The New Global Natives: Discover Your Next Home

Photo by Katie Drazdauskaite on Unsplash

Given how hard it is to travel in the current climate, it might seem like a strange time to be talking about digital nomads and global natives, those lucky workers who have managed to escape from the constraints of the nine to five, the office cubicle and the commute and have created career opportunities for themselves that allow them to travel and work remotely.

But this is 2021. After a year of lockdowns, who commutes anymore, let alone spends eight hours a day locked in a cubicle? Over the last 12 months many of us have embraced remote working in some form, whether it suits our lifestyle and circumstances or not. There is also a growing body of evidence that many companies are planning incorporate remote and off-site working practises into their long-term business strategies. Both as a way to boost productivity and reduce costs.

So, if your job no longer depends on where you live, where would you go? Increasingly these are becoming questions for city planners and placemakers as well as individuals and companies. On the one hand, how are centres like Silicon Valley, London or Tokyo going to act retain the talent based in and around them? On the other, what carrots can secondary cities and third-party countries offer to tempt that talent to leave? 

The Citymaker spoke to a pioneering global native, strategist, speaker, writer and future of work specialist Lauren Razavi, a future of work specialist about trends in digital and distance working and their implications for the evolution and development of cities. 

The trend that we’ve seen over 2020 for work from home. Is there an argument there that we’ve all in a sense, turned into digital nomads of some form?

Lauren Razavi: I think the answer to that question is not yet, but soon we will. Work from home is really the first iteration of remote work that most people have experienced. And they’ve obviously done it at a time of great panic and when travel wasn’t possible. But remote work is opening the door to this kind of work from anywhere lifestyle, which is essentially what I’ve done for the last 10 years. I’ve been a remote worker and a digital nomad since I was a teenager. One of the examples to look at is to think about how people might become more nomadic in their lifestyles in the future. One [existing] example is what people do when they retire: they tend to travel and to relocate to nicer places, to warmer places. 

There’s also been a lot of talk recently, a kind of resurrection of the conversation, about where the next Silicon Valley will be. We’re seeing the sort of second and third tier cities, the kind of smaller, traditionally less flashy American cities, beginning to get a lot of attention. People are saying that Silicon Valley will move to Miami or Austin or Denver; these different places. I would anticipate seeing [that start to] happen on a global scale once some of the travel restrictions are lifted, and people start to really think about how they can live in this new remote-first world.

New hubs are going to rise. We’re going to have new knowledge hubs, not only within countries on that domestic level, but around the world. Places where knowledge workers feel that they want to go because [there’s] a high quality of life. I think we’ll see the status [of these smaller locations] rise as hubs and this will bolster business ecosystems. We’re going to see this ‘next Silicon Valley’ effect, but it’s going to be a lot more distributed. 

A lot of this knowledge sharing and knowledge transfer has happened over the last 10 years [with] the digital nomad movement in places like Chiang Mai in Thailand, the Indonesian island of Bali, Medellin in Colombia. These hotspots have been established because nomads are going there, contributing to those business ecosystems, being welcomed in and helping to put these places on the global map.

COVID-19 has decimated the tourist industries of many individual cities, as well as entire countries. Do you think local and national governments are looking at these short- to medium-term nomadic workers to fill some of those gaps?

Lauren Razavi: The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has been predicting that [global] tourism spending [is] not going to return to [pre-pandemic] levels until at least 2024. Countries like Estonia, Georgia, Barbados, and Bermuda were quite fast out of the gate with their [remote working visa] offers. If you look at countries that [are] very tourism dependent, it makes sense that they come out with some kind of alternative to keep those parts of their economies going. Remote workers, digital nomads, they spend more. They stay longer [and] tend to be [more] locally embedded… than [the] traditional tourist who might come for a weekend or for a week-long vacation. 

We’re definitely seeing countries look at this as [having] the potential to make at least the same amount of money, possibly more money. We’ve already seen it move on from just being [offers of] remote work visas to tax breaks. Greece is the kind of ‘headline nation’ offering tax breaks that are specifically geared towards digital nomads and remote workers. In the U.S., one of the schemes, Tulsa Remote, is paying people $10,000 each to relocate. I think we are going to see more and more of these kinds of policies coming in. And by the time we get to 2025, I think that consumer behavior will have changed a lot. People will have this different approach to work and to life and to travel.

Taking that idea a little further, how do you see the trends for remote work, distributed work and slow travel combining in the future?

I think we’re going to see more people combining remote work and slow travel. That’s probably going to result in a sort of different categorizations than we have today. If we [define] expats as people who spend at least a year in a place and digital nomads as people who travel between different locations every 30 to 90 days: I think that things are going to be a lot less clear cut going forward; those categories are going to break down and become more blurred. If you no longer have to live in one place to access opportunities, you really begin to navigate the decisions in your life very differently. Maybe you don’t want to live in New York. Instead [you might] choose a rural location in a different state that has tax incentives, has a really high quality of life, has good schools and has different kinds of opportunities.

