The 40-year-old digital nomad

The 40-year-old digital nomad

This is what Keri Tietjen’s life looked like when she turned 40 in May: She owned three boxes of things, all books and photos. She had a car, which she loaned to her mother and sister and her sister’s three kids, who all live together. Her two sons were in college. She had no permanent home. But after two years traveling to 36 countries, every U.S. state, and most Canadian provinces, there are a few places she considers home: Edinburgh, but only in the summer and spring. Amsterdam and Prague, where she planned to go after a stop in California. She loves Paris. And Bali. “Whenever I’m not in Bali, I want to be in Bali,” Tietjen told me.

Tietjen is a digital nomad, but she doesn’t fit neatly into the stereotype of the backpacker-meets-tech-savvy Millennial who gigs or runs her own business from exotic locations. Tietjen is a middle-aged, divorced mom of two who has health insurance and files her taxes as a W-2 employee. She works full time for a large American tech company, but at any given time, her employer doesn’t know where in the world she is. And that doesn’t matter because she’s an overperformer and she always shows up, virtually, for work. On weekdays, she works U.S. East Coast hours. On weekends, she has adventures.

She’s living the life she wants, and she’s happy. “I love the fact that I feel this way the year I turned 40,” she said. But Tietjen didn’t always feel this way.

‘Everything in my life was epically failing.’ 

A few years ago, Tietjen was, by traditional standards, doing all the right things to be a “successful adult”: She had a nice house in a nice area, and a high-paying job, high on the corporate ladder of a California tech company, for which she was able to telecommute two days a week. But on a personal level, she said: “Everything in my life was epically failing.”

A military wife who grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Tietjen married at 19 and had kids early. Every few years, the family moved. By the time they arrived in California, Tietjen’s husband, an Army sniper who had completed tours in Iraq, was struggling with complications from a brain injury and suffering severe symptoms from PTSD. “He got himself in trouble,” Tietjen said. There was infidelity and an arrest, and then, after 15 years as a decorated soldier, he got kicked out of the military. Not only did this mean Tietjen became the sole breadwinner, the loss of her husband’s post meant that the family would not be able to receive the retirement benefits that would have come after 20 years of her husband’s military service. At the same time, Tietjen’s father had become disabled. Her grandparents were not doing well. Her sister, who had three children under 4, was a victim of domestic violence. Tietjen took on the roles of caregiver and counselor for those family members on top of her existing responsibilities as mother, wife, and breadwinner, and the weight of those responsibilities wore on her. “All I felt was pressure and unhappiness,” she said. “I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do.”

Tietjen stayed in her marriage for three more years while her husband went through therapy. (She wanted him to be able to withstand the loss of her.) In 2015, she moved to New York, where she had always dreamed of living. Two years later, she decided to make an even bigger change. Her sons were adults and could live on their own. Her company was being acquired by a larger firm, and she thought she might lose her job. She was living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. She thought, “Why am I spending all of my income on rent and living a normal existence when this is the last thing I want to be doing?”  

The year of ‘Why Not?’

After her divorce, Tietjen decided to adopt a theme for the year 2016: “No Politics, No News.” (It ended in November of 2016, and she said her re-entry was a nightmare.) She decided to make 2017 the year of “Why Not?” “If I have an opportunity, and if it’s not harmful, then I have to do it; I have to say yes,” she recalled.

She wanted to break old habits, get creative, get to know herself, get back in touch with the things in life she wanted. “When I made the decision to get married and become a military wife, I put to bed the dreams and goals I had for myself,” she explained. “At that point, I was driven by: I have to go back to college and raise two children. There were more pressing needs. The needs take over in life, and you forget the wants in an executable way. They are not possibilities anymore. Doing the ‘year of’ made me take some risks and try new things because doing it in the way you think you’re going to be ‘successful in life’ wasn’t working for me.”

Nursing a broken heart from a failed relationship and concerned she might lose her job during her company’s acquisition, Tietjen had been planning to move back to California, buy an RV, and live in different campgrounds like some other tech workers she knew. But she couldn’t ignore an ad for Remote Year that kept popping up in her Facebook feed. When she learned that the new owners of her company would let her keep her job and continue working remotely, she decided: Why not?

“Doing the ‘year of’ made me take some risks and try new things because doing it in the way you think you’re going to be ‘successful in life’ wasn’t working for me.”

Instead of Remote Year, Tietjen ended up joining Roam, a company that offers members access to coworking and coliving spaces around the world for a weekly fee. After donating most of her belongings and putting her three boxes in storage, she moved to Bali, where she spent her first two months as a digital nomad living and working at Roam’s space in Ubud. After that, she opted to get her own villa, and since then, she has been organizing her own accommodation and workspaces. 

