What are your options if you are old and poor in America? That’s a question examined in Jessica Bruder’s bracing book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. She traces the journeys of Americans living in trailers and campers who travel the highways looking for seasonal work. While not all are old, the majority are retirement age with no pensions and minimal Social Security benefits. Some were knocked sideways by the Great Recession; others never got on their feet in the first place.
These senior nomads now live hand to mouth, doing physically demanding jobs. Bruder examines three different types of employment in the book. The first is working as a host in camp sites. These minimum wage positions, paid by federal contractors, involve cleaning toilets, emptying trash, and keeping peace among sometimes rowdy vacationers. Another job is to work the sugar beet harvest in North Dakota and Minnesota. The huge beets are harvested frozen and covered in mud. It is a dirty, physically demanding, and sometimes outright dangerous undertaking.
And then there is Amazon’s “CamperForce,” a big focus of the book. As the recession hit, Amazon discovered this eager temporary labor force, which comes with its own housing. Workers are hired during peak seasons to work ten hour shifts, sometimes increasing as Christmas approaches. The work is grueling, including about fifteen miles of walking daily, as well as squatting, lifting and climbing.
These traveling seniors, many of them single women, live off of America’s waste—old cars, old campers, thrifted dishes, used clothes. Ordinary activities of daily life are much harder for them. It can be a challenge to keep themselves and their clothes clean.
The book is not all grim. It chronicles the sense of community that emerges at camp sites and get togethers. One central character, a woman named Linda May, saves up enough money to buy some cheap desert land where she dreams of building a self-sufficient home.
Nonetheless I was left with a deep sense of sadness. This is not how the Golden Years are meant to be. And you have to wonder what will happen to these people when they are too old to drive.