Is it Worth Ditching Your 9 to 5 to Be a Digital Nomad?

Live life on the edge of wanderlust by becoming a digital nomad.
Sunday 25 November 2018
Takin' it slow but still cashin' in your pay cheque. Photo: iStock

You wake up to the rising sun. You wish you didn’t care, but the morning traffic is about to get bad. You snooze anyway, instructing your alarm to do likewise. You wake up again 30 minutes later, you’re already late.

You get into your car, spend nearly an hour in traffic and wonder why you’re going through all this. After a whole day of running around, putting out metaphorical fires and attending to the never-ending torrent of emails, meetings and phone calls, you finally clock out, only to spend another hour in traffic before making it back home.

Why are you doing all this again? Oh, that’s right, you need to earn that pay cheque. A growing number of people have figured out how to have that piña colada-flavoured cake and eat it too. More and more members of the workforce are foregoing the dreary nine-to-five for a more flexible career path – that of the digital nomad.

Today, nomads of the 21st century have ditched camels and camping gear for planes and computers (but probably kept the rucksacks). They survive with their new sophisticated technology-driven tools by conducting business on their screens, and while finding water or fertile land isn’t such a worry anymore, making sure that you score a good WiFi connection is.

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You can leave this behind for good. Photo: iStock

Digital nomads tend to be millennials who work in most industries in the K-economy, the knowledge economy of marketing, design, IT, writing, media, tutoring and consulting, among others. Plus, most telecommuters and freelancers are technically digital nomads; the term is most often used for people who are working while living or travelling abroad.

Freelancing is a global phenomenon, leading to wider opportunities for digital nomadism. Upwork and Freelancers Union found that 36% of the US workforce already freelance remotely and they contribute approximately US$1.4 trillion annually to the economy, a 30% increase from 2016. People are increasingly choosing to freelance (63% in the US) not just for the flexibility but for the dough, as many freelancers can bring home a six-figure pay cheque. If this keeps up, by 2027, a majority of the US workforce will be freelancing.

Taking a look closer to home, freelancing has already contributed quite a chunk to the Malaysian economy. The Employees Provident Fund (EPF) found that the freelance industry (or ‘gig economy’), grew by 31% in 2017, and this figure could be higher as many opt not to contribute to the pension fund. This makes Malaysia the third largest freelancing market in the region behind Philippines and Indonesia according to, while a new study by PayPal has found that out of 11,324 freelancers surveyed across 22 markets worldwide in 2017, 14% were from Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

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You too can escape the confines of an office. Photo: iStock

However, with great freedom comes great responsibility. This romantic lifestyle should not be taken lightly. One has to pay their dues in life to be able to be organised, disciplined and well established in their respective fields in order to succeed. Millennials especially need to take into consideration their future. They are facing the scariest financial future of any generation. Dubbed “The Great F**kening” by Michael Hobbes of HuffPost, this generation has more student debt than their parents, is half as likely to own a home, with many are living in poverty and unable to retire until they are as old as 75.

That being said, nomadism is still in its infancy with only a handful of people particularly from the West who are able to adopt this lifestyle. This new breed of people have ditched the ‘conventional life’ of owning a home or paying taxes (or have chosen a more complicated system of paying taxes) and opted instead for a lower cost of living in an Asian country where (thanks to the exchange rate) they can live like kings and queens.

Dale Johnson, Head of Content at Hacker Paradise, an organisation that brings together remote workers, says, “The ability to speak English is a plus and plays a role – having said that, the movement of people is broader than ever before. There are a lot more people who are able to do this.” Interestingly, Johnson points out that despite what everyone thinks, many people who opt for this lifestyle are well into their 30s and 40s; it’s not just a millennial trend.

“(The) tertiary sector is where the bulk of people will be doing this but it will broaden over time and even over two years, it’s what we noticed at Hacker Paradise.” These people who have moved up the corporate ladder and who may not have families just yet, can afford the digital nomad lifestyle. In Bali (the unofficial capital of Digital Nomads) one can live comfortably on US$2,000 a month and can live luxuriously on anything beyond that. Choosing to become a nomad isn’t the easiest thing to do. But for many of those who have packed their laptops and stepped into the unknown, it’s been extremely rewarding.

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Eat, pray, live luxuriously and work whenever you feel like it. Photo: iStock

Take Kyle Dunsire for example; Dunsire was living the ‘good life’ in Sydney with his wife and kids. He had a house right on the beach and worked in financial services for organisations such as Macquarie, AMP and Study Group. Looking back, Dunsire said it was a lot of hard work with not much joy in return. “Externally it looks like you have a lot, but really when you look at it, you don’t,” he said somberly.

Needing a change and desiring a life lived more outdoors, he sold his beachfront property and moved his whole family to Bali. The change proved to be a catalyst for a new venture. Opportunities started to arise and Dunsire decided to act on a tech business idea he had been sitting on for a while.

With the help of old friends from Sydney, new acquaintances made in Bali, and the support of one of the best co-working spaces in Bali called Outpost, it seems the serendipity of Bali has helped Dunsire realise his dream. “Its radically different to living in Sydney, the feeling you have in Australia is that it is very structured and has a lot of rules. It’s a western liberal country and all about freedom, yet when you come here (to Bali) you have a greater sense of freedom – fewer rules and more vibrant,” he says, breaking into a smile.

Over on the other side of the world, Leannah Lumauig was making six figures working in some of the biggest tech companies in Silicon Valley, such as eBay, PayPal and Adobe. She was living the high life, driving a BMW and resided in a beautiful apartment in San Francisco. However, despite having it all, she was miserable. “Everyone is going so fast, it’s hard to collaborate with people, it’s hard to think creatively or think outside the box or change your perspective,” Leannah said of the corporate culture she was working in.

She longed to live in a world without alarm clocks and dreary boardroom meetings. She fantasised about being able to surf whenever she wanted to and not be chained to her desk. Eventually, she took the plunge. She ended up in the magical island of Bali as Creator and Coach at Life Design Labs in Outpost. “When you come to a place like this, where brilliant minds are often visiting Bali and making places like Outpost a stop, you have the opportunity to have conversations you normally won’t be able to have in faster moving cities.

“There’s a slow energy here, where everyone’s not always in a rush. At the same time, you still have these people who are on top of their game, who are working and playing simultaneously,” she says.

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An interesting point to note is that people who we interviewed had already established their careers and credentials that enabled them to transition to this lifestyle. Becoming a digital nomad yourself is not as far-fetched as you might think, and instead of the dread of a dreary office job, your day could start a little more like this: You wake up to the rising sun. You don’t know what time it is (and you don’t really need to care).

Thirty minutes later, you’re fresh, showered and ready to go. You bring your laptop so you can work in between your weekly massage. You’ve got a couple of meetings to attend and phone calls to make – but you have the time to grab lunch. In less than half a day, you’ve done more work than you would usually do while chained to your desk at work. The best part about all of this? You’re still getting your pay cheque.

Related: Why Expats Love to Hate Malaysia