The recreational vehicle has long been a trusty American symbol: post-war middle-class leisure incarnate. RVs, as they exist in the popular imagination, are for carrying nuclear families on summer vacation. They're for mounting suburbia on wheels and steering it into the American wild, or at least to a decent campground. Most of all, RVs facilitate a particular variety of retirement travel, one that frees senior citizens to go where they please, stopping where they want and leaving when they feel like it, traversing the country while sleeping in their own beds every night, with bacon on the Foreman grill every morning.
In her new book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, journalist Jessica Bruder argues that, in post-2008 America, this nostalgic vision of RVs and other "wheel estate" (camper vans, travel trailers, and the like) is incomplete. Bruder's immediate subject is the "workamper," a new breed of wheel-estate aficionado for whom life on the road is, as it was for the hobos of yore, less about leisure and middle-class stability than it is a concession to hard labor and day-to-day precariousness. Some readers will come because they're enamored of road narratives, but Bruder's study should be of interest to anyone who cares about the future of work, community, and retirement.
Most workampers' wheel estate is not a vacation home; it's their only home. Though many have reached or are approaching what was once thought of as retirement age, they are very much not retired. Pensionless, low on savings and equity, and unable to find solid footing in the shrinking middle-class labor market, they crisscross the country in search of temporary jobs that welcome older workers. They pick up litter and clean toilets in national parks, harvest sugar beets, staff amusement parks, and—in Bruder's central and most resonant example—work fast-paced, taxing, and mind-numbing 10-hour shifts in Amazon fulfillment centers, making sure all those two-day Prime orders go out on time. (Few readers, I suspect, will finish the book with their feelings toward Amazon unchanged; clicking "buy now" feels different when you've spent time up-close with the people who fulfill the other end of the transaction.)
Bruder can't offer precise numbers on how many workampers are out there—the Census Bureau doesn't recognize the possibility of a floating address—but she presents evidence that their ranks have swelled since the financial crisis. Workampers themselves tell her so. So do the companies that hire them. The last decade has seen the arrival of more and more publications and forums that serve the expanding workamper culture, from the bimonthly Workamper News magazine to the many blogs and online communities that offer tips about vehicle-based living, or "houselessness," a state of existence most workampers are keen to distinguish from homelessness.
While researching the book, Bruder purchased a camper van and took several extended trips of her own, following workampers from job to job, campground to campground, parking lot to parking lot. She even took a job with Amazon, and another with a beet-processing facility. Bruder doesn't lean too heavily on these experiences, recognizing that—while perhaps fun to read about—they can only tell her so much when, after all, she has a secure home (in Brooklyn) and job (teaching journalism at Columbia University) to return to.
Instead of foregrounding her own journeys, Bruder wisely focuses on workampers themselves. She watches and listens, stitching together a vivid portrait of, to remix a phrase from Studs Terkel, what workampers do all day and how they feel about it.
Workamping is not a life without pleasures. There's the pride of a low-overhead, relatively autonomous existence; the improvised daily fellowship and mutual support—in-person and online—from other itinerants; the exhilaration that can come from casting off long-held assumptions about the shape of life. Most of all, there is hope. "It's just ahead," Bruder writes. "In the next town, the next gig, the next chance encounter with a stranger."
Of course, there's also work: the Amazon warehouse, the beet field. In addition to being physically demanding and not particularly well-paid (forget traditional benefits of any kind), these jobs are a modern capitalist's fantasia. Workamping puts employees nearby when a company needs them, and elsewhere when it doesn't. It's no coincidence that Amazon has set up a program, CamperForce, that specifically caters to workampers, providing them with small "cities" of plumbing and power hook-ups. Workampers' lack of savings makes it difficult for them to quit, and their transience makes it even harder for them to unionize or express shared grievances. At CamperForce, in particular, there's no time: You work your shift (dodging the Amazon robots that dart through the warehouse alongside you), swallow the free painkillers, ice your sore muscles, and go to sleep, saving as much of your paycheck as you can and staying sane with the thought of better days yet to come. The next town, the next gig.
In workamping, then, we see certain components of the American Dream (retirement as leisure time; home-ownership) more or less discarded in the fingers-crossed hope that other components—a plausible sense of self-sufficiency, more than anything—might be preserved. It's all fueled by our national veneration of the idea of individual self-determination, our optimism about how much our private reserves of willpower and work ethic should be able to make possible. Many of Bruder's subjects tell her that, having taken to the road, they don't want to go back to their old lives. They were trapped. Now they're free.
But even this partial freedom, constricted as it is, is more accessible to some than to others. For starters, almost all workampers are white—in large part, Bruder speculates, because white Americans have an easier time laying claim to public space in a way that workamping often requires.
And, of course, when you can't work, you're done. Bruder hears stories of workampers found dead in their RVs. She finds an assisted living center in Texas called Escapees CARE, where you can park and get adult daycare in your RV—assuming you can afford it. Bruder asks the workampers she meets about their long-term health-care plans. In their answers, we hear the limitations of workamping as a solution to pressing American problems that grow more collective by the day: "Bleached bones in the desert," says one prominent workamping guru, confessing that he plans to commit suicide when he can no longer work. "Don't die," says another workamper. "Don't get old."