It all started on September 28, 1983 when 30-year-old freelance writer/consultant Steven Roberts got on his computerized 8-foot long recumbent bicycle that would eventually see him riding 17,000 miles around the US while working as if from an office.
The term technomad was born.
Armed with a Radio Shack Model 100 laptop, a CompuServe account, solar panels and assorted camping gear (all weighing in at 135 lbs), Roberts explained his mission: “The whole trip offers an opportunity to test the viability of the information society. I want to see if I can maintain a heavily interactive, information-oriented professional practice involving a lot of clients, with an absolute minimum amount of paper — and complete freedom from the confines of an office. I’ll exist in a totally asynchronous fashion.”
While technology has come a long way in the last 30 years making the “electronic cottage” Roberts talked about increasingly more comfortable (Roberts typed in binary with four buttons on his handlebar keyboard and needed pay phones to download files), the motivation to free one’s self from a physical desk remains the same.
“My reality had become one of performing decreasingly interesting tasks for the sole purpose of paying bills, supporting a lifestyle I didn’t like in a house I didn’t like in a city I didn’t like. I had forgotten how to play. Could it still be possible to construct a lifestyle entirely of passions, or was losing the spark a sadly inevitable part of growing up?” wondered Roberts.
One afternoon, Roberts made a list of all his passions ― writing, adventure, computer design, cycling, romance, learning and networking ― and set about trying to find a way to combine them all into a life of full- time travel.
In the decades that followed, technological advances such as Wi-Fi, Skype, Elance (an online service for finding and hiring freelancers from around the world), PayPal (a speedy way to pay anyone anywhere with a bank account and an email address), and the decrease in laptop prices as well as changing attitudes towards working from home, made it easier for people to become location independent.
In fact, statistics from 2012 show that while 3.3 million Americans (not including the self-employed or unpaid volunteers) considered home their primary place of work, representing a growth of nearly 80 percent from 2005, a much larger number (over 64 million US workers or about 50 percent of the working population) could work from home at least part of the time. FlexJobs, an online job listings board for telecommuting, flexible schedule and freelance jobs, saw a 26 percent increase in the number of jobs posted on its site over the last year, with many large companies like Amazon, Kaplan and Nationwide Insurance joining the movement.
Global Workplace Analytics estimates that if those with compatible jobs and a desire to work from home did so just half the time, telecommuters would save between US$2,000 and US$7,000 a year and there would be a reduction in greenhouse gas roughly equivalent to taking the entire New York State workforce permanently off the road. It also makes good business sense for employers to allow for remote work, with the typical business saving up to USD11,000 per telecommuter per year.
Many of those telecommuters are now asking themselves: If I can work from home, why can’t I work from anywhere? A beach in Brazil? A café in Saigon? In fact, many of us here in Vietnam are already on the path to blending work and travel – enjoying the reduced commute, putting ourselves in a position to learn about a new culture, and in many cases, working less than if we were living in our home countries.
But if one wanted to live the life that Roberts dreamed about, where “home, quite literally, became an abstract electronic concept” and where “from a business standpoint, it no longer mattered where we were,” what would that entail?
I tapped Drew Gilbert, creator of a new documentary entitled The Wireless Generation (available for digital download June 2015 from The Wireless Generation to help answer that question. Named National Geographic Travelers of the Year (2014), Drew is an animator with a degree in Animation/ Media Arts and Christine is a writer and photographer. Now with their two children, they’ve been working online and traveling the world together since 2008. Their film follows 18 individuals across five continents who have parlayed working from home into world travel.
A common theme in the film is one of exchanging material things for memories and experiences as well as getting out of the typical work/home/TV routine. at what point did that happen for you?
It was somewhere around the point Christine was ready to quit her job despite her making more than I was at the time that we both realized we could give it a try. I was making a modest (by US standards) salary, and this pursuit for money hadn’t made Christine any happier. She was miserable and something had to change. I was the one who told Christine to quit her job, and really, even if her blog hadn’t taken off the way it had, it would have been worthwhile for the memories we’ve made along the way, and the fact that we appreciate and enjoy our lives in a more meaningful way than we did when she was climbing the corporate ladder.
Working remotely seems to entail that couples/families are always together. how do you not drive each other crazy without a work buffer?
Oh, we just drive each other crazy. There’s almost no way around it. I try to push Christine out the door to go do her work in a café or somewhere outside of the house, but she likes working in the house or wherever we are staying. I think the only thing that makes driving each other crazy okay is the fact that we are best friends, so at some point we just laugh about how crazy it is to be working with four of us in an occasionally small space. We’re a team, that’s the decision we made.
