Published: Feb 4, 2018 7:48 a.m. ET
They live in RVs and drive from one low-wage job to another
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
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?”
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.
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
What else were the people like who you met in “Nomadland?”
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.
Why do you think so many older people are living and working this way?
think it has been the pretty bad economic times. We saw in the 1980s a
shift from pensions to 401(k)s; that was a raw deal for workers. These
retirement plans were marketed as an instrument of financial freedom,
but they were really transferring risk from the shoulder of the
employers to the backs of the workers.
I met a lot of older
women. The gender wage gap has meant women have lower lifetime earnings
then men; they spend more time out of the workforce doing unpaid labor,
raising families or caring for parents.
Do you have any sense about whether the numbers of people in “Nomadland” are growing and why?
Anecdotally. Amazon’s CamperForce says it’s getting more and more applications. And when I track Facebook
groups of these people, they’re
all exploding. There are probably in the tens of thousands of people in
Nomadland, and that’s being conservative.
Why do Nomads live like this?
live in a culture where if your number didn’t come up, you’re a bad
person, you’re lazy, you should be ashamed of yourself. It eats away at
people. It makes them more exploitable.
What are the challenges they face?
I talked to one couple, Barb and Chuck. He had been head of product development at McDonald’s
before he retired. He lost his
nest egg in the 2008 crash and Barb did, too. One time, Barb and Chuck
were standing at the gas station to get $175 worth of gas and the horror
hit them that their account had $6 in it. The gas station gentleman
said ‘Give me your name and driver’s license and if you write a check, I
will wait to cash it.’ He waited two whole weeks before he deposited
These jobs can be rough physically, right?
know someone in his 70s who walked 15 miles on a concrete floor,
sometimes for 10 hours. Your feet can get messed up, you can get
repetitive stress injury and a tendon condition. The Nomads talked to me
about soaking their feet in salt baths at night and being too tired to
go out. When I went to the sugar beet harvest, it was 12 hours a day in
the cold, shoveling. Oh my God, my body hurt! And I was 37!
Tell me about Amazon’s CamperForce program, which hires thousands of Nomads.
began in 2008, within months after the housing collapse. Amazon
contracts with an RV park and pays the CamperForce to do warehouse work
loading and packing and order fulfillment. From the outside looking in,
you’d say: ‘Why would you want older people doing this? The jobs seem
suited to younger bodies.’ But so many times, the recruiters in the
published materials talk about the older people’s work ethic and the
maturity of the workforce and their ‘life experience,’ which is a code
word for ‘Hey, you’re old.’
You write that sometimes the Nomads are exploited. How?
filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Forest Service and
learned that some of their workers aren’t getting paid for all their
hours. They weren’t allowed to invoice.
Some of the Nomads had to work alongside robots, such as in the Amazon warehouses. How was that?
robots were making them bonkers. This is isolating work and there’s one
scene in the book where a robot kept bringing a woman in her 70s the
same thing to count.
What needs to change to prevent people from having to become Nomads or to help them live better if they are?
one thing, Amazon should pay its workers more and give them better
working conditions. It’s laughable that the workers get a 15-minute
break when they have to spend it walking to the break room. It’s
Nomads need a voice, but at the same time,
it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll organize for better working
conditions because they’re vulnerable and always on the move.