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Shocking Picture of What Life Will Look Like When You Can't Afford to Retire

Will you be ready for the life of a nomad, permanently in search of temporary work?
 
 
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In a must-read article in the current issue of Harper's magazine, journalist Jessica Bruder, adjunct professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, adds a new phrase to America's vocabulary: "Elderly migrant worker." She documents a growing trend of older Americans for whom the reality of unaffordable housing and scarcity of work has driven them from their homes and onto the road in search of seasonal and temporary employment across the country. Packed into RVs, detached from their communities, these "Okies" of the Great Recession put in time at Amazon warehouses, farms and amusement parks, popping free over-the-counter pain reliever to mask the agony of strained muscles and sore backs. And when they can't hold up any longer? The RV sometimes becomes a coffin.

Since the financial crisis ripped the security out from under millions of people, the bulk of our politicians, including President Obama, actually tried to reduce, rather than increase, Social Security. The absence of pensions, along with the inadequacy of 401(k)s, skyrocketing healthcare and job insecurity and unemployment, are sending more and more people scrambling to figure out a way to keep body and soul together. Even grandparents are joining the ranks of those for whom life has become a game of Survivor. In an email interview, I asked Bruder about this alarming trend and what it means for the country, now and in the future.

Lynn Parramore: In your recent article in Harper’s, you describe a trend of downwardly mobile elderly folks traveling the country in RVs in search of temporary and seasonal work. How many people are we talking about? How fast has this trend been emerging?

Jessica Bruder: Though no one keeps an official tally of how many older Americans are doing this kind of work, their ranks appear to be growing rapidly in the wake of the housing bust and market crashes.

Amazon first hired a handful of migrant full-time RVers in 2008 through a program the company later named “CamperForce.” As of 2014, it had expanded to employ some 2,000 workers, according to a recruiter I met in Quartzsite, Arizona. The American Crystal Sugar Company taps the same labor pool each fall to staff its annual sugar beet harvest, and their recruitment numbers are up, too. This year, they’re hoping to recruit 600 " workampers," up from 450 the year before.

LP: What’s the gender breakdown among these traveling workers? What kinds of work are men and women doing?

JB: I was impressed by how many older, single women I met among the working nomads, from a tarot reader living in a former convict labor van she’d transformed into a roving gypsy boudoir, to an ex-medical technician who managed to fit her whole life—along with a Shih-Tzu, a lovebird and a loquacious African Grey parrot—into a 10.5-foot Carson Kalispell sport trailer.

The gender breakdown was roughly even. Employers don’t discriminate when doling out hard or dirty work, whether it’s scrubbing campsite toilets or walking 15 miles a day on a concrete warehouse floor to pack Amazon’s holiday orders.

LP: Amazon’s ads for CamperForce Associates sound so upbeat about the opportunities for older workers: recruiting “flexible and enthusiastic RV’ers with a positive, can-do attitude to join us in our warehouses,” with an emphasis on “fun” stuff like prizes and “community activities.”

What’s the reality of the actual work experience, based on your investigation?

JB: The ads are surreal. They sound like an invitation to summer camp, and not just the ones for Amazon jobs. “Feel like a kid again!” and “Hey workamper, it’s time for fun!” are a couple slogans used by recruiters for Adventureland, a theme park in Altoona, Iowa where migrant workers run the rides, games and concessions for $7.25 to $7.50 an hour. Recruitment materials for the beet harvest, with 12-hour overnight shifts in subzero temperatures, refer to the work as “an unBEETable experience!”