The end of retirement? From the beet fields of North Dakota to the National Forest campgrounds of California to Amazon’s CamperForce program in Texas, employers have discovered a new, low-cost labor pool, made up largely of transient older Americans. Join us for a conversation about some of the invisible casualties of the Great Recession.
Finding that social security comes up short, often underwater on mortgages, an older population has taken to the road by the tens of thousands in late-model RVs, travel trailers, and vans, forming a growing community of nomads: migrant laborers who call themselves “workampers.” On frequently traveled routes between seasonal jobs, Jessica Bruder meets people from all walks of life: a former professor, a McDonald’s vice president, a minister, a college administrator, and a motorcycle cop, among many others—including her irrepressible protagonist, a onetime cocktail waitress, Home Depot clerk, and general contractor named Linda May.
In a secondhand vehicle she christens “Van Halen,” Bruder hits the road to get to know her subjects more intimately. Accompanying Linda May and others from campground toilet cleaning to warehouse product scanning to desert reunions, then moving on to the dangerous work of beet harvesting, Bruder tells an eye-opening tale of the dark underbelly of the American economy—one that foreshadows the precarious future that may await many more of us. At the same time, she celebrates the exceptional resilience and creativity of these quintessential Americans who have given up ordinary rootedness to survive.
Jessica Bruder is an award-winning journalist whose work focuses on subcultures and the dark corners of the economy. She has written for Harper’s, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Bruder teaches at the Columbia School of Journalism. Matthew Desmond is the recipient of a McArthur Genius Fellowship and the author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Carnegie Medal. He is professor of Sociology at Princeton University.