Alison Biggar expands on the economic reality of working past midlife to make ends meet.

As a 57-year-old woman with many older friends, I was shocked, but not surprised, to read of retirees struggling to survive on meager minimum wages; it’s not at all hard to picture oneself or one’s friends in a similar situation down the road.

Several people I know have insufficient savings for retirement, and no real plan to fix the situation. This book brought into sharp relief the number of Americans who are, as they say, one paycheck away from disaster. Jessica Bruder, an adjunct professor in New York’s Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, set out to write a book chronicling itinerant workers who toil for seasonal employers like Amazon. She spent three years researching Nomadland, traveling more than 15,000 miles, for up to two months at a stretch, living next to campers, from coast to coast and from Mexico to Canada.

An article in Allentown’s The Morning Call alerted her to Amazon’s labor practices, where a warehouse reached 110 degrees; instead of providing air conditioning, Amazon parked ambulances outside to transport workers felled by heatstroke. One older worker told a Mother Jones reporter writing an article about Amazon’s CamperForce program (designed to attract older traveling workers) that they continued working at the warehouse because they couldn’t afford to retire, at which point Bruder’s reporting instincts kicked into gear.

I hope one outcome from its publication will be what the author wished, which is to bring out empathy for those older people we pass on the street, who may be living in a nearby car or truck.

“I [thought] wait, wait, wait—people need to know more about what the heck is going on!” Bruder said. She had assumed any RVers were on the road for fun—the last of the great pensioners.

Bruder was intrigued by the workers’ resilience and what their plight might reveal about America’s larger economy. While traveling, she realized that the trait that makes the human species successful–adaptability, or what she calls the “ability to normalize” a situation—may be ruinous in our current economic climate. “My biggest goal with the book,” Bruder says, “was primarily [to be] a storyteller, hoping that after people read it, when they see someone living in van, they [can better] imagine that [person] has a story, and that they … won’t make assumptions about [them].

I hope one outcome from its publication will be what the author wished, which is to bring out empathy for those older people we pass on the street, who may be living in a nearby car or truck.

A longer version of this piece appeared originally in the American Society on Aging’s newspaper, Aging Today.

A Look at a Book is a series I’m hosting to help keep you informed about the latest books having to do with adult development and middlescence. A Look at a Book is an efficient, enjoyable way to stay informed. 

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