Working Past Retirement - Pacific Standard

Working Past Retirement

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.
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According to the 2010 census, more than six million Americans past retirement age are still working. For some, it’s because of a rough economy. For others, it’s because they don’t want to stop. Either way, both of these groups can be found among a new coast-to-coast migrant labor force of mostly late-in-life RV-based workers—people who seasonally dock at work sites like state parks and national forests all around the country in exchange for a place to park, electricity, and sometimes pay. They call themselves “workampers,” and they’re challenging many assumptions about settling into old age.

Tom Jones, 75, workamper. (Photo: Aaron Grubb)

Tom Jones, 75, workamper. (Photo: Aaron Grubb)

  • I’ve been a full-timer for seven years, 80 percent volunteering for state parks, also working for an RV resort, working for concessionaires in the National Forest for salary plus site. I’ve worked from Washington to Oregon to Idaho to Texas to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and Maine. I’m currently at a 31-site RV park in Wallowa, Oregon.
  • The people that participate in this culture are so neat. Neighbors suck. Family can be less than satisfying. And people that you work with—I call those “convenience friends.” But these RVers are friendly and helpful. I think it’s because we’re unencumbered while we’re out there on the road.
  • I have a self-employed mentality. I was raised on a ranch. When I was in the military, I had a relatively independent job. And then I was in the electronic fuel service, the computer fuel service. I’ve always worked in the field except for two stints where I was “captive,” where I was under somebody’s thumb. I did not like that.
  • I like to meet new people, I like to experience new cultures and geography, I like to attend new churches. I was in Maine for five months. While I was there in this community of Stonington, which is just a little lobster community, I attended the local church every Sunday. I ate in the local eatery where everybody goes to eat, the lobstermen and the local people. I shopped in the local grocery store. So you’re a part of the community. You’re working there. You belong there.
  • Typically workampers don’t talk about money because it doesn’t really come up. I realize that, for people who work in a captive job, employees often discuss salaries with each other. But I think the attitude out here is we are all free and independent, and you are there because you choose to be, not because you have to have this one particular job.
  • As far as I’m concerned, workamping’s a gold mine for park operators. You can be taken advantage of. That’s really my only challenge with the system. But by the same token, if you’re being abused, you can just say, I’ll be gone tomorrow morning.

—Tom Jones, 75, workamper (as told to Paul Bisceglio)

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