When Andrew visited Mexico City, he fell in love with the excellent food, friendly people, nice weather, and great culture. So at the beginning of 2023, he and his old friend Simon packed their bags and moved there. Workwise, there was nothing stopping them. Andrew has a remote job coordinating logistics, while Simon works for one of the big dating apps (which, as he told me, Andrew has already used to “meet locals” in the few days since he arrived).
Andrew doesn’t plan on ever going back to live in Vancouver full-time. He will return in a few weeks to attend a wedding and then head south again, restarting the six-month limit the Mexican government imposes on tourists. There is no way he could have the life he has here back home. In Mexico, he pays about $600 a month for an apartment the equivalent of which would cost nearly 10 times that much in Vancouver. Still, he assured me, as he was walking down one of the most upscale and foreigner-heavy streets in the city, that “the people and the culture” were the most important reasons for coming here.
The pandemic accelerated the trend of companies relying on remote work. “Email jobs” became “work-from-home” jobs and, eventually, “work-from-wherever-you-want” jobs. Suddenly, many young and child-free professionals acquired the ability to move wherever they wished, while still earning salaries pegged to the cost of living in New York or San Francisco. They became true “digital nomads,” not merely mooching around cyberspace, but wandering the world with jobs that require only an internet connection.
Mexico City has become one of the preferred destinations for digital nomads, particularly Americans. The weather is neither too hot nor cold, and it’s in a similar time zone as most of the continental United States. It’s also safe compared to the rest of Mexico (and some US cities), especially in the upscale European-style neighborhoods where Americans tend to congregate. It has world-class museums, excellent restaurants, and some of the best bars and clubs in North America. Not too far from the capital, you can find beautiful seaside resorts as well as idyllic tourist destinations like San Miguel de Allende. Finally, it also has the distinct advantage of already being packed to the brim with foreigners. The more of them there are in a city, the likelier it will be to attract them; after all, this means there are plenty of compatriots to befriend, minimizing their interactions with pesky locals.
But beyond all these advantages, the main attraction is simple enough: Compared to most North American cities, Mexico City is dirt cheap. This is because, beyond the high-end neighborhoods frequented by foreigners, it’s poor. In 2020, Mexico’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy found that close to a third of the city’s population, or around 3 million people, still live in poverty; for comparison, in New York City, it’s 13.9 percent of the population. Poverty may not be great for urban aesthetics, but it provides a greatly sought-after resource for digital nomads to exploit: cheap labor.
Labor is far and away the biggest determining factor in the cost of services. In Mexico, as of Jan. 1, the minimum wage amounted to 207 Mexican pesos per day, or about $10.70, whereas in New York, the minimum wage is closer to $15 per hour. Take a waiter, for example; assuming he clocks in an eight-hour shift, a Manhattan waiter working for minimum wage could finish the day $120 richer (not counting tips). The Mexican waiter on minimum wage would make a 10th of that amount. The waiters in zones of the city frequented by the laptop class are generally well-paid compared to the Mexico’s average waiter, but the wage discrepancy allows restaurants to pay them minimally while still charging $15 for an order of brunch enchiladas at the trendiest spots. Moreover, the average tip in the United States is around 15 percent to 20 percent, while in Mexico, it’s between 10 percent and 15 percent. Americans in Mexico City take full advantage of the difference in tipping culture. Waiters I’ve interviewed have told me that Americans are generally not good tippers.
The cost of housing is another attraction of Mexico City for those earning their salaries in dollars. While the average rent per square foot in Manhattan is close to $4.00 monthly, in neighborhoods of Mexico City it’s closer to $1.20. Landlords are all too happy to rent apartments to Americans through Airbnb and similar services if it means they can charge more to them than they would to the average local. Foreigners also don’t tend to stay for long, allowing landlords to regularly update the prices of the apartments and to not have to deal with long-term renters, who offer greater stability but tend to be more demanding than the transient visitor who will only be around for 180 days.
Middle- to upper-class Mexicans have been quick to point out, with annoyance, that most of the recently arrived foreigners don’t have to pay any sort of Mexican income tax. In accordance with Article 52 of the Migration Act of Mexico, visitors can stay for a total of 180 days as “tourists” without applying for permission from the government to perform “paid activities,” which would require them to pay a portion of their compensation in income tax. The government doesn’t need to know that they are working remotely, even if they make use of public services. Most of them won’t exceed the six-month deadline anyway.
