The study, recently published in World Leisure Journal and conducted by anthropologist Dave Cook, examines what people mean when they talk about digital nomads, how those definitions have changed, and what that means for digital nomads and those who serve them.
Cook finds that there are exactly five different categories of digital nomads:
1. Freelance digital nomads
The pioneers of the digital nomad trend are freelancers who work on the road. According to Cook, “Up until 2020, this group was considered the traditional, stereotypical type of digital nomad and was the subject of the most pre-pandemic research.” These people could work from anywhere and were typically vloggers/bloggers, digital marketers, photographers, designers, writers, virtual assistants, coaches or programmers.
Today, freelancers are still the most common type of digital nomad, but since the pandemic, other types of mobile workers are joining the community with increasing frequency.
2. Digital nomad business owners
“Digital nomad business owners run registered businesses requiring more complexity than the skilled freelancer model. They may have contractors, employees, and product inventory, or require a wider array of business systems and infrastructures to operate,” explains Cook.
Fewer digital nomads are business owners than freelancers, but studies show an increasing number of mobile freelancers are building more complicated brands or businesses, elevating them to “digital nomad business owner” status
3. Salaried digital nomads
Before the pandemic, full-time remote workers who moved between at least three different locations each year were a special group. Currently, they are the fastest-growing group of digital nomads.
According to the study, consulting firm MBO Partners predicts “that digital nomads with traditional full-time jobs doubled in 2020 and increased 42% in 2021.” “MBO estimates that there are 11.1 million salaried digital nomads in the USA alone.”
4. Experimental digital nomads
People who have started working on the road but are not yet earning enough money to support their nomadic lifestyle fall into this category. The report notes that “experimental nomads… are frequently encountered at coworking spaces, conferences, and meetups” and that “backpackers may be combining tourism with the practice of performative work”
According to various previous surveys, the majority of would-be digital nomads abandon their lifestyle after a year.
5. Armchair nomads
Armchair nomads are the antithesis of experimental digital nomads because they make money, have travel dreams, but they have not really left home. “This category hints at how the digital nomad concept continues to seep into mainstream consciousness,” writes Cook. Despite the fact that there are tens of millions of armchair nomads, “little is known about this group and the estimates do not give firm guidance on how aspiration will convert into action.”
Regardless of how many armchair nomads become full-time travelers, the effects of all their fantasies and online research are already being seen in the real world.