Like so many other children of aging parents, I will at some point assume the responsibility of looking after my mom. Her Social Security benefits are insufficient for her to live on and she relies on assistance from my brother and me to scrape by. Thinking about my mom’s precarious position fills me with dread. In my ideal world, my golden years would be spent traveling the world on a cruise ship with my girlfriends and flirting with cute younger men. But a recent concert outing sobered me up to the realities of growing old in “post-recession” America.
At the Hulu Theater in Madison Square Garden, my friend and I, both in our 30s, were squeezed in among throngs of millennial concert goers while workers in their late 60s scanned our tickets and ushered us to our seats. Closer to midnight when the show was finally over the older somber workforce reappeared. They slowly climbed the stairs of the theater to shoo away those who stayed behind smoking the last of their joints. “You know you can’t do that here,” one woman with grey shoulder length hair blurted out in a defiant voice as she adjusted her frames to get a closer look of the insolent millennials. While 20 and 30 year olds have been central to contemporary discussions of “jobless recoveries,” Americans over the age 55 make up half of all new employment gains. Baby boomers are often pitted against millennials, the latter portrayed as lazy but tech savvy. Yet, in this dimly lit theater littered with empty plastic cups America’s two biggest generations confront the same dire future of downward mobility, disappearing social safety nets and low-wage part-time work. Anticipating getting older with little money saved, many Americans are already opting to retire at sea, a cheaper alternative to assisted living. My dreams of a sea vacation are becoming a frightening prospect as the effects of last recession seem permanent.
Baby boomers came of age during a time of unprecedented rates of profitability and economic growth. They faced a prosperous economy and an affordable housing market. So, how did the most “lucky generation” end up living in mobile homes without basic amenities like running water or electricity? Or walking 15 miles a day around the concrete floors of Amazon warehouses while downing free over-the-counter painkillers provided by management? How do they make sense of their downward mobility? These are the question raised by Jessica Bruder in her 2017 expose Nomadland: Survival in Twenty First Century America. Her observations present an alternative to the mainstream depictions of baby boomers as “the wealthiest generation.” About one third of baby boomers are reported to have no retirement savings, are deeper in debt and hold less wealth than their predecessors.
Bruder, an award-winning journalist spent three years living among mostly white baby boomers who have not recovered from the blows dealt to them by the 2008 recession. They have decided to put a positive spin on their precariousness—they’ve invested what little remaining savings they had into buying used RV’s, have embraced living on the road and taking up minimum wage seasonal jobs wherever they can find them. Bruder offers the reader moving accounts of the informal networks of friendship the nomads create, the ways in which companies like Amazon take advantage of their financial vulnerability and stoic work ethic and the tough daily decisions they make about food and healthcare. Interestingly, pride and dignity emerge as powerful survival strategies to navigate post-recession America.
“Old age isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre” quips Barbara Ehrenreich in her latest book, Natural Causes, quoting the American novelist Philip Roth. Irreverent as only she can be, Ehrenreich at the age of 78 examines her mortality precisely in a moment when our culture is obsessed with living longer as seen through the mass advertisement and consumption of anti-aging products, the popularity of yoga and mindfulness as antidotes to stress and over work and the upsurge of boutique gyms across America. While advances in technology are certainly allowing some to live longer, many others are dying amidst an epidemic of suicides and drug overdoses. In rural areas, suicide rates have increased by 53% since 1999 pointing to widespread social alienation. Our contemporary obsession with aging that Ehrenreich brilliantly critiques is taking place against a backdrop of disintegrating social safety nets, where the bludgeoning of Medicare and social security coupled with rising rents and stagnant wages is leading one-fifth of older Americans to work past the age of 65.
