‘Nomadland’ Defines a New Kind of Migrant Worker in America: The Elderly

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

There’s been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth — as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we’re creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland hones in on an unexpected breed of worker that has emerged from this most recent economic depression: the elderly, who saw their stocks fail and retirement savings erased just as they were ready to exit the workforce. With no reliable source of income, a growing number are choosing to forgo their permanent address, and instead opt into a tribe of fellow wanderers who move in accordance to the cycle of seasonal temp jobs and community gatherings.

Bruder shapes her study of this nomadic lifestyle around Linda May, a 64-year-old grandmother who lives in a trailer. One would expect both eccentricity and toughness from a roamer, though Linda wears both qualities with a resplendent dignity through Bruder’s anecdotes. From the way Linda jokes with her dog — “You’re going to wear out that tongue! You’re going to need a tongue retread, and guess who’s gonna pay for that?” — to her dreams of a self-sustaining, eco-friendly hut, it’s quickly clear that this study in nomads is meant to be more uplifting than depressing.

This sense of unexpected joy extends across entire groups of traveling workers. When the author joins some Amazon temp workers at night, they sing a parody called “The Twelve Days of Amazon”, where “lords-a-leaping” is replaced with “horns a-beeping”, and the counting includes “three orange vests” and “ten sore muscles”. This sing-along occurs alongside a dinner of pork rinds, baby carrots, and egg salad sandwiches.

Linda and her friends lead objectively fascinating lives, though it is Bruder who manages to juxtapose these details in a way that neither pities nor romanticizes them. She shows us Amazon workers who crack jokes but notes how they also depend daily on the workplace’s free stash of painkillers. She remains mindful of the challenge to fairly portray people who “both struggle and remain upbeat simultaneously, through even the most soul-testing of challenges.”

Yet at some point, this is no longer enough for Bruder. Halfway through the story, she buys a van and becomes a nomad herself, thus elevating the writing to a new degree of wryness wrought from lived experienced. After a week of utter monotony scanning merchandise at an Amazon warehouse in Texas, she fantasizes disrupting the field of working robots by doing “some kind of proletarian parkour routine”. Bruder stands in as a proxy for this underclass of Americans, who know what it entails to endure this kind of robotic manual labor.

Relaying these new experiences, the author makes it clear that to be a migrant worker is to relearn the basic skills of living. Her window gets smashed, the van’s toilet and water tanks freeze, and during a tornado warning, she has no underground safe place to go to. One’s sanity amidst such difficulties is maintained by way of meet-ups with other van dwellers — informal conventions of RVs where extra electricity is provided through solar panels, and lectures from community members on American Sign Language and tire changing are provided.

There’s no way to read Nomadland without coming to admire the “houseless” (as they prefer to be called) for their ingenuity and kindness. Nor can one disregard the lengths to which Bruder goes to integrate herself with her subjects, gaining direct access to the experiences she’s studying. It’s with this background that the author drops her most damning statement about the wasted potential she has seen in America, where “denying access to opportunity for large segments of the population [has meant] throwing away vast reserves of talent and brainpower.”

Such an indictment will resonate with the reader long after the book is finished, perhaps even guilt-tripping them out of their next Amazon purchase.

RATING 7 / 10