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

  • 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.

  • Sabine

    Since my plan is to spend most of my time travelling North America in an RV when I retire I have been doing a lot of research on the subject of living in an RV.

    It was a very shocking eye opener when I first discovered that there are people living in cars, vans and RV's just to make ends meet.

    The author has spent a long time talking and living with these nomads and even working

    the same seasonal jobs. So we get a very interesting and real glimpse at their current lives and what causes people to "c

    Since my plan is to spend most of my time travelling North America in an RV when I retire I have been doing a lot of research on the subject of living in an RV.

    It was a very shocking eye opener when I first discovered that there are people living in cars, vans and RV's just to make ends meet.

    The author has spent a long time talking and living with these nomads and even working

    the same seasonal jobs. So we get a very interesting and real glimpse at their current lives and what causes people to "choose" this lifestyle.

  • 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

    I don't read much non-fiction these days, but when I saw this one, I knew I had to read it, since I too am a nomad and have lived full-time in a motorhome with my husband and our dog for two years now. I found this book completely engaging, startling in some ways, and fascinating.

    This book is both a sociological treasure and a very personal study. The nomadic folks profiled herein by journalist/writer Jessica Bruder are a little different from me and my husband, as we chose this lifestyle after

    I don't read much non-fiction these days, but when I saw this one, I knew I had to read it, since I too am a nomad and have lived full-time in a motorhome with my husband and our dog for two years now. I found this book completely engaging, startling in some ways, and fascinating.

    This book is both a sociological treasure and a very personal study. The nomadic folks profiled herein by journalist/writer Jessica Bruder are a little different from me and my husband, as we chose this lifestyle after retiring from well-paying careers as software engineers and as such are fortunate enough to be able to live comfortably on our investments without having to take some of the sometimes back-breaking and spirit-breaking jobs described in this book. We pay for our sites in campgrounds and RV parks and aren't forced to "stealth camp", hoping we don't get a knock from a police officer in the middle of the night.

    A lot of the folks profiled in Bruder's study lost everything in the economic downturn of 2008 -- or never had much to begin with and got to the point where they couldn't afford to keep their homes or rent an apartment -- so they choose to live in a van, small camper, or even a car instead, outfitting their vehicles with the minimum necessities for living, no luxuries. Many of these nomads outright reject societal conventions and choose to live as "new-age outlaws" so they can live debt-free. Their fiesty spirits and frustration with the failing American Dream are not lost on me, and I respect them. Despite living a conventional American life until I turned 50 and began exploring life in areas outside the US and beginning a full-time RV lifestyle in the US two years ago, I have a bit of a gypsy rebel inside as well or I'd probably never have tried this lifestyle! I'm just a lot luckier than the nomads profiled here.

    This book gave me a better understanding of some of the folks we see at the various campgrounds we've stayed at over the past two years and what many are going through. It didn't paint a very pretty picture of camphosting (longer hours than what they're paid for and difficult work), Amazon (really tough work and not much humanity), or the sugar beet harvest (probably the toughest backbreaking, dangerous work, especially for older folks). I was impressed that the author actually lived among the nomads for three years and took on some of the jobs to see what it was really like down in the trenches. She made me thankful for my own life but also sad that so many in the "land of the free, home of the brave" have to live like this by necessity, often having to park illegally in cities in lieu of paying for a campsite. Our government leaders may not be aware of this, and this book should be required reading for everyone in government positions.

    I am dying to know if Linda builds her Earthship and hope there will be a way to get an update down the road someday....

  • Jenny (Reading Envy)

    Nomadland takes a deep look at the growing culture of van-dwellers and other nomads that attempt to live on the road, because they can't afford to live otherwise. I thought it was a particularly poignant read after reading

    earlier this year, since that book examines the issue of eviction among people attempting to still live in traditional ways. The people in this book have left town, leaving mortgages and rent behind, to try to make it through se

    Nomadland takes a deep look at the growing culture of van-dwellers and other nomads that attempt to live on the road, because they can't afford to live otherwise. I thought it was a particularly poignant read after reading

    earlier this year, since that book examines the issue of eviction among people attempting to still live in traditional ways. The people in this book have left town, leaving mortgages and rent behind, to try to make it through seasonal work all over the country. The author spent three years and got to know many of the people she writes about very well, and I think because of this is able to provide greater insight than people who treat this lifestyle as quirky or the newest hobby of snowbirds. For many of the people in this book, this is the last chance they have to make ends meet, and it is not an easy way to live. There is no safety net.

  • Diane Yannick

    This book introduced me to a growing subculture of seniors who can “not afford to grow old”. Many parts of this lifestyle were upsetting as I am once again awakened to my privilege. Not all of the nomads in this book made bad choices so we can’t go around feeling like this could never happen to me. Many of them lost respectable jobs or savings due to our country’s economic policies. Others had devastating medical expenses. They all ended up living in RVs, cars, trucks—their wheel estate. They at

    This book introduced me to a growing subculture of seniors who can “not afford to grow old”. Many parts of this lifestyle were upsetting as I am once again awakened to my privilege. Not all of the nomads in this book made bad choices so we can’t go around feeling like this could never happen to me. Many of them lost respectable jobs or savings due to our country’s economic policies. Others had devastating medical expenses. They all ended up living in RVs, cars, trucks—their wheel estate. They attempted to travel and live off the grid in order to survive. Living off the grid is not as easy as I thought. It seemed like they were always getting chased from their landing spots, except when a Walmart was near.