“How am I going to live and not have to work the rest of my life and not be a burden to my children” ponders Linda May, a 64-year-old grandmother we are introduced to in the first pages of Bruder’s book. She and her dog Coco live in an old Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo which Linda affectionately calls “the Squeeze Inn.” All of her life Linda has worked minimum wage jobs and therefore has no pension to speak of. Faced with the prospect of growing old on meager Social Security benefits, she has decided to save rent money and live on the road with the hope of fulfilling her dream: to construct an Earthship, a passive solar home made out of recycled material. She just needs enough money to buy land. So she takes up different minimum wage workamper jobs that involve traversing the country’s highways. For part of the year, Linda lives and works as a campground host in the San Bernadino National Forrest for $9.35 an hour. The workamper jobs are advertised to appeal specifically to older and retired workers. One of the ads reads: “Our staff says: ‘Retirement has never been this fun!’ ‘We’ve developed lifelong friendships,’ ‘We’re healthier than we’ve been in years.’ Work and camping are combined in the definition of a workamper, which refers to a person who either trades in their labor for free RV parking or those like Linda who works as seasonal workers in campsites and amusement parks across America. The workamper life however is very far from a paid vacation paradise. Linda spends her days cleaning toilets and picking up after messy campers. As a camp host, she has little downtime: even when she is not working Linda expected to be available to deal with noise complaints, late check-ins and other matters.
Baby boomers like Linda neared retirement age during the most recent Great Recession. Yet, retirement as an outcome of industrialization, surplus capital, advances in healthcare and worker’s struggles no longer guarantee a respite from a life of hard work. In 1935, Social Security was launched. Today this system which 52 million Americans depend on is in deep crisis with many workers being pushed to working past the age of 62 and claiming their benefits later. As capitalists scramble to cut corners and restore growth in rates of profit, the social welfare gains of the New Deal era are being cut and privatized. Pensions, once the lifeblood of American retirement have been replaced with 401k plans which place the onus of saving on workers not employers. Even those who are lucky enough to have a pension or a retirement account are living on fixed incomes that cannot keep pace with growing cost of living. As a result, nearly half of Americans nearing retirement age have less than $25,000 in their savings. It is projected that in the next two decades both Social Security and Medicare will face long term deficits and funds are expected to run dry, leaving millions of Americans without any financial backing in retirement.
Popular media representations of retirement hardly delve into the hardships of growing old without any safety nets. Instead, retirement is presented as earned leisure, time off to take up life passions (previously put on hold) with financial support without the stigma of dependence. One of my favorite shows on Netflix is Grace and Frankie, about two women in their 70s whose husbands leave them for each other, gives viewers insight into the lives of older single women. When asked about the series, Jane Fonda, who plays Grace, told media outlets that she wanted to do a show that gave a “cultural face to aging.” While the show deal at length with the invisibility and paternalism that older Americans, especially single women, deal with on a daily basis, retirement is nonetheless presented as one big adventure. For example, after decades of working as law partners, their husbands are free to pursue their passions: musical theater and gay rights activism. Grace and Frankie also start their own business—selling sex toys to older women. Beyond some health issues that provide an important context for the show’s depiction of aging, the episodes largely revolve around the women’s idiosyncrasies. Financial troubles don’t seem to preoccupy neither Grace and Frankie and they live comfortably in their shared beach house in San Diego’s La Jolla area. But not all of their neighbors have fared so well. Ironically, most recently San Diego city council passed legislation that bans “van lifers” or homeless people from sleeping overnight in their parked vehicles. Many of those affected by this law are older retired Americans rendered homeless by the 2008 mortgage crisis.
“The last free place in America is a parking spot” Bruder wryly describes at length the nomads’ quest to sleep overnight in their RVs and mobile homes without fear of harassment by the police. The tongue-in-cheek comment touches on a sore subject for many of the nomads: housing. Many of them have lost either lost their homes in the 2008 recession. The American dream they so longed and fought for was ultimately unachievable and many “felt they’d spent too long losing a rigged game.”
