Many older Americans are living a desperate, nomadic life

In her powerful new book, “Nomadland,” award-winning journalist Jessica Bruder reveals the dark, depressing and sometimes physically painful life of a tribe of men and women in their 50s and 60s who are — as the subtitle says — “surviving America in the twenty-first century.” Not quite homeless, they are “houseless,” living in secondhand RVs, trailers and vans and driving from one location to another to pick up seasonal low-wage jobs, if they can get them, with little or no benefits.

The “workamper” jobs range from helping harvest sugar beets to flipping burgers at baseball spring training games to Amazon’s AMZN, +0.82% “CamperForce,” seasonal employees who can walk the equivalent of 15 miles a day during Christmas season pulling items off warehouse shelves and then returning to frigid campgrounds at night. Living on less than $1,000 a month, in certain cases, some have no hot showers. As Bruder writes, these are “people who never imagined being nomads.” Many saw their savings wiped out during the Great Recession or were foreclosure victims and, writes Bruder, “felt they’d spent too long losing a rigged game.” Some were laid off from high-paying professional jobs. Few have chosen this life. Few think they can find a way out of it. They’re downwardly mobile older Americans in mobile homes.

During her three years doing research for the book, conducting hundreds of interviews and traversing 15,000 miles, Bruder even tried living the difficult nomad life; she lasted one workweek. I recently interviewed Bruder to learn more about the lives in Nomadland and what the future holds for these people:

Next Avenue: How did you come to write “Nomadland?”

Jessica Bruder: It grew out of a story I wrote for Harper’s in 2014. I had read a story in Mother Jones and it mentioned a woman working in a warehouse who was living in an RV and said she couldn’t afford to retire. I went ‘Goodness!’ Call me naive, but when I see an RV, I assume it’s owned by one of the last of great pensioners enjoying retirement and going to see the National Parks. I regarded it as a life of luxury and a neat retirement choice. After all, they call them ‘recreational’ vehicles.

I started doing some research and learned there was a whole spectrum of thousands of employers hiring people in similar situations — in oil fields, harvesting sugar beets and helping out at amusement parks. These are not easy jobs or the kind typically associated with people in older stages. But nobody had been looking at it in context of the retirement crisis in the wake of the Great Recession. And a lot of the recruiting materials for these jobs made them look like summer camps. Some for Amazon’s CamperForce said if you come, you’ll make friends. It felt so strange to me, so I started talking to RV’ers outside Amazon warehouses in Nevada and Kansas. Some lost their savings; some thought they would retire on the equity in their homes, but their homes dropped in value dramatically, while the cost of traditional housing kept going up. A lot of them were living hand to mouth; it was hard for them to save for tomorrow.

What else were the people like who you met in “Nomadland?”

The people I met on the road were so creative and resilient and I spent time learning from them. Following them was the most exciting opportunity I’ve ever had.


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