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Why is a Harvard professor studying digital nomads

Today, we’re taking a look at a research project on digital nomads launched by Harvard professor Beth Altringer and Harvard undergraduate Daria Evdokimova. I learned about the study from Daria some months ago and have been curious ever since to know more about the reasons this study was launched and why digital nomadism as a phenomenon could be a topic of interest in the academic world. This is also an open invitation for the digital nomads to take part in the study (see further)

Could you please introduce yourselves and tell us about your interest in digital nomadism?

Beth: I’m an academic focused on desirability in design, innovation and entrepreneurship. I’ve noticed this phenomenon at least in part because I have been a ‘digital nomad’ in the past in my own capacity. I’ve lived in several countries while working, and it used to be quite uncommon to meet others doing the same. I’ve noticed that has changed dramatically in recent years.

Daria: I’m an undergraduate at Harvard studying Computer Science and Visual and Environmental Studies. I took two classes with Beth and participated in her field course in Bali in January 2015 where we studied remote entrepreneurship and sustainability practices.

I’m really excited to be working with Beth on this research mainly because I’m exploring the idea of working from anywhere as I’m thinking about my goals after graduation. I travel pretty frequently and I’m interested to learn more about whether it’s possible to work out of anywhere right after graduation without years’ worth of savings.

hiking 1

How did this study begin and what led you to study this particular topic?

Beth: The concept for the study started 2-3 years ago in a conversation with a friend who was shutting down operations after ten years with his startup. He traveled for several months, trying to figure out what to do next. He initially wanted to create a business for people like him – to allow people to work from anywhere, but he was targeting corporate environments, and thinking of this as a perk they could offer their employees. But enacting the idea would be very complex if you also managed the infrastructure, which is how he was thinking about it, and he chose something else (which is now doing very well).

In our conversations about it, we had many common reference points, and knew many people in common who had also spent time as digital nomads. It seemed to be more common, in response to a growing need for adult ‘reset’ buttons at different career stages.

What do you think drives the need for that adult reset button at different career stages and why we seem to be witnessing this need more and more often in Western society?

Daria: One of the reasons is that long-term career expectations have changed. Our parents and grandparents were expected to stay in the same company for decades, but for our generation it’s become much more common to change companies and career trajectories every few years, sometimes interspersed with travel sabbaticals or making time for hobbies.

People are also realizing that with a global online access they can work from anywhere.

We’ve seen a lot of young people who decided that a corporate career is not for them. Most of them are pursuing occupations that are enabled by the internet, such as developer, designer, online consultant, online services provider, etc. We’ve also seen a lot of mid-career people who are part of the ‘escape the cubicle’ movement, which has also become more common relatively recently.

What makes digital nomads an interesting topic for you to study?

Beth: “The main reason I’m doing this is because I think this is a really relevant question for students and adults as the landscape of work changes, and as the expectations of very long-term positions change. There is much more uncertainty and flexibility in the workforce, especially in tech, and this makes this both ‘a thing’ (as in a growing choice) and and interesting area to understand better because not much is known about the implications of that choice.”

Speaking of implications, what can we expect to learn from observing this phenomenon?

Daria: “The nomad movement is too young to know whether there are long term implications of this career choice. That is, we don’t know what would happen if after a while some people would want to reintegrate into the corporate world, and whether it’s going to be challenging for them. We don’t know whether this lifestyle choice is financially sustainable long-term and what the implications are for retirement, social life, and long-term family plans.”

hiking Mt. Batur

How is the study structured and what questions interest you the most?

Beth: “We are still learning about the area in terms of what we will write about in the end. Daria and I both find this interesting and have committed to continued work on it. The study is really on a very specific thing, which is how people are managing to make this choice work for them financially. In our earlier work in Bali, people were very vague on this, and if this is to become a viable work path for others, we need to be able to give them an idea of what to expect financially, or at least what to expect in terms of risk.

This was the most critical unanswered question we had, and so we are surveying people about it. We also want to take the opportunity to help people share tips and best practices for financial management of digital nomad lifestyle, because we recognize that many of them have not had the opportunity to learn from one another. So we are offering to share this with participants.”

As one of the first academic studies on digital nomadism as a social phenomenon, this is exciting! And if you’re a digital nomad, you can take part in this study. Contribute by filling in a short survey. Beth and Daria will use this data to study the financial sustainability of digital nomadism as a serious career choice for people.

Like this? Read more articles on digital nomads.

Why is a Harvard professor studying digital nomads

Marina Janeiko is a UX designer, long term digital nomad and founder of What’s It Like, which tells you the best time to travel where.
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