The open road has long been a symbol of freedom in American culture. The invention of the automobile led Americans to places they couldn’t previously travel to. Yet by the 1930s, as popularized by Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the Great Depression transformed the open road into a symbol of migration as people packed their lives and fled environmental disasters and economic despair. Similarly, the great recession of 2008 created a generation of older American “refugees” who today travel in search of work as far-ranging as the campgrounds of California’s national forests, the warehouses of Amazon and the beet fields of Minnesota and North Dakota. The old traditional company towns built around mines are slowly being replaced and populated by RV’s, trailers and tents housing a mobile workforce eager to work as seasonal workers for companies like Amazon. The nomads Bruder introduces us to are all mostly in their 50s and 60s and have spent their entire lives working in either skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled jobs. Some lived what they thought was a secure middle class life (a college professor, McDonald’s chain store vice president) while others like Linda worked mostly unskilled low-wage jobs (cocktail waitress, cashier at Home Depot).
Through Linda we are introduced to other older white workampers like Silvianne Delmars. Silvianne lives in her 1990 Ford Club Wagon, which previous owners used as a van to transport elderly men and women and as a work vehicle for convict labor crews. Every year, both women join countless other older workampers who take up seasonal jobs maintaining camp grounds, running various amusement parks, picking fruits, giving tours, selling tickets, food or goods at various festivals. Some travel from the sun-drenched highways of southern California to the Midwestern states of Minnesota and North Dakota to work 12-hour shifts picking beets for the American Crystal Sugar Company where they perform back breaking labor often in cold temperatures for $12 an hour.
With its motivational slogan of “work hard, have fun, make history,” Amazon recruits seasonal workers at various “nomad friendly events” including “RV shows and rallies—in more than a dozen states across America.” (51). Older workers are drawn to the opportunity to make good money in a relatively short time. Camperforce employees can work up to 60 hours a week and are only expected to fulfill 85% of regular yearly employees’ productivity goals, which on the face of it seems less daunting and demanding. Also ironically, Walmart and Amazon, the two competing retail giants and also the country’s largest employers, allow their workers to park overnight, an attractive perk for many older nomads who struggle with food security let alone rent. In recent years, Amazon’s demanding culture of worker productivity has received a lot of media attention. Yet very little is known about their older seasonal and growing workforce. In the book, Bruder describes the Amazon fulfillment centers as “Kafkaesque style madness.” They are as big as two football fields, stocked with merchandise to be picked, stowed and packed away. The productivity goals do not impact the expectations of walking, which remain the same for camperforce employees. Their entire shift is spent pacing around the behemoth warehouses under the direction of a computer that tells workers what to do and which at times also extends the walking route when work has slowed down. To give people insight into the work inside of Amazon fulfillment centers, Bruder has most recently teamed up with Brett Story to adopt the story of the nomads into a mini-documentary which supplements interviews with former and current employees with hidden camera footage of training sessions and inside the warehouses. In the video, one older worker discusses how he was hit on the head by a box, subsequently fell down and hit his head on the cement floor. After a supervisor helped him to stand on his own two feet and count the fingers on his hand, he was deemed fit to go back to work.
For older workampers like Barbara and Chuck Stout the work is very physically demanding. The couple lost their retirement savings in the 2008 financial crisis, ironically the same year that Amazon changed its labor recruitment tactics and came up with the idea to lure migrant RV’s to their facilities to meet growing demands around the holiday season. Facing bankruptcy, the couple sold off most of their belongings and bought a 29-foot 1996 National RV Sea Breeze motor home. In 2013, through informal online employment workers aimed at recruiting workampers, they applied for jobs at Amazon Camperforce in Fernley, Nevada. There, the couple started their 10-hour shifts: Chuck as a picker and Barbara a stower, two of the most physically demanding jobs. Pickers are expected to move around 75 pounds “regularly and without assistance from others.” The picker has to locate merchandise and track inventory, usually spending his or her 12-hour shift walking 15 miles a day around Amazoo, as Barb called the giant fulfillment center. Stowing is another job that requires a lot of physical work such as lifting, bending and squatting. Stowers usually spend about 30% of their time climbing stairs.
