What Gen Z Digital Nomads Can Teach Us About Community in a Remote World
Between the beginning of the pandemic and November 2021, Jo-Jo Feng stayed under 40 different roofs, including a cabin in the Ozark Mountains, friends’ living rooms in New York City, and a farmhouse in California’s Humboldt county. Working in software engineering at the time, he took advantage of remote working to give up his lease in favor of a rotating series of Airbnbs.
He’s just one of my many friends—for the most part young, college-educated knowledge workers in salaried positions—who became digital nomads: people who combine working remotely and traveling for all or part of the year. After a few months of exploring, Jo-Jo, a 25-year-old who graduated from Yale in 2019 and grew up in central Illinois, started missing the feeling of being rooted in a community. “I love the idea of knowing your neighbors, walking down the street, and recognizing people,” he says. “You know them by name and can strike up a conversation with these people you see all the time.”
Cycling through a never-ending number of cities gives you unlimited opportunities to experience new things, but you return to the same question: Where is home for me?
It’s not just my friends who are trying out the digital nomad lifestyle. From 2019 to 2021, the number of American workers who described themselves as digital nomads swelled to 15.5 million from 7.3 million, largely fueled by the increase of remote work options in traditional jobs, according to a survey sponsored by MBO, a platform for independent workforce management. The average age of digital nomads—defined as people who embrace a “lifestyle that allows them to travel and work remotely”—declined as Gen Z and Millennial workers joined their ranks.
This influx of digital nomads has changed the way we travel, with average Airbnb stays becoming longer and countries across the world rolling out new digital nomad visas.
But living nomadically can get in the way of interconnectedness, particularly for Gen Z. Beverly Yuen Thompson, a professor of sociology at Siena College in New York who has studied digital nomad communities, has noticed that nomads’ lives are often characterized by transitory relationships, which can leave them feeling isolated and disconnected. “They’re younger, they’re single, and they’re lonely,” she says, “They seek out community in this very fractured way, not based on location but based on online communities and coming together temporarily.”
The pandemic has already deprived us of many of the opportunities to build a social world that are supposed to define your twenties—dinners out, late nights with friends at bars, even idle water-cooler talk at the office. It’s no wonder that Gen Z has felt more lonely and isolated due to the pandemic than any other age group. There’s no shortage of hand-wringing about what this will do to my generation—that prolonged loneliness will be catastrophic for our mental health or the lack of a professional network will have lasting effects on our career advancement and earning power. Some have pointed to studies showing that loneliness can even decrease your lifespan.
Like many Gen Z nomads, I spent much of the past few years bopping around, living in five cities in three states and two countries in the 18 months after I graduated in 2019. I wasn’t exactly a digital nomad—I moved for in-person opportunities rather than letting remote work take me anywhere I chose—but I understand the impulse. There’s this sense that this is the only time in our lives where we’ll be able to commit ourselves fully to exploration and adventure, before the increasing responsibilities to our family, partners, and careers require us to be rooted in place.
What’s held me back, and the reason I’ve stayed in Los Angeles for the past year, is a conflicting desire to be in community with others, with a life full of deep relationships. After I graduated, I was dropped into this big, unfamiliar world without the tight-knit communities and friendships that defined my college experience. Before, I had what the late Marina Keegan described as “the opposite of loneliness,” and I’ve been spending the past three years building something that can even come close.
Still, I’m hopeful we can build the kind of communities I want to experience. After all, the importance of community is a defining trait of this life stage. In one Pew survey conducted last year that asked respondents what made their lives meaningful, those under age 30 were most likely to mention friends and community, whereas older respondents prioritized health, material well-being, and occupation. Coming of age during a time of widespread activism and community organizing, we’ve come to understand community as the primary way we care for one another, create social change, and lead fuller, richer lives.
For Jay, a 25-year-old working in tech who has been living nomadically since September 2020, it was traveling to cities like New York and San Francisco that first made him realize that the sense of community was missing from his digital nomad lifestyle.
“You’re surrounded by not only your friends, but also friends of friends in these giant communities,” he says, “It was simple things, like dinner parties, where you sit together and talk to strangers, which felt like such a luxury during the pandemic. I realized how much I missed that.”
Even so, Jay, who didn’t want his full name used for the article, is not giving up his lifestyle anytime soon. “Part of it is that this is my way of making sense of the world,” he says, adding that travel has always been important to him, starting in his childhood. For digital nomads like Jay, who are committed to figuring out, there are a few tips from experts and nomads themselves. They might be helpful for all of us trying to seek community in new places.
Anchor in pre-existing communities
In Jay’s experience, one of the best ways to maintain a sense of community while moving around every few weeks has been to cycle back to a few anchor cities where he has family members or friends from college. “Most of the way I travel now is actually following my community, which is mostly from college and high school and fragmented across the US,” he says, adding that traveling between major US cities has enabled him to build community, too, by connecting these disparate groups and meeting friends of friends in each of these cities.
For others, the office may be a potential anchor, with co-worker relationships forming an important community. Some organizations are trying to incentivize employees’ return to the office to maintain culture and cohesion in the era of remote and hybrid work by subsidizing travel back to the office and holding regular events and offsites.
Seek out portable communities
Constance Hadley, an organizational psychologist and lecturer at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, recommends digital nomads seek out portable communities, which nomads can plug into wherever they are. She gives the example of Alcoholics Anonymous, a community that feels familiar and open to travelers. “AA is a portable community that’s been incredibly successful for decades,” she says, “It has a set of practices, a set of rules, and a code of conduct and care for each other.”
The key with portable communities is a sense of belonging that can come from a familiar set of shared values and customs. They can be tied to broader institutions, like AA or a religious service, or a looser subculture. Nomads might find their portable community in a climbing gym that feels just like San Francisco or a warehouse rave that feels just like Brooklyn.
To invest in relationships and communities, workers of all kinds need more time away from work. Remote work policies have given digital nomads the flexibility to work from anywhere, but some studies indicate that they may also be lengthening their workweeks. Ensuring that people have reasonable workloads largely falls on organizational leaders, but nomads can protect their time by setting boundaries and using routines to create clear starts and stops to the workday.
“You don’t have to do it 100% of the time forever.”
For some digital nomads, the answer to finding the kind of community they’re looking for may be to be a little less nomadic, whether that means traveling for only part of the year or settling down altogether. That’s the advice Thompson, the Siena College professor, gives: “You don’t have to do it 100% of the time, forever.”
Burnt out by the constant travel, Feng, the former software engineer, eventually took that advice and signed a short-term sublet in Chicago. He found that he likes being rooted in a place for a change, recently extending his three-month lease for another few months.
He tells me the story of a woman he met recently who runs an antique store on a busy street near his apartment. He describes it as warehouse-like, filled with furniture but rarely with customers. “She seemed really lonely,” he remembers, “so I ate a sandwich with her one day. We exchanged numbers, and she now calls me to come and help her move boxes sometimes because she’s sick and her son is very flaky.” It’s become the kind of relationship that he was missing while being a digital nomad—two neighbors with totally different lives, brought together by proximity, who have come to know each other and care for each other.