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Meet the modern nomads

The roaming empire

As buying a house becomes harder and remote working simpler, should we remain wedded to the idea of settling down? Jonathan Beckman meets the people who hope to find a home wherever they wander

As buying a house becomes harder and remote working simpler, should we remain wedded to the idea of settling down? Jonathan Beckman meets the people who hope to find a home wherever they wander

Jonathan Beckman | April/May 2018

At cocktail hour on a mild October evening, as thousands of Londoners are wadded face to armpit on their tube journeys home, half a dozen residents of a handsome, brown-brick townhouse in Chelsea have gathered in the basement kitchen. Jonny Sywulak, a 34-year-old software engineer and former bartender, is standing behind a balustrade of vodka bottles, demonstrating how to concoct a Bloody Mary. Each glass is served with an elaborate garnish – a slice of lime, a slice of lemon, an olive, a nub of blue cheese and a shrimp – that slumps against the rim like a half-felled totem pole.

“I’m just following instructions here,” says Isa Landaeta, the house’s community manager. “I’ve never made a garnish like this before. Also, do olives really taste good with shrimp?”

Though most of the participants barely know each other, the atmosphere is congenial and relaxed. Amira Yousif, high cheek-boned and imperceptibly pregnant, came down for a rice pudding and has stayed for the spectacle. She sips a taste of cocktail from a teaspoon.

“Can you feel the baby yet?” asks Hannah Letten, a sprightly, ginger-haired student. “Do you feel a little pod inside you?”

“It’s like asking can you feel your heart or can you feel your liver,” says Amira. “It’s just nothing at the moment.”

Welcome to the modern commune: wipe your feet before you enter. The inhabitants of this 34-bedroom house live and eat alongside each other, laugh and get drunk together, play Cards against Humanity, a game of post-ironic bad taste, as the evening hubbub dies down. Some stay for weeks, some for months, others indefinitely, uncertain and often unconcerned about where they will move to next. As well as three Englishmen, the cocktail class includes an American, a Canadian, a Venezuelan and an Australian. They are unencumbered by family responsibilities and have no place they call home. Most of them would happily function anywhere in the world with a robust internet connection.

For hundreds of years, communal living has been an escape route from mainstream society. The commune is a utopian experiment where hierarchies are broken down and human relations re-imagined. The ashram dosed up visitors with spiritual infusions. The Jewish state, a project many considered impossibly idealistic almost until the moment it was created, was built on the back of another type of collective, the kibbutz. The most drastic social experiments of the 20th century were conducted by people who called themselves communists. Apocalyptic believers and countercultural dreamers congregated in communes to distance themselves from a world they considered unredeemed and soulless.

The commune in Chelsea is nothing like this. Classical musicians, lawyers and venture capitalists live there. Some people go out to work each day, others labour away with monastic dedication in the house’s co-working space. The kitchen is stocked with the essentials of metropolitan sophisticates: Maldon sea salt, Aleppo pepper, preserved lemons. Blackboards on the doors of each bedroom are scrawled with the names of the occupants (one reads, enigmatically, “The Pope’s room”).

The property is one of four operated by Roam, a company that describes itself as a “co-living and co-working community”. It manages similar-sized complexes in Miami, Tokyo and Ubud in Bali. They are designed for people who can work anywhere and want to live everywhere. In London, members pay £600 ($850) a week and can move out with seven days’ notice. They are able to flit between properties with ease, finding at each of them a community of fellow travellers. These are not fugitives from the mainstream but waist deep in it, even representative of it. They are the outriders of globalisation and the beneficiaries of flexible working. For them, home is not a castle or even an assemblage of rooms, but a state of mind.

The idea of home as the preserve of the nuclear family is a product of modernity. Until the 16th century, most urbanites in Europe lived in the same building that they worked in. The main room would act as a shop or atelier during the day (latterly, many houses acquired a second storey for the household alone). Everyone would sleep cheek by jowl, including servants, apprentices and, in large tracts of the continent, members of the extended family. The homes of the rich bustled with traffic. Philippe Ariès, a French historian, des­cribes the “grande maison”, with its permanent staff of retainers, confessors and secretaries, thronging with “friends, clients, relatives and protégés”. Privacy in the modern sense barely existed.

Homes were permeable and extended beyond the confines of a single building. Most people were born, raised, worked and died in the same parish. They were enmeshed in the lives of their neighbours by barter and trade, the intermarriage of their children and participation in religious services and rituals. Home was the point at which habitation, community and continuity overlapped. The two meanings of “home” – the house in which we live and the place to which we feel attached – are now so entwined as to be almost indistinguishable.