Maybe you want to live across a few different countries. The visas that are coming up make this all the more possible and appealing. Countries are looking at how to design offers, [to include] all the incentives required to make these processes easier and less bureaucratic and [tailored] for the kinds of knowledge workers that they want to attract. We’re going to see these trends continue to combine in new ways, but at its core, it’s really about people making individual decisions in their lives.

[Over the] last decade we talked a lot about work-life balance. I think this decade, we’re going to talk a lot about work-life integration: what do you actually want your life to look like? We’ve done a lot of learning this year with people having their kids home from school and partners working in the same room at the table. I really think all of that is going to kind of effect how all of us go forward after this pandemic and what we actually want the shape of our days to look like.

Do you think Malaysia has the potential to adopt some version of this model and become a hub for that combination of distributed working and tourism?

Lauren Razavi: I almost don’t want to talk about it because I don’t want other people to know about this beautiful, hidden gem of a country! I think that Malaysia is a really natural fit for nomads or for remote workers. It’s got great weather. English [is widely spoken], which makes it a lot easier to integrate. Fantastic food. Good transport infrastructure. [It’s] a hub for Southeast Asia [in terms of] getting around and visiting other areas. 

And it’s very, very affordable. It has a high quality of life for a low price in global terms. Over the past 10 years, these are exactly the things that have attracted digital nomads to particular locations and helped to establish them as knowledge hubs. I think it would be great to see Malaysia author its own version of a remote work visa. I think that it’s quite a missed opportunity that it hasn’t done that already. 

There’s a huge cultural [and] social aspect to anywhere being established as a hub. And, I think Malaysia has a very global identity. It has a lot of diversity in its culture, it has a lot of really interesting startup businesses. You really see the potential for Malaysia to become a leader in this new space, to be one of the new winners as old cities like London, Paris, New York [are] just not looking very attractive anymore, because they’re overpriced and you’re [living] in cramped conditions. The social contract in a lot of those places has begun to break down. In my mind, it’s really places like Kuala Lumpur and George Town that offer a much better alternative in global terms, given that those old cities are really losing their pull for creative [and] globally minded people.

As you’ve pointed out, these are unusual times. What advice would you give to anyone who is thinking about becoming a digital nomad in 2021?

Lauren Razavi: My biggest advice is to choose your country and your visa scheme very carefully. [Previously], nomads were always looking for ways to hack the global system, to make policy and economic circumstances and all these kinds of things work in [their] favor. It was often just following your curiosity, [looking at] what was possible in different countries and [what] you wanted your life to look like. 

Because now it’s not really about like falling into a Google black hole and beginning to understand how different countries operate, which is really what it’s been over the last 10 years. Now it’s really finding a website listing all of the different options that you can apply for to go and base [yourself] in a different country on one of these remote work visas. It’s a matter of looking at where you want to try out and then seeing who’s going to give you the best deal [to fit] your personal circumstances. Who is offering tax breaks? Do I want to go to Greece if I have ability to go anywhere? Is that going to benefit me? 

Do I want to go for a year with a view to spending several years in the place, if it all goes well? In which case you might be looking at a particular remote work visa, and whether it can then be converted to longer form kinds of residency to facilitate that. Do you have kids and therefore, do you need to really be thinking about schools and kind of socialization of kids, in these different places?

Assuming that the pandemic doesn’t last forever, and I think you mentioned 2025 earlier, what is the future going to look like when we talk about digital nomads and this idea of living and working remotely?

Lauren Razavi: I think that we’re going to need a new language to describe what’s happening in the 2020s versus what was happening in the 2010s. But I also think that the nomad lifestyle will be truly mainstream and that the face of travel will have changed for good. At the beginning of our conversation, I talked a little bit about the prospects of tourism recovery. In five years’ time, we may be back at a point where the world is open and spending has returned to pre-pandemic levels, but the way that we live, the way that we travel, will have shifted and there will be no going back. I think there’ll be [fewer] short trips and [the] traditional one- or two-week vacation that we’ve been used to in the past. There’ll be a lot more going [to] and experiencing places and committing to them and being a lot more locally connected.

Serendipity plays a huge part in the directions that people take in their lives and the opportunities that they pursue. If you wanted to work in the tech industry, for the past 20 years, you had to be in Silicon Valley, you had to be in San Francisco. You had to make sure that you could get by in a big, expensive city. Now, I think it’s a lot less about going to one particular part of the world for a long period of time. It’s much more about finding yourself in the same place as somebody else at the same time. The serendipity of being drawn to that place at the same time, [or] connecting online and then turning that online connection into an offline connection.

I’d like to imagine… that if you go to one of 100 destinations in the world for three months somewhere in your year, you’re going to have tapped into this new way of global living and this new way of making connections.

Listen to Lauren Razavi in conversation on The Citymaker podcast.

To find out more about the future of global living and working you can visit Lauren’s website and subscribe to her weekly newsletter, Counterflows. Her book, Global Natives, will be published later this year.