The rise of the migrating freelancer - a new hope or final doom?

There was a time, not so long ago, when one’s livelihood was a pretty straightforward concept. Sure, obtaining and maintaining it on a decent level was never an easy or secure affair, but for the most part, the general outlines of what it means to “make a living” were more or less predictable.

For the better part of the 20th century, the overwhelming majority of the population earned its daily bread as employees, predominantly at large organizations. Career shifts were rare, and people expected to maintain their positions for decades, if not until retirement.

It would be fair to say that these days and the political arrangements that accompanied them are now gone for good, for better or worse. Much has been said and written about the reasons behind this process; from automation to globalization, you have probably heard it all. Tales summarizing the hopes and fears, winners and losers, victims and perpetrators emerging from this complete deconstruction of industrial relations have been filling content feeds for a while now. One group however is often overlooked, but if you’ll ask them - their way of life is destined to be the new normal in the very near future.

They are not employed, don’t have an address, barely own property, and seem to be pretty content with this arrangement, thanks for asking. Most members of this new social class will describe themselves as “digital nomads”, then pause and eagerly wait for you to ask what the hell this means.

You’ll find them in burgeoning nu-hipster coffee shops, scattered across the capitals of the developing world, crouched behind their Macbooks, frantically clicking and scrolling along. What started as an eccentric exit strategy of burned out tech employees, has become an independent and decreasingly romantic walk of life. Freelance designers, developers, marketers, and what have you, moving to low-cost/low-income countries as tourists, migrating along as soon as the visa expires.

More than showcasing the wanderlust of quirky millennials with questionable work ethics,  this phenomenon attests to a historic shift in terms of what it means to be a migrant worker: instead of moving to a wealthier country to improve one’s salary, these new foreign workers maintain their independent source of income and instead move to countries in which it is worth much more.

“I used to dump clients all the time, building new sites, designing logos on a weekly basis,” says Lia, a full-stack web designer from southern France. “This has become much more difficult recently. The market is flooded with new tools that make my work easier, but also everyone else’s. A website I used to work on for a month can now be created with a few clicks, there even are logo-generating websites that will create a basic brand-book in minutes.”

As her income dropped sharply, Lia decided to try her luck in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where she reunited with friends from university with similar stories. “Rent is about a quarter of what I used to pay, food is almost negligible”. Some of her clients, says Lia, don’t even know where she lives. “As long as I deliver on time it’s no one’s business anyway”.

To understand the scope of this phenomenon it is worth to have a look at the new industries emerging around it. More and more online services are popping up, catering for the needs of digital nomads. Special insurances, equipment, Youtube guides on “how to be a nomad”; you name it. On Nomadlist you can even find a constantly updating “leaderboard”, assigning “nomad scores” to almost every city on the face of the earth, providing detailed reviews on anything from Internet speed to gay-friendliness.

On the other side of the spectrum you have Estonia’s e-Residency program, providing virtually anyone that might be interested with an online, location-independent residency with which one can open bank accounts, incorporate businesses, and access government services from anywhere the good internet shines upon. And all of it without having to put on pants.

Since Estonia announced its e-residency program, the number of “location-independent” businesses has skyrocketed, with Estonian e-bureaucrats working through 200-300 new applicants weekly.  These businesses can then even be sold, merged, or licensed on one of the new online marketplaces emerging for this purpose. On LEXIT, “location-independent entrepreneurs” (or freelance code-monkeys as they tend to call themselves), can sell assets like code or half-developed applications without ever having to leave their co-working spaces in Cambodia, Thailand, or Bali - a process that would in past have entailed transatlantic travel and a battery of lawyers.

“Of course this all sounds very exciting”, says David, a front-end developer from Hungary. “But I’m not on vacation. The time differences are hard to cope with. Every two months or so I have to move because of Visa issues and it tends to get lonely after a while”. 

David, 38, is slightly older than Lia, and looks notably tired. “I know that job security is a thing of the past. I don’t even have a job in the classical sense, but the complete lack of safety in a foreign, developing country doesn’t make things easier if the going gets tough”. And it often does. “It’s bad enough to run out of projects when you’re at home. You don’t want this happening to you here.”

Looking around the Chiang Mai coffee place at which we met Lia and David leaves one with mixed feelings. It is eerily quiet, filled up with foreigners like themselves, working diligently and sipping their coffee without much socializing. Are these wealthy expats, exploiting the low wages of the locals, or insecure migrant workers, driven far away from home by economic forces much greater than themselves? Or maybe these are just kids having fun?

Be it as it may, most of them believe that their way of life will become increasingly widespread. “Personally, I think that what’s happening is that the ‘first world’ so to speak, and the developing world, are becoming increasingly mixed up. In a generation or so the divide will be gone,” concludes David.  “I don’t know if this means that the poor are getting richer, or that we’ll all be poor in the end. I hope for the first, of course.”

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