In the 17th and 18th centuries a division emerged between personal space, such as bedrooms and drawing rooms, and a public reception room (this development occurred earlier in more advanced economies like England and the Netherlands). Work was evicted from the home. During the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing moved into purpose-built factories. Technological innovations such as the railroad and telegraph enabled businesses to operate nationally, eventually internationally. Their growth required a dedicated space in which teams of managers could co-ordinate affairs. Thus the modern office was born. Ancillary professions that supported business – law, banking, accountancy, marketing – needed offices too. Meanwhile, the expansion of the state created a bureaucracy of its own. Services such as education and health care, which had previously been provided by sole practitioners at home, were now offered on a national scale on special campuses built to educate and heal hundreds of thousands of citizens.

The location of your job determined where you lived. Home was no longer synonymous with birthplace – it needed to be established. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of “home town” in Britain to mean “the town of one’s birth, early or permanent residence” occurred in 1824, during an unprecedented wave of mass migration to cities, as people sought work in factories. Previously, there had been little need for the concept: the presumption was that the town where you were born was the only one you would ever have.

The home clammed up, holding at a distance everyone bar the nuclear family. The notion that an Englishman’s house is his castle began life as a legal argument in favour of the right to kill intruders. But it came to express the belief that a person’s liberty, his essential character, had its freest rein in their own home. A mutually beneficial relationship emerged between the workplace and the house. The purpose of work was to acquire, maintain and embellish the latter. Modern consumerism was directed towards the family home: furnishing it, decorating it, kitting it out with the latest appliances.

Certain forms of communal living had evident benefits. The boarding school, the barracks and the asylum stripped away individuality in order to instil obedience. And collective housing persisted informally: in the early 20th century, for example, 10% of people in San Francisco lived in boarding houses. But the nuclear family absorbed so much emotional and financial investment that alternative configurations were often regarded with suspicion.

Modern communes emerged in defiance of middle-class values, erasing the distinction between public and private. The counterculture turned privacy inside out by advocating nudity and free love. During its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, an estimated 750,000 people in America lived in around 50,000 communes.

Over the past 50 years the notion of the home has mutated again as more people started to live alone, often by choice. According to American census data, 28% of households in 2014 comprised a single person, up from 13% in 1960, a trend that is replicated in many countries. Society has become more atomised and many of the institutions of civil society that once nourished community life have shrivelled through lack of participation. Sociologist Robert Putnam noted in “Bowling Alone” that a decline in social connections has coincided with a rise in depression and suicide.

Living arrangements are now in flux once again. As most professional activities have migrated onto the computer, it has become less important than ever before to live close to one’s work. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, nearly half of all employed Americans work remotely at least some of the time, up from 9% in 1995; a fifth of these flexible employees never go into the office.

Home ownership is already out of reach for many young professionals in major cities. Even those who can afford to buy often end up with a cramped compromise. The traditional home is becoming unattainable, but it is also becoming unnecessary for a large number of white-collar workers. If the home no longer needs to exist in a particular place, does it need to exist at all? An emergent tribe of modern nomads is asking the question.

On his second morning in Ubud, Joe Tolan showers in a waterfall, because if you’re staying in paradise, you ought to make full use of the facilities. The drive takes an hour, through the lush Balinese countryside. Sitting next to Tolan, an IT consultant in his mid-30s dipping his toe into nomadic life, is Julian Schmidli, a Swiss journalist. Tolan has breakfasted at Alchemy, a totally raw, totally vegan restaurant that refuses even to do toast. Though it is beloved of the town’s many yoga posers and spiritual questers, Tolan’s stomach feels short changed.

“If you have a vegan breakfast, you’re hungry 20 minutes later,” he says. He pulls out a baguette from his bag, takes a bite and a shimmer of bliss sweeps across his face. “Oh sweet carbs, how I’ve missed you!”

“They have this cheeseburger,” says Schmidli. “The cheese is made out of cashew in a dried paste. Beetroot burger. The bread is lettuce.”

“That’s the principle of alchemy,” Tolan says. “They take the worst food they can find and they somehow turn it into money.”

