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Nomadland: Exploring America’s Mobile Army of Older Workers

Posted on | January 8, 2018 | Comments Off on Nomadland: Exploring America’s Mobile Army of Older Workers

Jessica Bruder’s superbly-crafted book about wandering workers pitches itself as a mixture of resilience and economic fragility, of strong wills and empty gas tanks.  It is that, certainly, and more.  It’s a jumping off point for a reflection on how America got to the place that a RV army of at least 20,000 roams the country in search of often unpleasant temporary low-wage jobs.  For them, bad jobs and insecurity are replacing retirement as we have idealized it.

There are younger people who live in their cars, families who raise their children without a permanent address, and those who use cars, vans, and trucks as stations on the way to or from living on the streets.  These are all important parts of a larger economic story, and Bruder’s reportage brilliantly links economic insecurity with older Americans who put a lifetime of work into an economic system that failed them.

We don’t meet any bums or shiftless septuagenarians in the pages of Nomadland.  Linda May, the protagonist, was a small business owner and held many other jobs before being wiped out in the Great Recession.  Others had toiled for name-brand corporations for decades before being downsized, displaced, and often divorced.

The pages of Nomadland take us from National Forest campgrounds, where these mostly white senior citizens work as campground hosts for $9.50 an hour plus a free campsite.  For this, they check people in, validate their permits, clean up after they leave, swab out toilets, and undertake minor and unofficial police work.  The work force shifts to the sugar beet harvest in Minnesota and North Dakota, and in the fall run-up to Christmas it labors in Amazon fulfillment centers around the country, where what the company calls CamperForce is a substantive part of Amazon’s business model.

Housing is expensive

These folks are not living this lifestyle because of a lust for the open road, at least the vast majority of them aren’t, even though in first interviews people told Bruder that they “chose” vehicular vagrancy.  This mostly white, mostly over-60 work force, is living in RV’s, aging commercial vans, and vehicles of all descriptions because living on the road is their best option.  Housing is expensive.

As Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of Strangers in their Own Land, writes in her review that there are only 12 counties and one metro area in the United States where someone working full time for minimum wage can afford market rent on a one-bedroom apartment.  Leaving rent, utilities, and attached housing expenses behind is a shrewd response to economic disaster.  As the campers parked on streets in Silicon Valley cities, and even New York City testify, employed people, even graduate students, resort to rubber tired housing.

“So in ways, getting on the road is actually a kind of ingenious hack,” Bruder told NPR’s Ari Shapiro in an interview.

Ingenious, but inherently temporary.  Linda May longs her environmentally sustainable “earthship,” and at the end of the book she is building it.  But others exit harsh RV living the old-fashioned way; they die.  Some disappear.  Others talk about driving off a cliff Thelma and Louise style or just driving out in the desert and giving up.  “So while I think it does feel like an escape and there’s a degree to which people feel really liberated in the moment by it, it’s not – it’s not a long-term solution,” Bruder said.

In a L.A. Times op-ed, Journalist Candice Reed writes of loving the life she and her husband share in a 1984 28-footer, “The full-time RV life isn’t always easy, and things don’t always go as planned, but living on the fly has brought us closer together and given us an opportunity to wake up to something new every day.”  But the capacity to thrive is conditioned on, “a small nest-egg saved for whichever one of us goes into a nursing home first, and we don’t touch it — not for new tires, engine repairs or wine.”

The nest egg is small

But the egg in the nest is small.  As Teresa Ghilarducci reminds us in When I’m Sixty-Four, her book about the undermining of traditional pensions, the average 401k of someone near retirement age is about $50,000.  About 70 percent of Americans will rely on Social Security for the majority of their retirement income.

Retirement is a relatively new concept.  Self-sufficiency in retirement newer, and an age in which retirees enjoy wealth and celebrate the fruits of their labor on cruise ships newer still.  But the goal of universal self-sufficiency in retirement appears lost, and it is entirely possible that the nomads that Bruder writes about are the leading edge of old age living and not temporary fallout of the 2008 economic collapse.  Recent polls indicate that only 17 percent of Americans think that they will be able to afford to stop working.  And 10,000 of the Boomer generation reach age 65 every week.

In retirement, as in working income, America has become profoundly less equal.  Instead of a dream of a modest but universal retirement—those two-bedroom houses that dot St. Pete and other Florida cities—the gap grows between RV nomads scraping to fill their gas tanks and those weighing which travel brochure to respond to.

Bruder’s book presents a picture of resilience and the kind of economic self-sufficiency long characteristic of Americans, but eventually all of us, even the most resilient need help.  Minds and bodies decline, and we all become dependent.  Eventually, we will need the social safety net.  The systematic elimination of traditional pensions and the underfunding of alternatives throws the spotlight back on the social safety net of Social Security and Medicare.

So, do not be surprised if the nomads converge on Washington this year.




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Charles Taylor Kerchner is an Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Fellow at Claremont Graduate University. My daily musings appear in the blog. The archives of my EdWeek blog are available via link under the 'On California' head. Some of my photography can be seen by clicking on 'Gallery.' And numerous links to academic work and other research and commentary can be found by clicking on 'Projects.'


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