Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

From the beet fields of North Dakota to the wilderness campgrounds of California to an Amazon warehouse in Texas, people who once might have kicked back to enjoy their sunset years are hard at work. Underwater on mortgages or finding that Social Security comes up short, they’re hitting the road in astonishing numbers, forming a new community of nomads: RV and van-dwelling...

Title:Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century
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Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century Reviews

  • Marlene England

    Fascinating - and scary, particularly for those of us who may have 'underprepared' for retirement. I can't stop thinking (and talking) about this book.

  • Robin

    If I could, I've give this six stars; it's that good. More to come.

    Thanks to WW Norton for the advance reading copy.

  • Andrew

    A surprising look at the people, mainly retirees, who are houseless not homeless. In a throwback to the 1930s they travel across America in mobile homes and converted vehicles, generally off the radar, taking seasonal work. Because they can't afford the lifestyle we should all hope retired workers receive.

    It's one of those pretty damning indictments of America's social fabric. And let's be careful about too much Canadian smugness until we look at our own seniors.

  • Sheri

    Nomadland offers various talking points to ponder over and deliberate such as vehicle dwelling, the nomadic lifestyle, and economic issues. I got the most out of Part One which talked mainly about the reasons behind vehicle dwelling and thus my review reflects my thoughts primarily on that section.

    "At one time there was a social contract that if you played by the rules (went to school, got a job, and worked hard) everything would be fine. That's no longer true today. You can do everything right

    Nomadland offers various talking points to ponder over and deliberate such as vehicle dwelling, the nomadic lifestyle, and economic issues. I got the most out of Part One which talked mainly about the reasons behind vehicle dwelling and thus my review reflects my thoughts primarily on that section.

    "At one time there was a social contract that if you played by the rules (went to school, got a job, and worked hard) everything would be fine. That's no longer true today. You can do everything right, just the way society wants you to do it, and still end up broke, alone, and homeless." (p. 74)

    The people you read about in Nomadland are people who are down on their luck, out of options, and out of time. Everyone has experienced a financial loss of some sort and "had fallen a long, long way from the middle-class comforts they had always taken for granted." (p. 61) After time and money ran out, somewhere, somehow, these people got the idea that living in a vehicle was a viable, or perhaps the only, alternative to more traditional housing.

    "There have always been itinerants, drifters, hobos, restless souls. But now, in the second millennium, a new kind of wandering tribe is emerging. People who never imagined being nomads are hitting the road. They're giving up traditional houses and apartments to live in what some call "wheel estate" -- vans, secondhand RVs, school buses, pickup campers, travel trailers, and plain old sedans. They are driving away from the impossible choices that face what used to be the middle class." (p. xii) After reading the foreword, I got the impression that this lifestyle has been romanticized. Later on the idea that a nomadic life is an escape of sorts is presented; "one could be reborn into a life of freedom and adventure." (p. 74)

    While the title and description led me to believe that this book would be about survival and doing what you have to do to stay alive, it seems to be focused more on people who chose this lifestyle rather than people who were forced into it. Don't get me wrong, many were forced into vehicle dwelling but it is not seen as a last resort but rather a new and different place to call home. I don't think I am explaining myself very well here...

    I feel like the vehicle dwellers chronicled here have given up on the classic American Dream for another cheaper version. Some may say hey, that's okay. We all need to find and do what works for us, there is no one set way. I do agree with that idea yet I can't help but feel that these people aren't really choosing this lifestyle. That for the great majority, if they had not suffered a financial loss, had planned to be and still would be traditional home dwellers. I applaud those who have managed to put a positive spin on a negative situation but the mind-set doesn't quite ring true. It's a hard and stressful life but that is glossed over by blogs and gatherings supporting this nomadic lifestyle.

    I struggled to get through the rest of the book after Part One as I wasn't as interested in the subject matter as when I first started. This is an interesting read that turned out to be different than I was expecting. It is certainly still thought provoking and would make a great book club read.

  • Jen Naughton

    This book is a peek inside a society that is right under our noses yet isn't acknowledged by anyone outside of it. An increasing number of Americans can't afford to retire and stay in their homes. Some of them who were renting can't afford that either. They have to live somewhere and are forced in their golden years to live in RVs, campers, vans, and even small cars while they work seasonal jobs moving about the country. I know that when I've seen older folks in RVs, I've thought that they chose

    This book is a peek inside a society that is right under our noses yet isn't acknowledged by anyone outside of it. An increasing number of Americans can't afford to retire and stay in their homes. Some of them who were renting can't afford that either. They have to live somewhere and are forced in their golden years to live in RVs, campers, vans, and even small cars while they work seasonal jobs moving about the country. I know that when I've seen older folks in RVs, I've thought that they chose that lifestyle in their retirement years. It didn't occur to me that they are mostly one small step away from being homeless. Many had worked corporate jobs and were downsized or had massive losses in the 2008 stock market crash. In other words, they were following the prototype of regular American life and got burned.