    Workampers was a new term to me. In order to make money, the campers knew where to get hourly jobs. Without exception, it was backbreaking work. Amazon is their biggest employer and I will never think of this company with the same enthusiasm. I did not think about seniors working 10 hour days on concrete floors, lifting packages, grabbing pain killers from the dispensers on the wall. I did not know that Amazon (and I guess other large companies) get a 25%-40% federal tax credit for hiring the elderly. I was appalled to learn that they would prefer to station ambulances and paramedics outside their hot facility rather than open loading doors for ventilation.

    Linda May, a 64 year old former cocktail waitress & insurance executive, and her much loved dog, were a heartwarming pair. She along with may others sought to create a community and be there for each other in times of need. When they met at their yearly Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, the camaraderie and deep-seated desire to give to others was touching. Yet, Linda yearned for land to anchor her. One man lived in a refitted Prius. Now that’s pretty darn amazing.

    Jessica Bruder is a commendable journalist who was able to make her book both informative and interesting. She did not take any shortcuts. She travelled 15,000 miles during the 3 years she spent traveling with and working beside her nomads. She became a temporary part of a private tribe. She even bought her own much used van which she named Halen. Her life in NYC would never feel quite the same.

    I walk away realizing that retirement can be fragile but that the human spirit is strong.

  • HFK

    I have taken some deep interest toward the American people, specifically the Southerns and economically lower classes. I am not sure why this is, but what I do know is that economically speaking Finland and America are very different in many aspects. It is often difficult to mirror experiences, social structures and trends when the two countries are so far yet so close to each others from multiple different point of views.

    Despite of these various differences, we tend to adapt a lot of trends fro

    I have taken some deep interest toward the American people, specifically the Southerns and economically lower classes. I am not sure why this is, but what I do know is that economically speaking Finland and America are very different in many aspects. It is often difficult to mirror experiences, social structures and trends when the two countries are so far yet so close to each others from multiple different point of views.

    Despite of these various differences, we tend to adapt a lot of trends from America. I do not mean your hairstyle and war mask, but I am talking about trends such as social movements, ideals and the way we see the world in general. This sometimes bothers me as these trends have no touch ground within my country's history or culture yet they are still fussed over with a mentality as if they would have. The results are ridiculous at best, and plain awful at worst. Still, it seems as if there would be this weird peace and acceptance with this adaption process and very few would sit down and ask the simple and needed question: What the fuck is going on here?

    Perhaps due to this, I have gotten to think that we may also be adapting some economical ideas too from the great and the big, which is not necessary a positive thing unless you have shit tons of money in your pockets. I already know what shit tons of money in America can do, but what about the everyday people no one really pays attention to? The people who in reality run the country by getting up in the morning and going to work in order to provide their families?

    tells stories of these everyday people who have done, for the most parts, things like they should be done yet find themselves travelling around the country in their vans, RV's and the likes in order to do minimum wage jobs instead of enjoying their well-earned retirement days.

    When I see older people travelling with RV's, I think these people have left their working days behind and decided to enjoy the freedom of the road. I never really thought they could actually be people who have been forced to give up on their houses due to economical shifts and changes that has made it impossible to pay mortgage or rent on top of other life's necessities such as food, healthcare, medicine, clothing and electricity.

    brings these people to my radar as much as it brings the American economy more closer to my understanding, as it does with the problematic ethical questions for using big corporations such as Amazon to provide me cheap (well, not cheap but way much cheaper than they are in my country - the difference between 10 dollars and 25 dollars) e-books and physical books.

    is not a book about the people who choose the life of free roads but of people who have been pushed to make this decision with little other options in hand. Most of these people have worked their whole lives, have made an decent living most of their lives, have their educations and everything that is usually associated with being able to support yourself and your family while securing the future.

    Even these decisions have been forced upon, there is a lot of enjoyment and hope within these people, which takes the misery of surviving away from the perspective as they believe there is better times ahead of them. The bonding and friendships among them was delightful to experience as an outsider, and tiny part of me wondered could I someday live the same by my own choice of rootlessness.

    Bruder, the author of this book, traveled along and did her fair share of some of the minimum wage jobs in order to give a vivid and capturing look at inside a social class that is most likely growing rapidly in the coming years.

    But

    is also an informative piece out of economy and big corporations who so much use elderly people to do the heavy jobs, and do not often function ethically. I am not sure can I ever again order books from Amazon without thinking a +60 year old woman strolling around to get my book in the mail while injuring herself severely just because it is needed to be done in inhuman speed - without having insurance and a decent ethical working environment.

    Yet, I am first to admit that I do not afford to make ethical decisions nor do I have the desire to build my life the way I could have an tolerable success in being able to.

    I can't say I am the biggest fan of Bruder's writing style, but the stories and information provided here is not just important and essential for further reading, but also an fascinating look at people who make the best out of the situation they are in by living the way many do just for fun.

  • Onceinabluemoon

    This was such a sad eye opening read, a whole subculture I knew nothing about, subsidized by Amazon. My husband and I listened in the car, I said how many stars, he said three, I bellowed 5, it's a topic I knew zip about and I was hanging on every word. He quickly upped his rating to four 😉

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