In the disturbing but beautifully written book, “Nomadland,” Jessica Bruder reports on the tens of thousands of itinerant Americans who move “like blood cells through the veins of the country” seeking seasonal work.
Most of these post-recession refugees lost their jobs or homes, or both, during the historic 2008 economic downturn. There is no firm census of this roving population, but 1,050,500 properties were repossessed in 2010, and in 2017 there were only 12 counties in the United States where a fulltime minimum wage worker could afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair-market rent.
In 2018, the outlook for the middle class is no brighter, says the author. The traditional “three-legged stool” of retirement funds—Social Security, private pensions and personal savings—no longer is sturdy. The only secure leg is Social Security and that is wobbly. Caught in this descending spiral are “downwardly mobile older Americans.” Bruder purports: “Nearly half of middle-class workers may be forced to live on a food budget of as little as $5 a day when they retire.”
Employers have discovered this new low cost labor pool. It is primarily made up of senior citizens. From participants in Amazon CamperForce programs, which hire masses of temporary workers for the holiday season, to maintenance workers at National Forest Campgrounds and field and factory workers in the sugar beet industry of North Dakota, these nomads live in tents, SUVs, vans, tiny campers and other kinds of “wheel estate.” “The last free place in America is a parking spot.” They don’t consider themselves homeless, but “houseless,” Bruder notes. These unseen casualties of the Great Recession have become a growing community of migrants who call themselves “work campers.” The stories she presents are a foreshadowing of the future that awaits many older Americans.
The author immerses herself in this quirky subculture, joining them as they clean campground toilets, walk miles scanning warehouse inventories and engage in the dangerous work of sugar beet harvesting. She gives a vivid, forceful account of this underbelly segment of the American economy. At the same time Bruder celebrates the hardiness and indomitable spirit of these wayfarers who have had to surrender rootedness in order to survive, never giving up hope for a piece of the American dream.
The stories of the people she meets are powerful. For example, Bruder describes an older couple, in their 60s, at a beet factory. He had lost his job as a Wal-Mart truck driver; she was recently diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and had to stop working. But they are proud and resilient, repeatedly searching for seasonal jobs in order to eke out an existence. Bruder writes about them and many others in an impartial, engaging, non-polemic tone. This is immersion journalism at its best.
Jessica Bruder teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her work specializes in covering subcultures and the ominous threats of our economy. She has written for Harpers, the New York Times and the Washington Post. W. W. Norton and Company is the publisher; 273 pages including many photographs.