    Many of this population work at Amazon as work campers. A sunshiny term Amazon coined to make the job more palatable. It sounds nice at first glance, work at Amazon in exchange for a minimum wage, and a free spot at a campground. The reality is that these workers are in their 60s and 70s and are expected to walk upwards of ten miles a day on hard concrete. If they are injured, they don't get paid. It made me think about my Amazon purchases. If I order a replacement toothbrush head, coffee, and a new book some old person had to walk all around the place getting it for me. It doesn't give me the warm fuzzies.

    Honestly, this book has shaken me. I can only see this situation getting worse as more and more people get laid off or bought out of jobs in early retirement. We keep buying disposable everything all the while our fellow Americans are killing themselves to fulfill our wishes within the 2-day shipping window without health insurance or union representation.

    Much like the new awareness of how our animal meat gets to the grocery store we need to take a look at the real human cost of purchasing from giant corporations instead of local stores.

    Working yourself to death is not a great work ethic- none of us wants that for ourselves or our parents. This book is so well written that it reads like fiction but is unfortunately very real.

  • Brianna

    I attended an equity training workshop at my job today in which the woman leading the meeting informed us that we can now expect to see people working into their 60s and 70s. "Isn't this exciting!" Is how she ended that PowerPoint slide, but all I could think of was this book. I wasn't expecting to be so deeply unsettled by it. To be fair people have been migrating from low wage job to job since longer than the 2008 recession, but this book focuses almost exclusively on older white women who bac

    I attended an equity training workshop at my job today in which the woman leading the meeting informed us that we can now expect to see people working into their 60s and 70s. "Isn't this exciting!" Is how she ended that PowerPoint slide, but all I could think of was this book. I wasn't expecting to be so deeply unsettled by it. To be fair people have been migrating from low wage job to job since longer than the 2008 recession, but this book focuses almost exclusively on older white women who backslid into poverty in the last ten or so years and their struggles to survive economically, socially, and emotionally well into their 70s and 80s. That's not necessarily a criticism of the book as a whole but an acknowledgement of the books very narrow focus, and the lack of context in the book re: race and the history of migrant laborers in the US. Once again it illustrates that only certain groups of people seem to be at the receiving end of our collective empathy. Not every book has to be about everything at once, but this seems like such a glaring omission that is addressed only once in a couple of paragraphs. The book as a whole does seem very apt given our current political moment in exposing the dangers of poor social security nets and the lack of inherited wealth, where even a small crisis can result in homelessness. I'm not even trying to be cute when I say this book made me up my contribution to my 401k. The author focused on the optimism of her subjects but their problems spring from such deep institutional and cultural fault lines in the US that are only getting worse that I couldn't help but walk away from this book utterly depressed.

  • Caren

    This was an engrossing but very unsettling read. Similar to the book "Evicted"(Matthew Desmond), the author entered into a community, in this case-- work campers, following them on the road and working some of their jobs. She interviewed many folks, but followed a few in more detail. One woman in particular, Linda May, became her friend and the centerpiece of her story. Most of her subjects were people who would traditionally be considered of retirement age---in their 60s and 70s, even a few in