One of the families mentioned the struggle their children had with adjusting to life on the road — the unwanted attention that a Western blond child gets in asia, the photo-taking by complete strangers. how have your own children coped?
I don’t know if all kids are pretty flexible about this sort of life, but my limited experience tells me that Cole and Stella are really resilient and flexible because it’s all they have known. I’ve seen other children struggle a little more who came from a more normal family routine, living in a house with people they know around all the time, then put into a situation that is new and scary for them at first. Ultimately I think that all children are a lot more adaptable than adults are in most things, and those scared kids won’t stay that way for very long if the parent isn’t also scared. In our case, we have two immensely flexible kids who we try very hard to make sure to keep fed, otherwise they become inflexible quickly.
A lot of the people interviewed had businesses that were almost road- ready: a psychology professor teaching online from Thailand, a day trader living in colombia and website builders traveling across asia. What advice do you have for those of us who aren’t so lucky?
Christine and I are both very aware that this life choice isn’t an approach everyone has an opportunity to take. There simply aren’t jobs that give people the freedom to pick up and run off with. I also think that is okay. I try very hard to make it clear in talks after the screenings that this isn’t “the best” way to live one’s life. There are many right ways to live, many right ways to find happiness and contentment in life, and if a person is happy not traveling the world, I actually think that’s great. “Traveling the world” as a way to appreciate and enjoy your life is a pretty labor-intensive way to find happiness. We did want to show people who might not be aware of it, that for some fortunate enough to potentially do it, that this could be an option worth exploring.
It takes a certain type of person to be able to work productively while sitting in a café or on a beach somewhere. What adjustments did you need to make to be successful at working from anywhere?
I started working remotely in 2006 and found that while it was a challenge to be self- motivated at first, eventually there are other issues where you don’t have appropriate boundaries on when the workday begins and ends. I would be extremely productive because I would often roll out of bed and start work immediately, not bothering to shower or brush my teeth or do any of the normal morning stuff. Workdays would end when Christine would threaten to throw the computer away if I didn’t stop working. [Laughs]. That’s not actually true, but it was very hard to learn to stop at the end of a workday…
With digital nomads, income tends to be feast or famine. how do you budget for that?
I think at this point we’re always trying to budget for famine. It took us a while to learn to do that, but we know we want to be able to have certain tech when it comes out, which eats into a budget very quickly. To be able to do that, you can’t just spend money at the times when it’s coming in strong, instead, we’ve become as thrifty as possible at all times so we can splurge on occasion.
For how long do you envision this nomadic lifestyle for you and your family?
The idea is to slow down sooner than later. Cole is nearing school age and is a sociable kid who wants friends, and we want to give him that. Barcelona is the current plan to settle down in, but I am currently touring the film around the US and am starting to feel like maybe we can squeeze in a little more travel between now and whenever we end up back in Spain.
While not yet as popular as Thailand or Indonesia, Vietnam is slowly beginning to gain a reputation for being a safe, remote work-friendly hub with good year-round temperatures, decent internet speed and relatively low local costs. Jodi Ettenberg, a freelance writer and website/social feed auditor, has made Saigon her base for three years in a row. Being a food writer, “the history of the foods in the country were what brought me back, but the infrastructure – good internet, ease to get around, proximity to other countries I needed to visit – made it a great place to stay and write after I ate,” she says.
Stephenie Harrison, who together with her husband, provide graphic design, web development and online marketing services, agrees. “We were able to live quite comfortably, two people, for about US$30/ day. This afforded us a private room, a motorcycle, a SIM card (with unlimited data), and eating out all of our meals. We even went to the dentist while in Vietnam, and had x-rays done for less than US$1! For self- employed individuals who are just launching their business/career and are operating on a tight budget, Vietnam offers an incredibly high standard of living for next to nothing.”
Jodi lists time zone differences and occasional internet outages as drawbacks whereas Stephenie recalled about her time working remotely in Vietnam: “We would interact with locals on a daily basis (using limited Vietnamese in combination with English) and met up with some travelers passing through, but for the most part we were alone. We would have loved to have made some more local friends, but opportunities for this seemed few and far between, and we also found Vietnamese [language] quite difficult. However, in combination with friendly locals, an incredible food scene, and the possibility of obtaining a 90-day tourist visa, all of these things made basing ourselves in Vietnam to work a no-brainer!”