American Nomads: Many Older Citizens are Leading a Desperate, Unstable Existence

A band of potentially tens of thousands of older Americans have taken on a nomadic lifestyle, joining a group that has been dubbed the 'workampers.' (Image credit: Rich Savage/Flickr)

Award-winning journalist Jessica Bruder took on the issue of 'workampers' in her new book, "Nomadland," tracking the thousands-strong group of Americans aged 50-60 who travel the country in search of work.

The “workamper” jobs range from helping harvest sugar beets to flipping burgers at baseball spring training games to Amazon’s AMZN, -0.88%CamperForce,” seasonal employees who can walk the equivalent of 15 miles a day during Christmas season pulling items off warehouse shelves and then returning to frigid campgrounds at night.

Bruder writes that many of them lost their savings during the Great Recession or were foreclosure victims. Some "felt they'd spent too long losing a rigged game", and others were laid off from high-paying professional jobs.

Few have chosen this life. Few think they can find a way out of it. They’re downwardly mobile older Americans in mobile homes.

What does Bruder think led to this trend among older Americans?

I think it has been the pretty bad economic times. We saw in the 1980s a shift from pensions to 401(k)s; that was a raw deal for workers. These retirement plans were marketed as an instrument of financial freedom, but they were really transferring risk from the shoulder of the employers to the backs of the workers.

Amazon's role in the the trend has not been small, developing its 'CamperForce' program shortly after the financial crisis.

It began in 2008, within months after the housing collapse. Amazon contracts with an RV park and pays the CamperForce to do warehouse work loading and packing and order fulfillment. From the outside looking in, you’d say: ‘Why would you want older people doing this? The jobs seem suited to younger bodies.’ But so many times, the recruiters in the published materials talk about the older people’s work ethic and the maturity of the workforce and their ‘life experience,’ which is a code word for ‘Hey, you’re old.’

Apart from the sheer insecurity of hopping from gig to gig around the country and physical pain often involved, one of Bruder's concerns is that these older Americans are being exploited:

I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Forest Service and learned that some of their workers aren’t getting paid for all their hours. They weren’t allowed to invoice. Amazon should pay its workers more and give them better working conditions. It’s laughable that the workers get a 15-minute break when they have to spend it walking to the break room.... Nomads need a voice, but at the same time, it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll organize for better working conditions because they’re vulnerable and always on the move.