How are the nomadic and expat communities similar and different from each other? Why are both groups included in the Fifty Plus Nomad community? How are we different from immigrants and refugees and others who leave their homes for a better life?
¨When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.¨
What are the Nomadic and Expat Communities? How are They Different and Similar to Others Seeking a Better Life Abroad?
When I began this website, I spent a lot of time deciding what is a Fifty Plus Nomad and who should be included in the community. As I began to think about this issue, I realized that the nomadic and expat communities share more similarities than differences. I also noticed that many people like Vicki Skinner and myself move back and forth between places and the nomadic and expat lifestyles.
As I began to discuss this with other Fifty Plus Nomads, the conversation quickly morphed into a discussion of why people leave their homes for extended time periods. I also discussed things like how Fifty Plus Nomads are different from more traditional communities, like immigrants, who leave their homes for a better life. So I developed this post to help Fifty Plus Nomads get a basic primer about all these different communities.
Traditional Nomads Versus Migrants, Immigrants, and Refugees
Until around 5000 years ago, most people were nomads. We traveled from place to place to find animals, water, and materials to build a shelter. Then, we settled into one place to develop agriculture, cities, and trades. Until the 19th century, most people seldom traveled more than twenty miles from their homes for their entire lives. Traditional nomads are rare today.
Immigrants and Migrants
Instead, the world has millions of migrants and immigrants.
Migrants move to somewhere else within the same countries. Immigrants move to another country.
- Do not intend to return to the home country.
- Leave their homes primarily to find some opportunities (usually economic) that do not exist at home. (A fair number of immigrants also move to another country to live with their family or spouse).
One class of immigrants, called refugees, escape their home because of war, famine, or natural disasters. (Officially, refugees are called asylum seekers if they are in a country where they intend to live but have not received official permission to live there yet).
Unlike refugees. most immigrants can survive if they stay at home; however, they do not have much choice but to leave home if they want a chance at a better life.
Most People Would Rather Stay Home, if Possible
Like most people in the world, both immigrants and refugees would be happy to stay at home for most of their lives so long as they had sufficient economic opportunities and stability.
Most people who have adequate opportunities at home feel lucky to leave their home a couple of times of the year for a week or two to go on a vacation. For these people, vacationing offers a chance to relax, a change of pace, or, sometimes, even a learning opportunity. But, they usually leave their vacation refreshed and ready to go back to their home.
The Nomadic and Expat Communities
We Have Itchy Feet
Society says that we have itchy feet. Some people, myself included, don’t find vacations enough. We want to spend considerable parts of our life discovering new places, people, experiences, and lifestyles.
People with itchy feet spend months and sometimes years traveling from place to place in search of a more fulfilling life or moving to another country for a better quality of life. We get bored by living at home. Some of us even may not feel at home in our native lands.
The desire to travel or move to another place for months or a year at a time is relatively rare. It has also only been possible for all but the rich since WWII.
We are privileged people who have already established a reasonably prosperous and stable lifestyle at home but want to move around to become more self-actualized. (See my blog post Why Are We Unusually Blessed to be Fifty-Plus Nomads?).
Many people view those of us with itchy feet suspiciously. They think we are escaping something or that we have something to hide. They may accept the idea that we are moving for a practical reason like to spend less money, but they are suspicious of the intangible reasons behind our nomadic ways. (See my post on Justifying Your Nomadic Lifestyle).
What are Modern-Day Nomads, Backpackers, and Vanlifers?
It has taken a while to even coin terms for us. Generally, people who travel around the world for extended periods today are called Modern-Day Nomads. (Like our ancestors, we do not set down roots in one place for a long time. We don’t have to be nomads). Unlike previous nomads, we have a choice.
Many younger Modern-Day Nomads are Backpackers. As their name implies, Backpackers usually travel with a stereotypically bulging pack on their back on a modest budget. (Typically $50 to $100 a day for all expenses). Many Backpackers travel between many of the same places. They rarely spend more than a couple of days in one place. Most of the places Backpackers visit tourist communities that typically offer a lot to see and have restaurants, activities (including partying), and lodging well-suited to the backpackers’ needs. (Nomadic Matt is an excellent source of information for backpackers).
Digital Nomads are another large and growing segment of mostly younger Modern-Day Nomads. Digital Nomads usually make their living in freelance, computer-related work that does not require them to be attached to one place. Many others make their living in drop-shipping.
Increasingly, Digital Nomads and Backpackers stay in the same places as other members of their tribe. However, unlike Backpackers, Digital Nomads spend weeks, or sometimes months, in one place and often work together. Digital Nomads also can’t stay anyplace for very long without high-speed computer connections and workspaces. (Johnny FD provides an extensive discussion of the Digital Nomad lifestyle)
Another large and growing segment of Modern-Day Nomads of all ages is Vanlifers. Vanlifers, as their name implies, live, and travel in their vans. Unlike RV owners, most Vanlifers travel to several countries by van, usually with the same continent. Some even ship their vans between continents and travel around the world for years at a time.
What is an Expat?
