In Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century Jessica Bruder explores the subculture of houseless individuals. She primarily addresses the decisions that people make in their 50s and 60s and greater. Lacking pensions or savings, they need to take extreme economic steps to survive on tiny Social Security payments. So they sell homes and possessions and move into motor homes or vans.
These are not people who choose to be nomadic. They become houseless by necessity, lacking other viable options. It’s as if the American Dream has gone on the road. In reality, though, this is evidence that the dream is now a myth.
Bruder tells the story of several folks. From the situation that forced them out of their homes (rental or owned) to the jobs they take to survive, she literally follows them. At one point Bruder even buys a van, equips it, and then lives in it for some time. She does this in order to attend events and try workcamping, their word for temporary jobs. Her van life also allows her to dive more deeply into her companions’ lives.
Listening to Nomadland, I learned all the details of living a simpler life. People search for the right vehicle—not too decrepit, but not too expensive. They may change their official state of residence to avoid state income tax. And they always slim down their belongings to a bare minimum. Then they head out in search of workcamping opportunities at places like national parks.
Many of them also work at Amazon warehouses, in a program by the company called CamperForce. Bruner goes into some detail about her subjects’ experiences with Amazon. She also works for them during one season. It’s grueling, repetitive work. And yet workcampers are often in their 60s or greater. Injuries are not uncommon, and neither is serious exhaustion. But the money is decent, so they keep signing up.
While reporting the story, Bruder also analyzes aspects of the U.S economic system. She discusses the failure of health care, including noting that the houseless often travel to Mexico for medical and dental care. Of course, each of the people she follows has a different retirement planning story. Some had to split or drain their funds in a divorce. Some never built any savings at all, due to various circumstances. Most were living on nothing more than Social Security, which can be woefully inadequate.
On the other hand, I was inspired by the individuals she covers. Despite experiencing potentially soul-crushing setbacks, they don’t let it defeat them. Instead, they pick up, pack up, and take to the road. Workcamping and living in a vehicle, large or small, is a way to maintain independence. And in most cases they don’t have family able to support them. In one story, the family actually follows suit and embarks on a houseless life also.
I see some parallels when I think back to some of my recent reads. If Stakes is High is a young man’s perspective on the mythical American Dream, then this is the elder’s perspective on the same failure in a different life stage. They both give me pause.
And another thought keep nudging me as I listened to Nomadland. How many more people are going to be forced into this houseless existence during or after the pandemic? The U.S. just stinks at creating and maintaining effective social safety nets. And right now those programs are busting at the seams. Then the pandemic happens. Reading this book made me more aware of this possibility. I plan to assess ways to help—soon!
I recommend if you’re curious about alternate lifestyles, whether chosen or unavoidable. This is thoughtfully told and fascinating overall.
Pair with Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life by Louise Aronson for a more stay-at-home perspective on aging. Also, in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, author Cheryl Strayed is houseless and hiking.