Moss lubricates the flagstones that lead down to the waterfall. During the descent, butterflies in yellow hi-vis blink around them. Through the foliage, a cocoa-coloured rock face, ruched and polished by the cascade of water, unveils itself. Tolan strips off, tip-toes into the pool and lets the hammer of falling water knock him awake.

Bali is the cradle of modern nomadism. Since the 1960s, hippies and artists have found sanctuary in Ubud, the island’s religious centre. “Eat Pray Love”, Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir of her mid-life search for spiritual and romantic satisfaction, reached its nirvanic climax in the town. After its publication in 2006, Ubud’s yoga scene became a draw for those looking for bliss. At the same time a different class of migrant arrived in Bali – the digital nomad, who shipped up surfboard under one arm, laptop under the other. Young, penniless and in need only of a Wi-Fi signal to eke out a living under the tropical sun.

“When I think of digital nomads, the word ‘bromad’ comes to mind: ‘I’m a 23-year-old techie who’s going to crush it. I’ve got an Instagram account and I’m going to tell you how to live the good, free life… And I’m 22 and I actually don’t know shit, but I’m going to put you in my funnel and I’m going to crush it,’” says Steve Munroe, the co-founder of Hubud, a co-working space that attracts entrepreneurs to Bali from across the world.

In the five years since Hubud opened, Munroe has seen the emergence of a new kind of nomad – one who is older, more experienced and determined to shape her own life. The median age of Hubud’s users is now 33 and many come with families. “A lot of them are in this transitional part of their life,” he says. They want to start afresh or recalibrate their work-life balance. In Ubud, they can live cheaply, with a cook and cleaner, which frees up time to devote to fledgling businesses. Those still holding down remote jobs with companies in Europe or America find long stretches of the day blissfully uninterrupted by the chirrup of email, as the rest of the world lies asleep. Ubud’s spiritual pick-me-ups offer sustenance to nomads whose computer is their most constant companion. “The tech industry is so volatile and unlimited,” Schimidli says. “That generates a lot of anxiety.”

Unlike travellers, modern nomads are not in perpetual motion. They may stay in the same place for months, even years. What marks them out is their unwillingness to put down roots. Whenever they want, they can move on with little effort. Pieter Levels, who runs Nomad List, a website that ranks the world’s most nomad-compatible cities, estimates that there are now hundreds of thousands of self-identifying digital nomads and a few million people living a “location-independent lifestyle” (as the jargon goes), though calculating the number of people is tricky, given the loose definition of the term and fluidity of the lifestyle.

Tolan doesn’t look like a typical tie-dyed Ubudian. A beefy man with a New Jersey accent, he dresses like a bro abroad in a vest, cargo pants and thongs. His manner is abrupt, which sometimes makes it hard to judge whether he is making a joke at someone else’s expense or his own. He worked in Los Angeles before his business collapsed, a disaster on which he reflects phlegmatically: “Everyone was asleep at the wheel.” He lost his car and his apartment – the company had paid for those – but he also came to the conclusion that his life had been materialistic and that success had narrowed his horizons. Tolan broke up with his girlfriend, who he felt was trying to cuff him, and departed for Ubud in search of a satisfying ratio of labour to excitement. His friends have started running a book on ways he might die.

What were the options? “Mostly disease. Malaria, typhoid. I might accidentally jump into a volcano when it erupts. Eaten by a shark. Death by falling off a bridge – provided it was high enough.”

The smart money was on a crash, after Tolan involuntarily dismounted twice within a day of acquiring a moped.

With his career at a crossroads, Tolan felt an urge to change more than just his job. But he was conscious of the magnitude of the decision and knew he was too old to go it alone: travel can be liberating but it can also be isolating. Roam offered Tolan a soft landing with a pop-up circle of new friends. Within a couple days of arriving, he had secured an invitation to Singapore for Thanksgiving.

Among other things, co-living spaces are an attempt to solve the problem of nomadic dislocation. They try to conjure feelings more often associated with that place we call home – contentment, belong­ing and assurance – through companionship alone. If the experiment proves successful, the commune, once the freakish sibling of modern society, may finally have found its place.

No single word adequately describes co-living spaces. Institution? Too psychiatric. Facility? Too CIA. The novelty of such living arrangements is emphasised by the language void. But it is a phenomenon that has appeal across the globe, from San Diego to Copenhagen to Singapore. Brands such as Hmlet and Lyf operate in Asia. In the London suburbs, outfits such as the Collective and Tipi have sprung up. These projects generally target professionals at the start of their careers, often recent arrivals to the city who cannot afford surging rents, or who want to avoid rackety private landlords and oddball housemates. Roam has adapted the co-living model for the richer, more mature end of the nomad market.