    This was an engrossing but very unsettling read. Similar to the book "Evicted"(Matthew Desmond), the author entered into a community, in this case-- work campers, following them on the road and working some of their jobs. She interviewed many folks, but followed a few in more detail. One woman in particular, Linda May, became her friend and the centerpiece of her story. Most of her subjects were people who would traditionally be considered of retirement age---in their 60s and 70s, even a few in their 80s. These people were once solidly in the middle class, but for various reasons (and often due to circumstances that arose during the Great Recession) found the economics of their former lives impossible to sustain. Some lost their jobs and couldn't find new jobs that paid what their old jobs had, or couldn't find any jobs at all. Some had their houses foreclosed, or could no longer pay their rent and afford food. Health-related debt or divorce may have destroyed their finances. Their situations became economically untenable and they made the choice that kept them from ending up on the streets (or living with one of their kids): they live in their vehicles. Some live in vans, some in very old RVs, some even in cars. (One younger fellow actually lived in a Prius. I can't really imagine that.) They travel about for seasonal work. Linda May began working as a camp host in parks in California. The state had contracted out the jobs to a separate company. The hours were long and poorly paid. The host not only registered campers, but had to deal with late-night noise complaints and spend days cleaning camp sites and the toilets. After doing that job for the summer months, she moved on to work in an Amazon warehouse for the months leading up to the holiday season. Apparently, Amazon receives some sort of tax incentive for hiring older workers, so it actually prefers them. The hours are long and the job brutal. Ms. Bruder worked the job herself in order to give us an insider's view. It is probably worse than I imagined. (This aspect of the book reminded me of Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickled and Dimed".) Other seasonal jobs were for an amusement park and the beet harvest in the late fall. Ms. Bruder also worked the beet harvest, which seemed dangerous even for a younger worker. These jobs, as you can tell, all entail hard physical work. It was common for the workers to either be injured (and remember, there are no health insurance benefits for these jobs) or to just ache from the physical rigor the jobs required. (Amazon provided pain killer dispensers in their warehouses.) OK readers, imagine that your parents or grandparents who are in their 60s or 70s have to travel around in beat-up vans to work hard physical jobs just to exist. How does that make you feel about the good old USA? In the case of Linda May, she took social security at 62 (which, because it is not full retirement age, imposes a financial penalty). She received $500-something a month until she turned 65 and began paying for Medicare, after which her monthly payments dropped to $400-something per month. As Ms. Bruder pointed out, women mostly do have lower social security checks because they make less money and because they are the ones who have often taken time away from paid employment to care for others (whether their children or their parents). Lots of the people Ms. Bruder interviewed were single women, on the road alone. This hidden community has tricks for finding places to park for the night. Walmart will mostly turn a blind eye and allow overnight parking. There is an online community to instruct newbies on the finer points of living in your vehicle, including how to install solar panels on the roof, how to use a 5-gallon bucket as a toilet, how to keep warm in freezing weather...Ms. Bruder provides some food for thought:

    "Many of the workers I met in the Amazon camps were part of a demographic that in recent years has grown with alarming speed: downwardly mobile older Americans....Monique Morrissey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, spoke with me about the unprecedented nature of this change. 'We're facing the first-ever reversal in retirement security in modern U.S. history,' she explained. 'Starting with the younger baby boomers, each successive generation is now doing worse than previous generations in terms of their ability to retire without seeing a drop in living standards.' That means no rest for the aging. Nearly nine million Americans sixty-five and older were still employed in 2016, up 60 percent from a decade earlier. Economists expect those numbers---along with the percentage of seniors in the labor force---to keep rising. A recent poll suggests that Americans now fear outliving their assets more than they fear dying. Another survey finds that, although most older Americans still view retirement as 'a time of leisure', only 17 percent anticipate not working at all in their later years." (pages 62-63).

    Further, she says:

    "Over the last generation, we have witnessed a massive transfer of economic risk from broad structures of insurance, including those sponsored by the corporate sector as well as by government, onto the fragile balance sheets of American families", Yale political scientist Jacob S. Hacker writes in his book 'The Great Risk Shift'. The overarching message: "You are on your own". All of which is to say that Social Security is now the largest single source of income for most Americans sixty-five and older. But it's woefully inadequate. 'Instead of a three-legged stool, we have a pogo stick", quipped Peter Brady of the Investment Company Institute. That means barely enough for necessities. Nearly half of middle-class workers may be forced to live on a food budget of as little as $5 a day when they retire, according to Teresa Ghilarducci, an economist and professor at the New School in New York City. "I call it 'the end of retirement,'" she said in an interview. Many retirees simply can't survive without some sort of paycheck. Meanwhile, she noted, jobs for older Americans are paying less and less and becoming ever more physically taxing.She worries we're returning to the world that Lee Welling Squier described more than a century ago. " (pages 66-67)

    Ms. Bruder spoke with some younger work campers too. Here is the story one related:

    "...Ash had watched her own parents fall out of the middle class after her father, an electrical engineer with a six-figure salary, got laid off in 2001. He was too proud to take a lower-paying job, at least before the family's finances were depleted. Then he ended up driving school buses in the morning and working at Walmart at night. 'Anyway, I'm seeing my parents in their mid-sixties with no retirement, you know, everything that they built over their entire life just disappeared. And then with the recession you see that happening to more people.' Ash said. Though she'd always considered herself to be a 'follower', she began to worry that, even if she adhered to all of society's rules for living an upright middle-class life, she'd have no guarantee of stability. " (pages 106-107)

    This is an eye-opener of a book. Being on the road in your RV may have sounded slightly romantic before I read this book. Now, I just think this is very, very sad.

