Turbulent times leading middle classes to embrace digital nomadism and reject traditional aspirations

Paper is the first piece of work to capture this paradoxical shift in what feels secure vs what feels risky and burdensome in consumers’ lifestyle choices and consumption behaviours

Economic downturns, pandemics, looming wars and climate emergencies are challenging people’s sense of stability and pushing the previously secure middle classes to upend their consumption behaviours and seek stability in having less, rather than more, according to a new study from Bayes Business School (formerly Cass).

While consumers have traditionally built a sense of security through focusing on long-term goals – such as starting a family, finding a stable job that can secure one’s retirement, and accumulating solid assets, such as property and other material items – the four-year study shows that looming uncertainty is leading people who were previously sheltered from these risks to reject such aspirations as they can become a source of vulnerability and an unwanted anchor in turbulent times that call for agility and adaptability. This is because building stability through traditional paths requires financial resources, long-term commitment, maintenance, and confidence in what life would like down the line, all of which consumers increasingly lack.

Published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the paper is the first piece of work to capture this paradoxical shift in what feels secure vs what feels risky and burdensome in consumers’ lifestyle choices and consumption behaviours. As myriad threats downstream to people’s everyday lives, leaving many uneasy about their prospects and uncertain about their future, it shows how insecurity is leading people to depart from well-established patterns of behaviour and rethink the constitution of their daily lives.

Searching for new sources of security

The study finds that to gain a sense of stability and to manage risk, consumers are increasingly adopting ‘liquid’ logics, which prioritise detachment and flexibility. The researchers capture this phenomenon by theorising the notion of “liquid consumer security”, a new form of felt security that stems from the avoidance of ownership and its risks and responsibilities.

To explore how liquid consumer security is built, the researchers conducted a four-year ethnography and netnography of digital nomadism, including 35 in-depth interviews, analysis of social media, and participant and non-participant observation at some of the largest events for digital nomads. In addition, data was also collected from three main hubs for digital nomads, namely Bansko, Bulgaria; Valencia, Spain; and Crete, Greece.

Enabled by technology and the increasing popularity of remote work, digital nomads tend to work online, own very few possessions and live in cheaper countries (which allows them to maximise their income and live the good life for less).

The key findings of the study are as follows:

  • Previously idealised future goals of being married, having a family and owning a home are social norms that for many are no longer an imagined source of stability and security, as they are instead being viewed as a source of risk rather than security.
  • To minimise feeling vulnerable to economic uncertainty and global instability, consumers reorganise their lives away from ‘solid’ logics of ownership and long-term planning, shift their focus from the future to the now, and let go of solid possessions and commitments.
  • They also reorganise their lives by leaning on access-based and digital marketplaces to minimise living costs, generate income and tap into needed resources to rebuild a sense of security. For example, house-sitting platforms in cheaper locations can keep daily costs of living low, while working several jobs online can diversify sources of income, offering flexibility and control. The study outlines how these marketplace offerings provide consumers with the tools to circumvent foundational pillars of solid living and offer valuable means through which they can amend their lifestyles to cope with the current socioeconomic climate.
  • Finally, consumers legitimise this way of being by evangelising about it as a source of control and agency. The more normalised liquid consumer security is, the more infrastructures are there to support and enable it. For example, the popularity of remote work and nomadism has pushed many governments to amend their tax policies and visa regulations.
  • The authors outline for the first time the emergence of “liquid consumer security”, which they define as a form of felt security that stems from the avoidance of solid consumption and its associated risks and responsibilities. Liquid consumer security exists in the absence of ownership, attachment, or rootedness, and is derived from circumventing the demands, financial liabilities, and commitments that solid consumption requires, which emerge as sources of risk.
  • The study shows that global uncertainty affects people who previously were sheltered from systemic risks, i.e., the middle classes, for the first time. While precarity and uncertainty have always existed, the researchers point to emergent fragmentation in access to security and stability. For some with ample resources, solidity will remain within reach; for others, who struggle to build solid lives, the ability to construct liquid consumer security will allow them to better manage looming threats.

Increasing uncertainty

Dr Aleksandrina Atanasova, Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Marketing at Bayes Business School, said:

“While our parents’ generation could rely on some sort of certainty about what their life trajectories will look like, today we no longer have this. Hence, the disenchantment and disillusionment with normative ideals are affecting the middle classes, who are a segment of society that has previously been quite secure.

“As depicted in the award-winning film Nomadland, this is not a marginal phenomenon limited to those at the periphery. Our study shows that in times of crisis, previous sources and markers of stability and security such as accumulating possessions, starting a family, relying on job security and retirement etc. begin to feel like an anchor pulling one down as they require resources which consumers can no longer rely on having. In contrast, agility and flexibility (i.e. liquidity) are what allow one to pivot and change course when needed and adapt more quickly to an unpredictable environment.

“But it’s important to note that, of course, not everyone will become nomadic in response to felt insecurity. Our concept of ‘liquid consumer security’, however, captures a broad shift in the locus of risk and security and shows how that shift manifests in consumers’ behaviours. It points to changes, across populations and consumer groups, in how people think about the future and how the picture of ‘the good life’ is transforming in the face of the collapsing social contract and general global uncertainty. In turn, the market is catching up, and subscription services are booming as people are increasingly looking for more flexibility.”

"Liquid Consumer Security” by Dr Aleksandrina Atanasova (Bayes Business School, City, University of London), Professor Giana M. Eckhardt (King’s Business School, King’s College London), and Dr Katharina C. Husemann (King’s Business School, King’s College London) has been published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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