Nomadland – an American tragedy

I recently read a book, Nomadland – Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, by Jessica Bruder. It’s about older Americans moving from one insecure job to another. It paints a disturbing picture.

Author Jessica Bruder with bookseller Rebecca Fitting, and Norton rep Joe Ginis. Photo: Alane Salierno Mason (@amasonny)
Author Jessica Bruder with bookseller Rebecca Fitting, and Norton rep Joe Ginis. Photo: Alane Salierno Mason (@amasonny)

Bruder did considerable research for Nomadland, spending years interviewing people all over the US who have been locked out of permanent jobs, housing, healthcare and any semblance of a reasonable social security system for people of retirement age. Just to be clear, this article isn’t a book review, it is a comment on the issues raised by documenting the lives of some older Americans who appear to continue to have faith in the “American dream” while simultaneously being screwed over by it.


Older people who can’t afford housing

Bruder suggests there are growing numbers of older people who are locked in grinding poverty, their only option to go on the road, picking up seasonal work, casual jobs, short-term minimum wage jobs that provide no security and no benefits. Be aware that in the US, minimum wage is just that – $8 an hour. That’s $320 for a 40-hour working week. Actually, many in this dystopian “gig economy” don’t even get to work 40 hours a week. It may be 15 or 30 hours one week, 10 the next and zero after that.

Employers seem to have no obligation to pay workers a living wage or offer any job security. Fair enough when it comes to seasonal work – everyone knows that carrots or cauliflower can only be picked at certain times of the year. But the jobs in the warehouses of big brands you’ve definitely heard of, why are they insecure? These workers are kept as casuals, while the owners of these brands make up the 1 per cent of Americans who own 40 per cent of their nation’s wealth.


No job security, no retirement

Job security in many industries in the US has become a thing of the past. Labour is cheap and disposable, much like many of the items that are being sold. Landfill is full of discarded plastic “things”. Campervans are now also filled with “discarded” people. I am referring to homeless people, not the stereotypical homeless person, but homeless people nevertheless. They travel from one casual job to another, sleeping in their vans and surviving. Going from “gig to gig” in your twenties sounds fun. Going from “job to job” in your seventies sounds much less so.


A lesson for Australia

Bruder shares stories from the US that should be a lesson for us as we head in the same direction. The increased casualisation of employment means that many people spend their working lives on minimum wage, with many of them not knowing how many hours of work they will be given next week. They dare not complain or they may not appear on next week’s work roster. No unions to help them bargain or argue for better conditions. Is any of this starting to sound familiar, Australia?

In fact, there are already some people on the age pension in Australia who also cannot afford to house themselves and must keep working to put a roof over their head. While the age pension in Australia is a much stronger safety net than the US has ever had, it is only adequate for those it was designed for – a couple who own their own home. It is far less comfortable for anyone else.


Workers are also customers

Henry Ford is famous for many things, such as building cars using an assembly line and telling folks that they could have any colour car, so long as it was black. A lesser known fact about Ford is that he was the first to understand that he needed to pay his workers adequately because they were also his customers. Workers who could afford to buy a Ford vehicle were a double win for him.

Adequately paid workers are a double win for all businesses. Every worker is also a customer. It makes no sense ethically or economically to concentrate great wealth in the hands of the few.


No one gets rich on their own

Business owners are great; they help build an economy, they produce things, they employ people, but they need workers just as much as workers need them. Part of the social contract is that some folk get to build industries and wealth, while other folk get jobs. Those workers then get to house themselves, feed themselves and buy the products that are produced. As US Senator Elizabeth Warren has said:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory … Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”


The most disturbing thing about Nomadland?

Those older people who are criss-crossing the USA seeking casual work so they can put petrol in their vans and eat don’t self-identify as “homeless”. They talk of the great views, the connectedness of their travelling communities and strangest of all, the ongoing pride in the greatest country ever created, the USA. I felt like I was reading about frogs that were oblivious to the fact that someone was slowly turning up the heat.


Australia’s social contract

We need to urgently think about the content of our social contract. People in poverty don’t need charity, they need dignity and opportunity. As we head down the same rabbit hole as the US – cutting wages, increasing casualisation, reducing career promoting opportunities through sub-contracting and withholding housing from people judged “undeserving” – we need to stop and think and imagine a better Australia, where housing isn’t a speculative sport for the wealthy but rather a right, a home in which citizens live. A better Australia where wages are adequate to pay for housing, food and utilities; where job security is not a novelty; and where women aren’t condemned to homelessness in old age because they spent years out of the paid workforce raising children, volunteering or being the glue that keeps our communities connected.

In essence, a better Australia is a community – not just an economy.


Felicity Reynolds is the CEO of the Mercy Foundation.

One Comment on “Nomadland – an American tragedy

  1. Excellent article, I would like to buy the book Nomadland.
    I am an aged pensioner living in public housing, a slum but a it is a roof.
    Every time the pension goes up the rent goes up.
    I am grateful to the taxpayers for my pension and my roof and I do believe in a safety net.
    America is now a “dog eat dog” culture mainly, but I hope there will bechange and fairness and equality and democratic principle return.
    Australia is, alas, becoming more ruthless in its treatment of the poor, I hope this changes.

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