Bruno Haid, the co-founder of Roam, has a top-knot on his head, a bottom-knot on his beard and the polite stoop of a very tall man. In his previous career he built search engines and was first drawn to communal living after converting a dilapidated hotel in San Francisco. A tour of the house in Chelsea immediately reveals that a computer programmer’s obsessions with user experience and download speeds have saturated his thinking about design. Super Mario is the guiding light. “Nobody ever read the manual for Super Mario,” says Haid. “The first couple of levels were so well designed that you could automatically learn the game as you played it. We try to do the same here.” There are no doors on the kitchen cabinets, because “if you live in a kitchen for 20 years, you want to tidy everything up. But if you’re just here for three weeks, you don’t want to spend three weeks figuring out where the plates are.” The microwave has one button rather than 17 settings. Every appliance ought to be instantly comprehensible; explanatory signs are an admission of failure.

At each of its properties, Roam employs a community manager, typically a young woman with full-beam enthusiasm, who arranges events such as trips to art galleries and communal dinners, and fields complaints about temperamental fire alarms and dysfunctional plumbing. Practically everyone I speak to during my time in London, Miami and Bali is unfailingly enthusiastic about the community, even the coy and timid who were initially sceptical. Co-living turns out to be perfect for many introverts, who don’t want to live alone but blench at the thought of imposing themselves on complete strangers. They cherish company when they arrive somewhere new, but would prefer that it emerge from the incremental accumulation of passing encounters, giving them control over the pace at which they open up to others. Roam offers opportunities to join in but does not hector members to take part in organised fun.

Subtle nudges are not lost on the guests: a couple of them note that the absence of desks, chairs and TVs in the bedrooms encourages them to migrate to communal areas. But this causes little resentment. At Roam Chelsea, Amira comes down to the basement each evening to watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, a kind of Miss America contest for drag queens. She’s staying here only because her husband booked them in while their house was being redecorated. “I didn’t think I would enjoy community living,” she says. During her first week, she walked into the kitchen during a cookery class and was so intimidated that she grabbed a piece of bread and scuttled back to her room. Now, she greets everyone with hugs and laughter. “There’s a common denominator to everyone I spoke to. Everyone thought they’d never do this but actually they’ve enjoyed it.”

In the summer-camp atmosphere, bed-hopping abounds, but romance and enduring friendships are harder to sustain. One old-timer says that “you form close relationships with people and then they go and it’s terribly hard. You emotionally shut down after a bit because you want to protect yourself. It sucks with people leaving you the whole time.”

Co-living and co-working spaces monetise an often overlooked – but much desired – form of connection between people who are neither friends nor family nor colleagues. They sell the hum of human life itself. The silence of loneliness howls, but co-living diffuses this roar in a babble of neighbourly voices. As new forms of life emerge, older ones adapt. Some hotel chains have begun to provide communal options to relieve the solitariness of business travel. In America, Europe and the Middle East, Marriott now offers multi-person apartments and organises mixers. In Dubai the Tryp by Wyndham has replaced its business centre with a co-working space.

Online social networks initially promised constant company but in practice they often underscore distance (how many Face­book “friends” do you see even once a year?). They transform conversation into broadcast and are navigated by individuals in communion with a screen. Co-living, by contrast, turns out to be a genuinely social network – in 3D with surround sound.

This is a long way from the communes of the 1960s and 1970s, which combined “maximum self-actualisation and individuality with maximum co-operation and commitment to the welfare of others”, according to Judson Jerome, who was both a participant in and sociologist of the movement. In the commune’s new incarnation, privacy endures and participation is optional. You contribute only as much as you want. There is a risk that community becomes a utility, much like electricity or water, to be switched on or off as needed. Yet the shallowness of relationships can also be a strength. Communes often foundered because members expected a charismatic leader or radical social reconfiguration to transform their lives. The stakes were so high that when they were disappointed, or disputes arose over the commune’s direction, factions splintered off. Yet the emancipatory promise of these older communities finds a utopian echo in the marketing of many co-living providers now. Hmlet, which operates properties in Singapore and Tokyo, solemnly affirms that it “amplifies creativity and empowers our members”.