The definition of expatriate (or expat) is somewhat muddled. Officially, expats are people who live in another country for a limited time period.
However, in popular vernacular, most expats, in addition to not planning to live in another country permanently, also move primarily for a better lifestyle or personal growth, etc. (This website uses the vernacular definition of an expat. This definition comes from the 19th century and originally signified rich people who spent significant periods of their lives in sunnier, more cultured climes like Tuscany in Italy or Provence in France).
Yet, most of the media also assume that expats will live in another country full-time for several years. While this is true for many expats, it is not true for many others. In fact, as often as not, many expats live in ways that resemble Modern-Day Nomads.
What Is a Fifty-Plus Nomad?
A Fifty-Plus Nomad is any over the age of 50 who has itchy feet and/or wants to or actually lives in another country either part-time or full-time.
Since we are over 50, many, if not most, of us are either retired or planning to retire soon.
While often not the case, most Fifty-Plus Nomads usually have some savings and want to live and travel in some comfort. Most of us are not comfortable in lodgings (often hostels and modest guesthouses) where most backpackers stay. (Though I have met many Fifty-Plus Nomads in backpacker hangouts).
Since many Fifty-Plus Nomads don’t have to work and have many years to explore the world, many of us often settle down in one or more places for an extended time.
Fifty-Plus Nomads come in many different guises. I have met Fifty-Plus Nomads who live for years on cruise ships and others who spend most of the year going on different group tours. However, the majority of Fifty-Plus Nomads I have encountered travel independently.
Fifty-Plus Nomads make up the majority of people in two travel-related communities. The largest and most established community of these Fifty-Plus Nomads is the one million Americans and Canadians who live for extended periods in their RVs (Recreational Vehicles). Most of the nomads travel primarily within the US and Canada.
The second large Fifty-Plus Nomad travel community is snowbirds. Snowbirds move from Canada and the Northern part of the US to Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, California, and Mexico for a few months every year. Snowbirds go back and forth primarily to escape the cold of winter at their home.
Note: I have another post that defines Fifty-Plus Nomads in much more detail.
Why Are Expats Part of the Fifty-Plus Nomad Community?
For a long time, I struggled with whether my website should include expats.
It is clear that Modern-Day Nomads over the age of fifty fit into my website. Nomads in most peoples’ minds infer people who move frequently. Indeed, anyone who travels for many months or years is a nomad, even if they only travel in their own country.
But do expats belong with Fifty-Plus Nomads? The answer is complicated. Ultimately, I would say they do for the following reasons:
Expats Aren’t Like Immigrants or Refugees
Both expats and Fifty-Plus Nomads are distinct from immigrants and refugees. because we:
- Don’t need to move to have a better economic situation or a more stable life; and
- Probably won’t settle down in one place for the rest of our lives.
That said, economic motivations do play a role (though seldom the principal role) in both expats and Fifty-Plus-Nomad’s decisions to hit the road. Many people over the age of 50 become nomads or live abroad partly because it is cheaper than staying at home.
We also hit the road to save money. Many countries have a significantly lower cost of living is less than in the US or Canada.
Yet, even though many websites advertise the benefits of living and traveling in cheap countries, I haven’t met that many fifty-Plus Nomads who hit the road for that reason.
However, I have met many Fifty-Plus Nomads who seek the best of both worlds. A life that is more intellectually and emotionally satisfying than home but is also less expensive.
Many Expats, Like Modern-Day Nomads, Don’t Settle Down In One Place
Most people assume that expats will settle into one place and stay there for many years.
Yet, few realize that many, if not most expats like me, will not fit into this pattern. Many expats, like Modern-Day Nomads, frequently move because we are searching for new places and adventures. Some expats also travel a lot.
Here are some examples of expats that do not move to another country and stay there for years. Specifically, these expats live:
- In more than one place outside their home country during the same year;
- Part of the year in their home country and then several months in another country;
- In one place outside their home country for a couple of years and then move to another place abroad;
- In one country for several months a year and travel for the rest of the year; and
- In one place abroad after traveling, living, or working around the world for many years. (More often than not, these expats find it easier to settle outside of the home country).
We Fifty-Plus Nomads often create our own highly personal mix between a nomadic and an expat lifestyle. I call us peripatetic nomads. We go back and forth between being Modern-Day Nomads, expats, and sometimes even return to our home country. When we are in one place for a long time, we keep the idea of moving or traveling again in the back of our minds. After a while, this peripatetic lifestyle becomes addictive and normal.
The reasons why expats do not just settle into one place are varied and complicated. Sometimes expats, particularly if they want to live in Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, can’t get the legal right to stay in their newly chosen country year-round. They instead decide to live part of the year there and the other part either at home or even in yet a third country.
Some expats go back and forth to their home country for family, health, or work-related issues. Often, expats decide to settle down in one place for a while to recharge their batteries, see family, and plan their next adventure after spending months on the road traveling.
I Am Both an Expat and a Modern Day Nomad
Like many other people who live abroad, I have been an expat, a Modern-Day Nomad, and a Fifty-Plus Nomad.
