Before freelancing, it used to be that if you wanted to work abroad, you had a couple of options. You could decide where you were moving to, and then do some intensive research. You'd apply for a work visa and field a mind-numbing obstacle course of red tape. If you were lucky, you'd come out the other side with a visa and work permit ready to set up your life as an immigrant. Then, if you were really eager and you still had some energy left, you could even try to become a citizen in your adopted home.
The more ill advised route would be to skip the red tape and risk working illegally. You could find jobs for cash under the table (“black money,” as some call it), and hope the friendly customs folks in your new country don’t find out.
Both approaches have their obvious drawbacks.
But in our times a new model has emerged. Now you can work as a digital freelancer. With only a laptop, you can set up camp virtually anywhere. By finding jobs through companies like Upwork, you can work all over the world. What does this mean for the changing state of immigration?
Freelancing and Immigration Have New Meanings
A freelancer used to be a skilled and specialized worker available for hire on a project basis. Now the term also encompasses unskilled workers available for easy and outsourceable odd jobs. It also includes single-client workers who basically function as employees, but with a different tax status.
Immigration is steadily giving way to relocation. A digital nomad may or may not settle in any single location. Nor might they work to naturalize themselves into their host culture, as an immigrant in the conventional sense of the term might. This lifestyle allows digital nomads to move as many times as they like, trying out new homes whenever the fancy strikes.
Unlike traditional immigrants, when freelancing, digital nomads are more equipped to take their culture with them. Contact with a new culture is transformative for anyone. But mobile freelancers can stay more in touch with their home culture than ever.
Internet culture, as much as any national identity, is the native culture of a growing percentage of young workers. This transnational culture exists outside of immigration. It transcends conventional national boundaries because it exists in the cloud. There could be a near future in which immigration in the traditional sense no longer exists, where culture is no longer tied to geographical location.
Digital Nomads are Emancipated
As first world cities continue to gentrify uncontrollably, it is harder and harder to find a place where a local income can cover the cost of living. For some, the best solution is to mix and match markets, taking earnings from one and applying them to housing markets in another.
Digital nomads (or at least those of first world origin) enjoy a mobile economic privilege. They can take their standard of earnings to a place where the cost of living is lower. Many find themselves working a job that, for the first time in their lives, can cover the cost of food and housing.
Time will tell whether this presents the same economic opportunity for third world freelancers. And hopefully, these developments can positively impact third world communities where many first world digital nomads choose to settle down.
Borders and Immigration Laws are Less Relevant
You hear these old school travelers telling stories about the golden age of travel. Those were the days when you could drive your VW Bus across continents without needing visas. Those days are long gone. But now an Englishwoman can live in Dubai and work for an American company, and she never even has to think about work permits. The laws built to control borders and immigration may be slipping into obsolescence.
Who will govern the connected?
The anarchic nature of the internet poses some puzzling conundrums for global governing forces and the economic giants that inform them. Sometimes corporations are powerful enough to establish their own rule of law. Right now, for instance, the main force governing business website operation is Google. It is Google's systems of rules and penalties that determine how businesses can and cannot operate across the web. Google’s rules are not law, nor are they necessarily tied to ethics. Still, a small business owner dare not break them. If they do, they could find their traffic crippled and their livelihood plummet.
A similar corporate strongman could emerge for digital nomads. But for now, are free to connect person-to-person and trade work for earnings.
Enjoy the Freedom While it Lasts
Digital freelancing is ushering a new era of freedom. We can expect major shifts in ethnic distinctions over the years as transplants and nomads move freely around the globe. The world will become a melting pot as cultural boundaries blur.
Cultures with practices preserved from antiquity will become scarcer and more prized as a tourist commodity. A new generation will emerge as the brilliant, multilingual children of digital nomads struggle to affix their own cultural identities.
People will no longer move to places because of economic opportunity. Places offering high standards of living, great urban amenities, or pristine natural environs will shoulder the population booms, for better or for worse.
However, if governments or multinational corporations decide to break up the party, we could soon be reminiscing for the golden age of digital freelancing. So if you want to have those stories to tell, you’d better get your laptop out now and get moving!