While most of the nomads are made aware of the physical aspects of the job during the training seminars, they are nonetheless surprised by just how much pain they are in after a day’s work. Barb for instance talks about how she felt that she lost feeling on her hands at night because of the heavy scanners she carried all day long. She was not alone. Older workers constantly complain of chronic pain from work and Amazon’s solution is to offer free over-the-counter pain killers. Many workampers who blog about their experiences working for Amazon’s Camperforce support Bruder’s findings and interviews. One workamper that runs a blog called sortofhomeless.com describes the physical pain: “it became considerably difficult for me to physically get up. Literally. my legs hurt and I often hobbled around for the first hour or two of my day. In all honesty, I expected to feel much worse considering I was walking anywhere between 12 and 17 miles a day.” Besides the physical exhaustion, the work is often painfully mind numbing. One workamper likened his experience to working in “an ant colony, trudging with everyone else to and from the clocks.” Amazon leaves older workers so physically tired that they have little occasion to enjoy their leisure time. Instead they spent the remainder of their “free” time nursing themselves back to health to survive another workday. Many also spend a lot of their hard-earned money on home-made or store-bought remedies to deal with the various ailments induced by overwork. Taking a look inside their RVs, Bruder remarks that they were “stocked like mobile apothecaries, with Icy Hot Pain Relieving Gel, tabs for soaking tired feet, Epsom salts, and bottles of Aleve and Advil.”
Besides the grueling physical labor, Amazon Camperforce also requires all of its applicants to pass a drug tests (and travel often long distances to do so) and read thousands of pages of documents through the online hiring portal. But the nomads begrudgingly comply. In many ways older workers are Amazon’s dream labor force. “They love retirees because we’re dependable. We’ll show up and work hard, and are basically slave labor” one 78 year-old workamper who previously worked as a teacher in California’s community colleges confides in Bruder. Older workers are what Bruder calls “plug-and-play labor” in that they are only around for a short time, are often too tired to complain about the non-existent benefits and are generally appreciative of the jobs regardless of the pain they endure. For instance, 57 year-old Joanne Johnson who hurt herself while working at Amazon’s Cambellsville facility (she tripped and fell, leaving her with black eye and stitches) expresses gratitude for not being fired over the accident. In the time that Joanne was recovering she only missed one working day. Amazon also receives federal tax credits to hire older disadvantaged workers and the company predicts that by 2020 one in every four workampers in the US would have worked for Amazon.
Friendships and informal networks of support
As we find out, surviving America, also the subtitle of Bruder’s book, is not only tough and physically demanding but also very lonely. Many of the workampers are single women, traveling long distances for work often in the company of their pets. They turn to online websites to establish informal networks of support. In workamper news, many of the nomads seek work-related information and the opportunity to connect with others who like them are living on the road. Other websites like CheapRVLiving.com allows workampers to share tips ranging from “choosing and outfitting a vehicle to finding seasonal jobs and eating healthy on the road.” The website is run by Bob, an older vandweller and former self prescribed “debt addict” who turned to sleeping part time in his old Ford Courier pick up after his divorce left him unable to pay his rent. He established the website in 2005 and has since emerged as a kind of celebrity among nomads. Besides offering tutorials and other advice on living a nomadic life, Bob’s website also offers hope to many who are dealing with financial debt, loneliness and other issues. “There are solutions to every problem!” he writes on his blog. Such online spaces become important for nomads, allow them to keep in touch with others and also make extra money from advertisements. It was reading Bob’s musings on cheaprvliving.com that convinced Linda to pursued the nomadic life.
Bob’s wisdom is not limited only to the computer screen. Once a year, nomads from all over America make the pilgrimage to Quartzsite, Arizona, “a lonesome outpost between Los Angeles and Phoenix with two truck stops and temperatures high enough to make you hallucinate.” It is in Quartzsite also dubbed “Jurassic Trailer Park” by one reporter, referring to the majority of its older visitors, that the online culture of support “spilled into real world gathering.” In the desert, Bob and others offer workshops tailored to “transient survival” lifted from the pages of his book “How to Live in a Car, Van or RV….And Get Out of Debt, Travel and Find True Freedom.” One of the more popular and “liveliest seminars” was on “the art of stealth parking” where Bob shared advice with urban vandwellers on how to avoid detection by the police. Many nomads shared clever tips like installing police scanners on smart phones. The second most popular workshop was on budgeting, where Bob rants about living a minimalist lifestyle that would allow nomads to live debt free, the ultimate ambition of attendees.
