The Placeless and the Privileged

I last read about the startup Roam, which caters to affluent digital nomads seeking a ready-made community whether they’re in London, Tokyo, or Miami, in Jessa Crispin’s Outline story from last summer. Based on her experiences in the company’s compound in Bali, she questioned the possibility of an authentic communal experience in a place that depended on the cheap cost of living and stark income gaps between Roam patrons and the local labor force.

In the New York Times Magazine, Kyle Chayka revisits Roam, this time in Miami, where he observes different nuances of satisfaction and alienation — from the real, if temporary connections that people seem to make during their stays, to the growing sense that this was more “immersive group therapy” than a travel experience. Some of the most interesting moments in Chayka’s piece, however, go beyond the (easily parodied) surface of the wealthy-tech-nomad lifestyle. He also examines the deeper forces that have made a concept like Roam not just attractive to a subset of (mostly young) professionals, but almost a logical, necessary outcome of the current economic moment. As Roam founder Bruno Haid tells it, the startup is “a means of letting human capital find the path of least resistance, wherever it may be.”

There is a vicious plausibility to Haid’s vision. The macroeconomic pressures he describes in the urbanized West — a lack of affordable housing and linear careers — are particularly tough on millennials, who are also, incidentally or not, a historically unattached generation, with low rates of marriage, homeownership and childbearing. If the usual trappings of adulthood don’t seem attainable, and a permanent sense of precariousness seems unavoidable, why not embrace impermanence instead? Already there are partial nomads all around you; you just might not think of them that way yet. There’s the writer who spends a few months of every year in Berlin, making up for diminishing freelance wages with cheap Neukölln rent; the curator bouncing between New York and Los Angeles; the artist jumping from Tokyo residency to Istanbul fellowship. In the competitive freelance economy, geographic mobility has become a superficial sign of both success and creative freedom: the ability to do anything, anywhere, at any time.

Those in less artsy careers who chase that same sort of freedom may find it illusory. The new technologies that have liberated us from place have also made employers more comfortable with remote workers, but only because we can be so easily monitored. Combine this interconnectivity with an increasing population of freelancers — over a third of the American work force makes money in the so-called gig economy — and you have the makings of a nomad boom. Haid estimates his target customer base to be around 1.2 million people who make over $80,000 a year and could live anywhere. Pieter Levels, creator of the social network Nomad List, believes there to be a nomad population in the high hundreds of thousands.

Read the story