The Myth of the 4-Hour Work Week: Most Digital Nomads Work Full Time

Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

Do you ever find yourself sitting at your desk mid afternoon, attention fading, mind wandering, scrolling through your instagram feed, wondering how the other half live? Having joined the ranks of, the universally sensible, “most people” you’ve got a good job, that you like (most days) and life is good. Except on Tuesday afternoons when your mind wanders and you find yourself drooling over Taylor’s instagram feed of handstands on a yoga platform high up a mountain overlooking an idyllic lake.

You find yourself wondering about her, and the handful of other people you secretly follow who are self styled digital nomads, working and traveling the world, on their own terms.

Is the digital nomad life really mostly play with just enough work to get by? Are these people actually making big bucks in four hours a week of concentrated effort? What DO they actually do, anyway?

Social media marketing of the lifestyle aside, and in spite of the promises of a plethora of e-courses on the subject, the reality is somewhat different. It turns out that the majority of digital nomads are working full time. At least. While also juggling a whole lot of travel and the rigors of life on the move. Time to kiss those dreams of a 4 hour work week buh-bye.

The Hours Digital Nomads Work

Regardless of job role, what we already know about working remotely is that it boosts performance. This study by Florida International University confirmed what had previously indicated by the survey done by Stanford University, which is that people who worked remotely are happier in their work, work more, produce more, and are sick less often. Ask a successful digital nomad and they’ll tell you that those benefits are just the tip of the iceberg.

If performance is boosted by working remotely, then more is being accomplished in less time, right? Right. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that remote workers are working fewer hours across the board.

In our sample 57% of digital nomads worked 40 hours a week or more. And another 28% worked at least 20 hours a week. Only 4% of the survey respondents reported working fewer than ten hours a week.

Take home message: The 4 Hour Work Week is not a thing for the vast majority of digital nomads.

Whether that’s because it’s not achievable for most people, or whether we love what we do so much that we keep doing more of it is debatable. The other thing often argued over bar tables on beaches in Thailand is what, exactly, constitutes “work.” One friend of mine swore he worked less than five hours a week, but by my count it looked a lot more like sixty. When I called him out he said, “Yeah, well, that’s not work, those are my passion projects!” The passion projects that provided at least half of his income. When the line between work and fun, work and life, or work and passion becomes blurred, who’s counting?

However, if you’re considering taking the leap into digital nomadism, it’s really important to realize that most of us are still working full time jobs, or producing the equivalent output of a full time job.

At Tortuga, for instance, with the entire team working remotely, no one counts hours, we just get our jobs done. In the marketing team, that means that during certain seasons *cough*pre-launch*cough* we might be burning the candle at both ends. But then, the unlimited vacation policy makes up for it on the flipside. No one second guesses your productivity as long as you’re getting your shit done and we have an outcomes based assessment of that, with a trust based approach to individual domains. Why? Because the studies are correct. We’re more productive in less time when working on our own terms. Whether that’s from our home offices in North America, or stationed across the street from a 20 hour service sangria cart in Lisbon at a company retreat.

What happens to the hours breakdown if we isolate the job role variable. Who’s actually working the most?

 

What we found was an interesting mirror of what the Stanford study (page 167) discovered. They noted that, within the American workforce, it was persons at the top and the bottom of the wage scale who were most likely to work remotely. What our survey respondents reported was that those digital nomads working the most hours were those who fell at the top and the bottom of the earnings scale as well.

It makes sense; customer service jobs are usually hired out, part time or full time, and are not typical freelance positions. As for managing teams, at the executive level, that means that you’re similarly on call and responsible for keeping the ship moving forward, nights, weekends, and holidays too.

Take home message: If you want to get into the digital nomad lifestyles for the instagram perfect beach shots and spending afternoons playing bocce, perhaps you want to consider marketing or design, where over half of the digital nomads work less than 40 hours a week.

Job Roles for Digital Nomads

Survey participants self reported into five major role segments. Executive and management roles, at 32%, development, at 25%, and marketing roles, at 20%, made up the vast majority of jobs done remotely. Design, at 14%, and customer support, at 9% also lend themselves to living and working anywhere.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but one of the gleanings from this breakdown is that if you want to work remotely, having a skill set that lends itself to online collaboration is going to make you a lot more marketable.

The gender breakdown in job roles is also interesting to examine. Far more women are in marketing roles than men, and women also outnumber men in customer support and design, but are lagging behind in development and management roles.

Read our analysis of the digital nomad gender wage gap for more on how the data shakes out for men vs. women, in terms of earning potential.

Digital Nomad Job Roles & Job Types

From surfing the digital nomad social feeds it’s pretty easy to get the idea that 90% of the folks out there “living the dream” are either freelancers or entrepreneurs. Free people, baby! No more working for “the man” for us.

That might make for a nice marketing angle for your “How to quit your job and travel the world like me” course, and it might be an appealing bird flip to your corporate frustrations on the way out, but the data tells another story.

Of the respondents who answered this question, 833 were employees working remotely, 593 were freelancers and 564 entrepreneurs.

What I find interesting is the further breakdown of these numbers by job role. There weren’t any massive surprises for me here, but it was instructive in terms of HOW to be most successful as a digital nomad in a particular job role:

Customer Support

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of people engaged in customer support remotely work for a larger company and are employees.

Freelancers dominate at higher percentages the marketing and design roles with entrepreneurs encroaching for marketing. I found it interesting that almost exactly the same percentage of people in both roles are employees, at barely over a quarter of the total population.

In development and design, the two highest paying segments of the digital nomad job roles market, it’s interesting that almost half of the population are working remotely for companies as employees.

Take home messages:

  • If you are looking for a way into remote work and the digital nomad life at the bottom of the pay scale, taking a remote job in customer service could work.
  • If you’re itching for the freedom of running your own show and want to stay away from the corporate connection, but don’t want to be a full on entrepreneur and run your own company, then design or marketing might be your most promising fields; with development as a runner up.
  • If you’re an executive or in management, then you’ve got two main choices: work remotely for your company, or become an entrepreneur.
  • Overall, the consistent money is in working remotely for a company, which is why so many people do it.

Resources for Getting Started as DN

Even though your dream of a six figure income, working half a day a week, has been deflated, don’t let me discourage you from becoming a digital nomad. Heaven forbid! I’ve been “living the life” for over ten years and have the instagram feed to prove it, and yeah, I am making six figures, but I work more like 30 hours a week. It’s a great lifestyle. The tradeoffs when you embrace work-life integration are more than worth it, at least in my experience.

So how do you get started?

 

TL;DR

The independent workforce is on the rise and digital nomads are a growing segment of the remote work population. While it’s a myth that most digital nomads are working less than full time, the added flexibility around when, where, and how you work is appealing to many.

  • The 4 Hour Work Week is not a thing for the vast majority of digital nomads.
  • If you want to work less than 40 hours a week as a digital nomad, consider design or marketing.
  • If you are looking for a way into remote work and the digital nomad life at the bottom of the pay scale, taking a remote job in customer service could work.
  • If you’re itching for the freedom of running your own show and want to stay away from the corporate connection, but don’t want to be a full on entrepreneur and run your own company, design or marketing might be your most promising fields, with development as a runner up.

 

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