Like many features of the modern world, co-living’s latest incarnation grew out of Silicon Valley. In recent years, San Francisco has seen an outbreak of hacker hostels: houses packed tight with wannabe tech trillionaires waiting for their startups to pay out or get snapped up. These tended to be scuzzy, laddy and have an explicit emphasis on networking (in both senses of the word), aspects that more upmarket co-living providers have been eager to distance themselves from.

Co-living seeks inspiration from modern technology in another way too. Until recently, consumerism meant accumulation. Manufacturers produced tangible commodities. When customers bought them, they were physically transferred from one place to another. The home acted as a repository for these goods. Today, many of the world’s highest-profile companies are not selling things – they are offering platforms in a virtual space, which enable easy access to services without the cost and storage requirement of ownership. For example, cloud computing obviates the purchase of expensive processors and equipment. Ride-hailing apps like Uber make the expense and anxiety of maintaining a car redundant for many. Such platforms also allow people to sample a previously unimaginable range of opportunities. Music-streaming services such as Spotify let us listen to most of the music ever recorded – far more than the average person could possibly buy.

Haid sees Roam as part of a trend that prioritises experiences over acquisition. It is a platform that will enable people to find homes across the world without needing to own even one. He has grand – some might say grandiose – plans for the company, envisaging a network of 10,000 Roams in which one might spend an entire lifetime. In each you would receive a guaranteed standard of accommodation and the welcoming embrace of a community. His thrilling vision is still a long way from being realised: Roam plans to open ten more sites in 2018 (though it had a similar target in 2017 and failed to reach it). With the addition of major cities such as Shanghai, Los Angeles and New York, Haid believes the network effect will become apparent.

It’s questionable how many people want to see out their days as nomads. The atavistic yearning for a place of one’s own still burns strong in countless savings accounts. A paid-off mortgage guarantees a roof over one’s head in old age. Raising and educating a family on the hoof adds a level of complexity and bureaucracy at which most parents would balk. Many of the residents at Roam say they can imagine living transiently for a few years but not for ever. Even Alysia Hamilton, Roam’s outgoing head of community, admits that “we haven’t figured out if we’re a permanent solution or an in-between solution”. But co-living is valuable at certain moments – the launch into the workplace, the career change or break, retirement – when people have fewer commitments, making the rootless life simpler and more appealing. Co-living cushions the vertiginous leap away from a circle of acquaintances. Today’s nomads don’t travel in tribes; they find each other at every watering hole.

The Pope of Roam turns out to be a bloke called Mike. No one has stayed in the London house longer than Mike Price. A lean, shaven-headed Irishman with the panel-beaten nose of a retired rugby player (which is what, in fact, he is), Price’s reason for staying at Roam reflects a typical combination of pragmatism and idealism. He used to live around the corner but the admin that came with maintaining his own flat irked him: “I didn’t want bills and all that bullshit.” He owns a number of gyms in London and Dublin (presumably he has minions to deal with that paperwork) and every time he travels for work he checks out, then checks in again on his return. Even when he’s gone, he says with a paternal chuckle, “my spirit presides over my children.”

Is he happy living out of a bag? “Yes,” he says, “Ever since I saw that movie ‘Heat’. Pacino looks at De Niro and goes, ‘I don’t have anything in my life that I can’t put down in 60 seconds and walk away from.’ I wish I could say that is the truth. But it’s not. I’ve got a family – a couple of brothers – and businesses. But I like the idea of thinking I can just drop everything and walk away.” Other nomads express similar sentiments, feeling they let themselves become prisoners of their own possessions. When they speak about their decisions to dispose of a wine collection or their grandmother’s dinner service, their voices rise with fervour.

As Price talks, the noises off grow louder. The antiquated plumbing system, which had been acting up all day, had finally burst. One guest is flooded out of his bedroom and the water needs turning off. Had this happened in a hotel, there would have been remonstrations over the inadequate service, but misfortune reveals the resilience of the residents’ camaraderie. A posse sets off to a nearby supermarket to buy bottled water for drinking and toilet-flushing. On arrival, another problem presents itself: the staff would not lend trollies to wheel back 60 bottles, even though they are implored to supervise the caravan.

As they face a knuckle-whitening drag home, a thin man with a Middle Eastern complexion, who has been queuing to buy cigarettes, offers to transport them in his car.

“Thank you so much,” says Isa Landaeta, the community manager, relief glistening in her eyes.

“See the way we come together,” Price says, with something like pride. “This is community.”

Jonathan Beckman was a guest of Roam in London, Miami and Bali