garret’s working from,” he loves to tease coworkers, “for all I know he might be in the middle of the ocean!”
We’ve done that too. When we spent two weeks sailing the Caribbean last winter, I worked from the helm as my husband navigated us to our next snorkel destination.
It’s not just us. Our travels have connected us with remote workers around the world—we’ve met people working for Google in Switzerland, others working for LinkedIn in Colorado, and still others working for Salesforce in Costa Rica. And while we are gone, our house is rented on Airbnb by digital nomads doing the same.
Though much fanfare was made about people moving during the pandemic, relocation actually remained flat within the US. Working while traveling, however, skyrocketed. Digital nomads have increased by 131% since 2019, with one in nine US workers now describing themselves as one. Prior to the pandemic, only 13% of Airbnb stays were for a month or longer, now that’s 20%. It’s not just freelancers and contractors—digital nomads with traditional jobs have tripled since 2019, making up 66% of the category. As of 2023, there are an estimated 40 million digital nomads worldwide, and that’s expected to increase to 60 million by 2030.
Working remotely from the far reaches of the world was once a niche lifestyle choice of the life-hacking generation, and it still is compared with the greater world at large, but it has since become a force to be reckoned with. And catered to.
After all, this small but growing group is why we have “digital nomad visas” now.
“Digital nomad visas started to emerge around the early 2010s, with countries like Estonia and Thailand being among the pioneers,” Tim Marting, co-founder of Citizen Remote, told me. “However, it wasn't until the pandemic that the idea really took off. As travel restrictions and remote work became more prevalent, many countries saw an opportunity to boost their economies and alleviate the burden of a failing tourism sector by welcoming digital nomads.”
Now, workers can live in one of 66 countries around the world so long as they can prove they are making a small amount of money at a remote job and thus would be able to spend that money in their new country of choice. My husband and I have researched several of the countries on the list—we could move to Spain on just my newsletter salary—I’d only need to make €25,920 per year to meet the qualifications for Spain’s Digital Nomad Visa.
Daniel Sisson did just that, moving his wife and kids to Spain and operating his startup from there. “This is the future,” he said in a post about it. “Live and work anywhere, work with people from everywhere for companies from everywhere. Just pick what country you want your kids to grow up in and where you like to eat out after work, because the work will be the same regardless.”
And if you can work from anywhere, why buy a house? Especially now that co-living spaces like Selina allow remote workers to pay monthly “rent,” giving them access to co-living/co-working locations throughout the world. Complete with yoga studios, pools, and restaurants on campus, as well as amenities like surfboards, bikes, and local excursions, it's a much better deal than buying a house or paying for a long-term lease. And starting at just $330/month, digital nomads can afford a better life abroad than they can in most US cities. Especially as many countries on the list have a very low cost of living!
All of this is incentivizing cities to become, not office hubs, but remote working hubs. Airbnb’s Live & Work Anywhere initiative is even partnering with local governments, nonprofits, and destination marketing groups to “develop a sustainable infrastructure for remote workers that also takes into consideration the existing environment and the needs and priorities of locals.”
“More than ever, you’ve got hundreds of millions of people that have a job via a laptop with some incremental flexibility that didn’t exist 10, 20 years ago,” Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said. “More and more people are traveling for entire seasons, and some may move away from their HQs but then come back and work for extended periods."
This is a much better vision for hybrid work, in my opinion. Offices shouldn’t require employees to work two days a week from the office—that’s a waste of office space and it keeps employees from enjoying the full benefits of remote work. No one can spend a week with family if they have to be back on Tuesday! A better option would be to get the gang together once a month, once a quarter, or even twice a year—in some location where everyone can live, work, and spend a couple of weeks brainstorming and planning.
My sister works for a video game startup that does just that. With international employees, they have “core hours”—a three-hour window during which everyone is expected to be online and attending meetings no matter where in the world they live. Once or twice a year, they get together to plan the game, brainstorm their next 12 months, and bond as a team before they go back and spend their time wherever they choose. My sister is 11 years younger than me and is starting her career with the ability to choose where she lives without consideration for the location of her office.
And companies are popping up everywhere to help us navigate an increasingly global citizenry. SafetyWing, for example, provides international health insurance for digital nomads and remote teams, and it plans to offer retirement plans and social security soon. And it won’t be long before I can connect my phone to Starlink and pay for international phone service wherever I happen to be traveling—my own cellphone plan, Mint Mobile, just announced international plans. There can be no doubt, nations and companies are opening up to an increasingly mobile workforce and making it much easier to live and work from anywhere!
Not all jobs can be fully remote, of course, but they can at least be untethered from location. Traveling nurses are a great example of how that could work, with caregivers, educators, doctors, and blue-collar workers taking assignments around the world based on need. Traveling nurses are already paid better than nurses who are limited to a specific location and a specific earning potential, and wouldn’t our care and education benefit from an international perspective? My husband works in a blue-collar industry where steel, glass, and concrete contractors frequently move from plant to plant depending on need (as he does), and Amazon and other factory workers could similarly rotate.
And not everyone would use their freedom to travel the world, and they certainly wouldn’t have to. But having the freedom to orient away from the office gives all of us so many more options for our lives: To locate near friends or family or where they might have a village to raise their children or have help when they are elderly. As we have been the more mobile of our family members, my husband has enjoyed spending a month with his parents, building out our camper van with his dad while working from his kitchen table, and I have loved being able to spend months with my sisters and babysitting my nieces while they are out of town.
As the movement becomes more mainstream, maybe the government will step in and mandate remote work once and for all. Because this moment feels a lot like the last time the workplace was this disrupted—when Ford and Kellogg started allowing their workers to work five, eight-hour days instead of six, 10-hour days. By 1938, the model became so popular that when the Great Depression hit, the government mandated it for all workers, and never looked back! Might the government make a similar stand for remote work now that we know the impact it has had on families and mothers, air quality, and rural workers? Already, to improve our air quality and increase opportunities for rural workers, Utah made all 22,000 state jobs remote-first.
Might other governments do the same?
Our offices used to be the hubs around which we based our homes, our schools, and our childcare centers, but thanks to remote work, those hubs are changing, re-forming around the lives we want to live, the places we want to spend our time, and the people we want to spend it with. And companies and governments are adapting, making it even easier to live and work wherever we want. To have the “high-tech pastoral” aesthetic we always dreamed of for our lives.
Only a decade ago, most of our lives were confined to the office, now most of our lives are not. I spent my 20s commuting an hour into San Francisco, working 9-5 in the office, and living for the weekend when I would be free of it. My husband and I would spend hours driving to Tahoe on Friday just so we could spend a day at the lake on Saturday before braving the traffic again on Sunday. We used all of our vacation days to take one big trip a year and see our families during the holidays.
We dreamed of traveling more extensively back then—of seeing the world and the people we loved in it more often—and thought we’d have to save up all of our money and quit our jobs to do it. But now we don’t need to. The niche, digital nomad lives we once dreamed of are quite rapidly becoming mainstream, and I think they will get even more mainstream from here. That digital nomads will reshape, not just the office, but the world, and allow us to live more freely in it.
Twenty years from now, will my husband and I be living at a co-living hub in the Alps, writing every morning with our remote work visas as the next generation enters the workforce and forgoes the university education and the cubicle farm and the big house with the high-interest rates that tethers them to one location? And will they take advantage of all the ways we can work, learn, and live untethered from those constraints?
I hope so. And I hope they’ll have a slice of pie with me on the terrace and tell me all about it.