The rise of the Digital Nomad

According to The New York Times, the term “digital nomad” was coined in 1997 by Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners in their eponymous book, which predicted that technology “will make us geographically independent of our homes and offices.” In that same article, Pieter Levels, founder of Nomad List (part of the growing digital nomad ecosystem) estimated the number of nomads today to be in the “high hundreds of thousands.” They appear to be a diverse group: Roam’s website says the average member age is 38, and members range from their late-20s to early 70s. (In one member profile, Roam includes a photo of a man with a head of grey and white hair hunched over a computer, reading glasses on nose and buds in ears.)

The rise of the Digital Nomad is driven by a few trends, including the growth of the gig economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 55 million Americans—or 34 percent of the workforce—were gig workers in 2017, and that percentage was expected to increase to 43 percent by 2020. The Guardian has described the gig economy—including contract, part time, temp work, and self-employed or freelance work—as America’s “fastest-growing category of new jobs.” Even the U.S. Census Bureau is getting in on the gig economy: In an August announcement that it plans to hire half a million part-time and temporary workers for the 2020 Census, the agency billed itself as “on the verge of becoming the largest gig employer next year.” Alongside the rise of the gig economy has been the steady growth of American workers who telecommute. According to the BLS, in 2018, almost a quarter of working Americans did some or all of their work from home, up five percentage points from 2003.

In 2017, 34 percent of the American workforce were gig workers.

Together, these trends are influencing work culture, not just because more people are becoming independent contractors, but because more people are expecting flexibility in how, when, and where they work. Just as “telecommuting” and “9-to-5” now sound quaint, it’s possible to imagine that the modern-day office will become a relic. As David Abraham, the founder of Asia coworking chain Outpost, told Christine in a panel she led on the future of work: “The office is moving less from a physical space and more toward networks.” Stories like Tietjen’s offer a glimpse into what that future might look like.

‘It’s about living unintentionally.’

To make her situation work, Tietjen has certain logistics in place: Because she typically uses Airbnb and needs to have reliable Wi-Fi, she books accommodation three to six months in advance. She has two phones: one with a U.S. number, which she uses for work and pays for herself, keeping her monthly bills low through a VoIP app; the other is a back-up phone for which she buys a local SIM card. She has U.S. health insurance through her employer, and she has taken out her own travel insurance policy for major emergencies (“If I die, my body could be shipped home”), but she mostly pays for any health needs out of pocket (“everything in Southeast Asia and even in European countries has been so affordable that I pay it in cash”).

For everything else, she tries to be flexible. “Being adaptable and resourceful is what has gotten me through every change in my life—especially trying to live a life like this,” she said. “The digital nomad community has these buzzwords like ‘intentional living,’ but that’s such a mistake. There are things I want to do, but I’m not trying to plan out my life on a vision board. It’s about living unintentionally: Stop having expectations that are unrealistic.”

“The digital nomad community has these buzzwords like ‘intentional living,’ but that’s such a mistake.”

Tietjen said she thinks most people who fail living the life of a digital nomad are trying to control too much. “Things didn’t go the way they thought they would because of the stories we embed,” she said. “Let go of that stuff. At some point, you have to be able to take what happens and make it work for you: Blend in, adapt, figure out ways to problem-solve in a pinch so that when barriers come in your way, you can get through it.”

Work is a paycheck, not an identity

One of the biggest things Tietjen has changed is her relationship with work. When she realized her way of working was more important than a title, she changed jobs, from a top manager to an individual contributor. She also now believes the purpose of work is to support the life she has always wanted to live. “I’m not emotionally attached to it at all,” she said. “Since I have had this job for the past seven years, my income has quadrupled, but it’s a means to an end: It gives me more choices, along with the freedom of being a remote employee.”

The challenges she struggles with today are more personal: She suffers from anxiety and insomnia, and she has digestive issues that have also affected her immune system. For these reasons, she spent more time in the U.S. in 2019 for health treatment. “I want to get good and strong so I can hit the ground running with new adventures next year—possibly Africa and South America,” she said.

“I’m proud that I’m happy.”

She doesn’t really struggle with loneliness, and she likes traveling alone. “I’m not afraid of my own company,” she said. Through Roam, she met other digital nomads, and she frequently travels with a French woman she met her first week. Both of her sons and her mother have come to stay with her for extended periods of time. Recently, one of her sons posted a picture of her on Instagram: “This is my mom, a world traveler and adventurer.”

She is proud of how she raised her sons, and they are proud of how she’s living her life. “All those years, with their father gone, I was a single mother,” she said. “I did things to teach them to be happy and take care of themselves first.”

Now it’s her turn. “I’m proud that I’m happy,” she said. “It sounds like a funny thing to be proud of, but when you sit and you think: Who would I like to be? Who would I trade places with? There’s nobody I would rather be than me.”

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