These issues have provoked public outcry. Some have called for the governor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, to regulate their arrival or the digital platforms they use to rent out an apartment, such as Airbnb or Inmuebles24. A few have taken their grievances further, confronting the foreigners in the streets and hanging signs in English that read, “New to the city? Working remotely? You’re a fucking plague and locals fucking hate you. Leave.”
The irony of Mexicans complaining about American migrants isn’t lost on some. US citizens have been making comparable points about unregulated border-crossings from Mexico for years. But the progressive, higher-income Mexico City natives complaining about digital nomads aren’t generally from the same class of Mexicans who make the journey across the border—often to work in service jobs attending to the US-based laptop class.
Working-class Mexico City residents are, on the whole, less likely to complain about the influx than their affluent counterparts, who have found themselves in competition with the newcomers for real estate in nice areas and tables at trendy brunch places. That’s because the newcomers are also bringing loads of cash with them—cash that gets directly injected into the Mexican economy. As a result, restaurant and bar managers, store clerks, and waiters in Roma and Condesa, two neighborhoods favored by recent arrivals, are mostly happy with the presence of Americans.
Some informed me that most—maybe even 90 percent—of their daily customer base is composed of foreigners. They splurge almost every single day. Not many Mexicans are spending $5 on a handcrafted, specialty matcha latte on a Tuesday, but Americans are. Even if they are pricing out renters in these areas, this has little effect on the people who work there, since most of them live in the poorer precincts of the city.
Mexico City isn’t the only place flooded by the digital-nomad wave. Other cities across the globe have become preferred places for the escapees: Lisbon, Cape Town, Bali, and San José, Costa Rica, to name a few. All of these places are, to a greater or lesser degree, lower-income countries riven with inequality, where foreigners can live like aristocrats. That isn’t how they would explain their motives, of course: Most come from liberal enclaves like New York, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, Washington, and Toronto, and think of themselves as committed egalitarians. When asked, those I interviewed characterized their political leanings as “left-wing,” “very left-wing,” or “progressive.”
Ironically enough, these Americans have for years cheered on the implementation of the policies that jeopardized their brunch-enjoying lifestyle. They have complained about gentrification in their cities, and advocated for rent-control policies that might lock in below-market housing for some, but don’t address the overall rising costs—and may exacerbate them by limiting supply. They have also supported the establishment of higher minimum wages, which increase the cost of the services they depend on.
The members of the laptop class tend to regard their preferred redistributionist policies as motivated by concern for the poor, but they have a more self-interested basis. The educated professionals of this caste typically belong to the top 10 or 20 percent of the income distribution in cities that increasingly cater to the global superclass—the 1 percent and the 0.1 percent. Hence, they risk being priced out of hip neighborhoods by luxury developers and feel insecure about their income relative to their bosses and their college friends who went into finance. However, progressive reforms have largely backfired, making cities even more inhospitable to anyone below the top income stratum. By escaping to places where they can enjoy something closer to the consumption habits they can’t afford at home, they can leave the resulting mess to the lower classes, who don’t have the luxury of remote work.
When asked if they could maintain their Mexico City lifestyle if brought back to their countries, most of the nomads I spoke to told me that they couldn’t. The life of millennial coastal elites requires certain luxuries: They must be able to go to brunch often, they must be able to go out for drinks on the weekdays, they must buy their coffee at a trendy café, and they must have work-life balance with plenty of time for the activities just enumerated. At the same time, however, the progressive ideological commitments of this class incline them to policies that have tended to make their consumption habits unaffordable. Better, then, to be semi-permanent tourists in a country whose politics they have no interest or stake in.
Ultimately, the lifestyle urban professionals crave, at the prices they crave, requires the existence of a working class that can provide cheap services. In the cities from which they hail, they have long benefited from an influx of immigrants, from Mexico and elsewhere, who staff restaurants and delivery services, and assuaged their consciences by voting for progressive politicians who promise to protect immigrants’ rights and improve their working conditions. But in truth, the laptop class has no problem with brown-skinned laborers making $10 a day, as long as they aren’t politically culpable for it. It isn’t their country, after all.