Nomadland by Jessica Bruder is a nonfiction modern day horror novel. I liked the highly appropriate subtitle: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century. I am an avid fan of fiction horror novels but this real horror story hits close to home. I have read and heard accounts of our aging population choosing between food and medicine, food and housing, and living below the poverty line but many of us hear these accounts only occasionally. We then move on to the next news item. Jessica Bruder puts more precise numbers to this demographic. In only a few cases are “screen” names used to protect privacy. See her “Notes” section for details. Bruder has done an exhaustive study over more than three years and has returned to several sources for follow up interviews. The startling information I read and listened to in the Kindle book and Audible recorded book kept me awake nights.
As a baby boomer myself, this is where the baby boomer hippie crowd has landed. Many of that younger 1960s crowd lived what they considered a humanist, moral existence that respected the environment. Without training as doctors, it seemed they respected the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm.” A large majority slipped into mainstream society and went for high earnings, the white picket fence surrounding a home steeply appreciating in value, a solid retirement plan, and a path that would assure their children would be even better off than they themselves were. When retirement arrived, they would not have to depend on their children for support. They would just sit back, relax, and admire the accomplishments of their children. Little did many of them realize they would be returning to an existence that closely mirrored their 1960s existence. This horror story began in 2008.
In a time when many countries face a refugee problem, one term that stands out is “economic refugees.” Countries do not want to resettle people who flee their home countries simply because they could not find a job. In this book, Bruder describes US citizen economic refugees. They are not fleeing the US. In many cases, they are moving from place to place seeking all kinds of temporary work just to make ends meet to buy necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. This last item is added to the “big three” because medicine is increasingly necessary for Bruder’s target population. These are the “old people,” the ones the kids don’t visit and don’t support, the ones for which a small social security payment cannot possibly cover the bills, and the ones that must work at ages seventy plus to survive. This book is in small part about corporate and government greed that takes advantage of a captive group. The larger part of the book is the human story.
People in this group are diverse. Some have little education, some are self-educated, some have advanced degrees. Many have experience in a variety of service jobs while others have been senior managers traveling globally. There are people with degrees that have become obsolete in a world that values fast changing technology-based occupations. Many of these people have “played the game.” They bought homes that would always increase in value except, after 2008, when they didn’t. Investors in retirement plans that further invested contributions in companies that went bankrupt. When they work, they are now temporary workers. During the 2008 crisis people in my apartment complex in Bangkok came to me with reports of declining municipal bond earnings as some municipalities went bankrupt. Those in our retirement community had decided to live our post-working career lives in a low cost of living foreign countries but the low cost of living does not mean NO cost of living. The point here is most people described in this book planned for a pleasant life in their “golden years.” For most of them, it was not happening. They had been forced into virtual slave labor with below minimum wage jobs that come with no benefits.
A solution offered in this novel is to live minimalist. Severely minimalist. Living in an RV or mobile home is almost a luxury for many of this population who opt instead for smaller vans or “normal” sized cars and even compact cars. They inhabit campgrounds set up for a traveling population when they can afford it, or they do “stealth” camping when they can’t. This may be one of the few books where people have a lot of good things to say about Walmart. This population is mobile, traveling to where the temporary work is and putting up with conditions they would never have accepted in their younger employable years. There is not much use joining in a class action suit against clearly legally indefensible employer actions. Given the speed of courts with associated appeal remedies, the class would disappear by the time final judgments are rendered.
There is another story which the author just drifts into. It is logical and Bruder doesn’t explicitly say she is planning to do this, but she decides to become one with the itinerant population. She will, for a time, pursue a minimalist lifestyle. Readers will immediately see the contrast between her and the travelers. She can “opt out” at any time and return to a more mainstream existence. When will she decide to do this? The answer will hold a reader’s attention.
There are philosophical digressions about the morality of economic decisions made and sometimes forced, decisions made by people Bruder describes and decisions made by employers who temporarily employ them. This is not a book of unsupported opinions. Bruder’s “Notes” section contains two hundred forty-eight references supporting claims made in each of her chapters.
This is a story of survivors in a world of harsh economic realities. As a member of this group, I found my solution was to live outside the US, but my decision was easy. US Army training led to an appreciation of how to survive abroad. A retirement income insufficient to support “the good life” in the US supports a comfortable life abroad. But my solution is not for everyone. US citizens who have paid their dues, many of them through high taxes, should neither be forced to leave the country (NB: I was not forced) nor should they be forced to live with conditions depicted in this novel.
I gave this a five-star Amazon rating despite the not always kind description of Amazon working conditions. I am rating the book, not Amazon. I highly recommend this book to readers planning for their own retirement. It comes down to the advice: “Don’t believe anyone. Think for yourself.” I was so impressed by this book that I bought it at the full price of USD 9.32 after hearing an Audible sample. Then I downloaded the Audible companion because I wanted to continue hearing the book at work. I am sure my employer will welcome my further retirement. For this book, there was no KU option. No reading for free. Sometimes you just spend the money.