Yet despite these sporadic gatherings, the grueling work and overall solitude of a life on the road often times takes its toll on the nomads. Many of them yearn for close relationships beyond the impersonal spaces of online websites. Some are able to find them in their seasonal workplaces. For example, it is in the Amazon warehouses where Linda first meets Silvianne: they both worked as stowers. Later they would reunite as camp hosts in the San Bernadino Mountains. Meeting up with each other is one of the few pleasures that they both look forward to. They share food, songs, jokes and provide emotional support in hopeless times. Yet overall, human connections which are needed by older nomads prove difficult to maintain over hundreds of miles. Health issues especially render older nomads vulnerable and they find themselves alone navigating driving to nearby hospitals, choosing medicine over food and just generally needing emotional and physical support.
It is projected that by 2035 one in three Americans will be over the age of 50. As Bruder’s book makes clear, surviving America as a retiree is not for the faint of heart. Yet, the nomads in Bruder’s book are also all (with the exception of one) white. Camping culture is largely embraced by white Americans. Bruder also argues this has to do with safety on the road. Older white women with dogs find it safer to park at night. But as the saying goes, when white America catches a cold black America catches pneumonia. Black baby boomers face an even worse fate as the most recent recession reversed any previous real estate fortunes. In 2017, while white homeownership climbed to 72.9 percent, the black homeownership rate fell down to 43%. Also, African Americans and Latinos have less retirement savings than white Americans. Reading the nomad’s stories, one can’t help but wonder what has happened to the struggling black and Latino retirees.
Throughout the book, Bruder draws similarities between the 1930s depression and the 2008 recession. She argues that both moments created a band of roving “refugees” scattered across America. Reading the nomads’ stories, I thought about the movement of unemployed workers. As Piven and Cloward argue in their classic Poor People’s Movement, it seemed that overnight individual grievances coalesced into a collective action that struck at failing societal institutions. People protested and demanded unemployment insurance, demonstrated in front of relief offices and banded together with their neighbors to stop evictions from taking place. The unemployment councils which formed in the 1930s fared best in urban cities where there existed a large pool of laid-off and angry industrial workers ready to take action. They also were shaped by and took advantage of already existing leftist organizational forces at the time (the CP). In Chicago over 22,000 members participated in two main unemployment councils and in Detroit close to 5,000 people marched on Ford’s largest factory in Dearborn chanting “We want bread not crumbs”—only to be hit with tear gas memorializing the event as the Ford Massacre.
Unlike the 1930s, the demoralization and shame that everyday people experienced in the wake of the 2008 crisis has not turned into massive indignation capable of sustaining collective action beyond street protests and small leftist milieus. Instead, as seen through the lives of the nomads a sense of pride and self-preservation reigns supreme so that individual troubles are never tied to larger societal failings. Even the worst jobs and conditions that nomads endure become a test of their spirit. As they stare at their empty kitchen cupboards and wonder how they will survive until their next seasonal job, they remind Bruder that being a nomad is a choice. They are not homeless by any stretch of the imagination, they argue. They are houseless but “free.”
Often driving long stretches between seasonal jobs, Silvianne composes song lyrics to keep busy.
“Gas-guzzling high-top Ford
I’m sometimes scared, but never bored.
Because I’ve finally cut the cord
Unlike society’s consumer hordes.”
Defiance of American consumerism, Wall Street, and the rising rents are at the heart of how the nomads understand their “chosen” lifestyle. It is undeniable that for Silvianne, Linda and countless other nomads we should live in a world where the majority of the incomes we bring home from mind-numbing jobs do not go directly to slumlords. Yet that world we so desperately want to inhabit seems out of reach. The nomads’ collective imagination and future hopes are pinned on survivalist strategies, at least for the time being.