  • Emily

    In

    , a title that could surely have been improved on, Jessica Bruder joins a community of older Americans who live in vans and trailers, pursuing seasonal work and independence. In some ways, this book reminded me of

    , though Bruder never conceals her true purpose as a reporter and acknowledges that her forays into working at a sugar beet processing plant and an Amazon warehouse are not really representative of doing the job full time. Her sardonic quotations of incongru

    In

    , a title that could surely have been improved on, Jessica Bruder joins a community of older Americans who live in vans and trailers, pursuing seasonal work and independence. In some ways, this book reminded me of

    , though Bruder never conceals her true purpose as a reporter and acknowledges that her forays into working at a sugar beet processing plant and an Amazon warehouse are not really representative of doing the job full time. Her sardonic quotations of incongruously cheerful employer propaganda (and close call with employer drug testing) are very Ehrenreich-esque.

    This is a remarkably optimistic book considering that it is mostly about people who have run out of options. It's a paean to Americans' ability to make their own fun and a cat-like tendency to pretend that whatever happened, that was totally what we meant to do. Many "workampers" in this book are retirement-age Americans who don't have enough to retire on and whose families don't have the means to support them. Turning penury into an adventure, they set off on the road and find a blooming community of like-minded agemates who trade tips and leads. How do you make a van livable year-round? Make a toilet from a bucket? Where should you go for livable weather and seasonal work? Bruder buys her own van and participates in an annual gathering of the nomads, where she meets some of the key figures whom she profiles in the book, showing how they ended up where they are and what their modus operandi now is.

    This book isn't about statistics or policy prescriptions but it's a colorful slice of American life in 2017. It leaves you hanging with an unsettled sense that this is unsustainable (a 90-year-old can't live in a camper), and that this could be you.

  • Margaret Sullivan

    I saw an interview with the author and was immediately intrigued. A fascination with Tiny House videos on YouTube led me to Bob Wells' channel and the discovery of the subculture of full-time nomads who live in their vehicles, sometimes on very little money and often "boondocking" for free, not glamping in fancy RV parks and fancier RVs. The people who choose this lifestyle don't always choose it absolutely freely-- sometimes circumstances dictate the choice--but most of them seem happy and unwi

    I saw an interview with the author and was immediately intrigued. A fascination with Tiny House videos on YouTube led me to Bob Wells' channel and the discovery of the subculture of full-time nomads who live in their vehicles, sometimes on very little money and often "boondocking" for free, not glamping in fancy RV parks and fancier RVs. The people who choose this lifestyle don't always choose it absolutely freely-- sometimes circumstances dictate the choice--but most of them seem happy and unwilling to return to their former lifestyle. They're not waiting for their circumstances to change; they are making a different kind of life for themselves.

    I was a little concerned from the subtitle of the book that the author was writing a screed about how society has forced people to unwillingly live in their cars, but that's not the case. Bruder enters their lives and sees their joy in it. However, she also touches on the fact that many of these people were forced, at first, by the failure of our social safety net into the lifestyle, even if they have since embraced it, and she points out that many of them are already senior citizens, and what will they do when they can no longer physically drive or be a seasonal workcampers for Amazon or clean toilets and herd campers at campgrounds? The book mostly follows one woman, Linda, who seems to have a good plan for living cheaply off the grid. I just hope she can fulfill her dream. Bruder makes it seem like she can. I enjoyed this book very much.

    Also it was infuriating that so many of the people Bruder met were forced into the lifestyle by the loss of homes and savings due to the 2008 crash and recession, for which the perpetrators have not yet been called upon to pay. (See

    for more info on. that.)

  • Stacy Bearse

    Bruder describes a growing wave of rootless Americans, who wander the country in cars, vans and RVs in search of comradere and the next minimum wage job. Some claim to be victims of the housing bust and recent recession. Others claim a life of hard luck and bad breaks. Most seem to be homeless and penniless due to lapses in personal responsibility. The author does a good job immersing herself in this American sub-culture and describing the experience. She might have written a more incisive book

    Bruder describes a growing wave of rootless Americans, who wander the country in cars, vans and RVs in search of comradere and the next minimum wage job. Some claim to be victims of the housing bust and recent recession. Others claim a life of hard luck and bad breaks. Most seem to be homeless and penniless due to lapses in personal responsibility. The author does a good job immersing herself in this American sub-culture and describing the experience. She might have written a more incisive book if she included perspectives from more sociologists and psychological experts.

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