In total, I have spent nearly sixteen years of my life traveling, living, studying, volunteering, or working outside of California. Until April 2004, I spent most of my time at a home base, though I did spend almost three years of that time traveling, living, studying, and volunteering outside of these homes. Even when I was not on the road, hardly a day went by when I wasn’t thinking or planning my next adventure. I always had and always will have itchy feet.
In 2004, I started to live a more nomadic lifestyle. From 2006 to 2009, I spent, on average, three months a year traveling to research classes about living and traveling abroad. Then, I spent three to five months a year traveling around the US, giving these classes.
From April 2011 until I bought my house in Merida in November 2015, I traveled for nine months a year (aka a Modern-Day Nomad) and lived in Montreal consistently for three to four months a year. (I am not from Montreal. In fact, I had never even visited the City until 2011, when I started to live there part-time),
After buying my house in Merida from November 2015 until March 2020, I spent between three and five months a year traveling. I spent the rest of the time in Montreal (two to four months a year) and Merida (three to seven months a year).
Starting in March 2020, I have been a full-time expat in Merida. I intend to keep spending most of my time in Merida until my Fifty-Plus Nomad business either allows me to pay for traveling again or requires me to travel to market and teach seminars in the US and Canada.
I am no longer a Modern Day Nomad, but I continue to share many characteristics with Modern-Day Nomads because I:
- Don’t intend to live in Merida, full time for many years, and take a couple of week vacation a year to recharge my batteries;
- Have itchy feet and plan to return to traveling for extended periods (at least part-time) as soon as possible;
- Am helping others with itchy feet find out how to live as Fifty-Plus Nomads; and
- Make an effort to learn more about my newly adopted (at least temporarily) homeland, Mexico, and about Merida.
Dreaming of Becoming an Expat or Modern Day Nomad Makes Someone a Part of the Fifty Plus Nomad Community
Even dreaming or contemplating a nomadic lifestyle makes you part of the Fifty-Plus Nomad community. Most people will never think about living or travel abroad for a long period. They are too tied to their home. Ultimately, anyone over the age of 50 who shares a travel itch could be a part of our community.
I would guess that around 20% of Americans and Canadians dream of becoming Fifty-Plus Nomads. Yet, only about 1-2% actually do it. Why? Mostly out of fear or the belief that it is not possible.
I want to encourage people to take up the dream. Therefore, I’ve designed Fifty-Plus Nomads to give people with nomadic dreams, space, time, and, sometimes even, permission to think about this dream.
Yet, I also cover the realities of a nomadic lifestyle- both good and bad- so that dreamers can decide if this lifestyle is right for them. (I would guess that around 20% of the people with the dream are probably not meant to be nomads in reality).
Want to know if you have what it takes to be a Fifty-Plus Nomad? Take my quiz.
Want to Explore These Issues Further?
- Find out more about the definitions of migrant, immigrant, refugee, and asylum seekers.
- Learn more about Americans Living Overseas.
- Discover more about the official definition of the difference between expats and migrants.
- Read more about my current life as a Fifty-Plus Nomad during the Coronavirus period.
- Read my profile of Vicki Skinner, an expat and nomad who lives on limited funds.
- In 2021, the movie Nomadland portrayed eloquently the joys and trials of Vanlifers in the US.
Want to Know More About Definitions Used in the Fifty-Plus Nomad Website?
- Definitions: Nomadic, Expat, and Fifty-Plus Nomad Communities, Immigrants, Refugees, and MigrantsA Fifty-Plus Nomad is anyone who dreams or has become a long-term traveler or an expat. We explore the world and live abroad for personal growth, intellectual curiosity or other intangible reasons. This post explores how Fifty-Plus Nomads are different and similar to expats, refugees, immigrants, and migrants. It also talks about different communities that are similar to Fifty-Plus Nomads like snowbirds and vanlifers.
- Why Discussions About the Differences between a Traveler and a Tourist are a Waste of TimeMany people take pride in being a traveler rather than a tourist. They think that because they travel independently they are superior to people on tours. Yet, to really get to know place requires time and an effort to get to know locals.
- Long-Term Travel and Living Abroad: 8 Reasons Why We are the First Generation to Enjoy the Awesome OpportunitiesUntil World War II only the wealthy had the ability to travel for extended periods or become expats. Today these nomadic dreams are available to many people.
- Definitions Used Throughout The Fifty-Plus Nomad WebsiteFind out definitions for the following words used frequently in the Fifty-Plus Nomad website: fifty-plus nomad, developed countries, third world (emerging) countries, expats (expatriates), long term (extended) travel, learning travel, and volunteer travel.
- Quiz #1: Do You Have What It Takes to be a Successful Fifty-Plus Nomad?Take Quiz #1: Find out if you have what It takes to be a successful Fifty-Plus Nomad? (Hint: Chances are, you do).
- What is a Fifty-Plus Nomad?When people ask me: ¨What is a Fifty-Plus Nomad¨? My reply is anyone over the age of 50 willing to invest time, money, and energy to make travel and/or living abroad an integral part of their lives.