By Ryan Velez
Traveling the country looking for temporary work opportunities may conjure up images of the pioneer days, but for a group of older Americans, it has become a way of life once again. Marketwatch recently put out an interview with award-winning journalist Jessica Bruder, writer of Nomadland. The book covers a group of seniors who are “houseless” living in RVs and trailers and traveling from one place to another to get seasonal low-wage jobs, with minimal benefits.
The story of how Nomadland came to be is an interesting one. “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.” When she dug deeper, Bruder found that there were several people doing this, including Amazon warehouses, which had a program called “CamperForce.”
“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.”
For Bruder, it’s all about the economy when it comes to the growth of nomads. “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,” she explains.
Programs like Camperforce actually cater to this group exclusively. “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.’” However, the potential for exploitation is vast, considering that this is an already vulnerable group that has to be on the move.