As we wade through award season in a year like no other, one film has been propelled by the most buzz since it won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival last summer.
Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand and directed by Chloé Zhao, shines a light on an entire subculture of people nearing or well past retirement age who can’t afford to stop working. They can’t find work either though, so are forced to trade real estate for wheel estate and travel back and forth across the US picking up temporary seasonal jobs to get by.
The film is based on a book of the same name by Jessica Bruder, which developed from an article she wrote in 2014 called The End of Retirement, which exposed a nightmarish element to the American Dream. And the big issues that drove older people to this lifestyle after the recession in 2007-2008 are relatively small compared to the impact the pandemic will have not too far down the road.
When she first learned about this community of van-dwellers, Bruder didn’t know if it represented “a sunny lifestyle or survival strategy”.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she tells The Big Issue over Zoom from New York. “Growing up, when I saw an RV I thought, ‘OK, this is a recreational vehicle, so these are pensioners going to the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls and Yellowstone. They’re essentially on a permanent vacation.
“So when I first heard that some older people are living in RVs and vans and sometimes cars, yes, travelling around but also doing jobs that are difficult even for younger workers, something didn’t compute.”
Bruder explored the growing idea of workamping, where workers are provided with a free campsite with utilities, which can make up for quite low pay. In the adaptation of her book, we follow McDormand’s character Fern, a 61-year-old widow mourning her husband and the life they shared, as she packs boxes at Amazon, flips burgers in a fast-food restaurant and cleans toilets at a holiday camp.
The character of Fern is a composite. Based in part on some of the nomads Bruder met and wrote about in her book and also McDormand herself, who in the past talked about reaching her mid-60s and walking away from films, moving into an RV, drinking Wild Turkey, smoking Lucky Strikes and changing her name to Fern.
I met people who you wouldn’t think would be on the edge. One was vice president for research and development at McDonald’s Global.
There is also a thread of Bruder running throughout. “Not me as myself or a journalist, but me as somebody who’s a tour guide who can walk readers or viewers through the world,” she says.
Fern stands in for an overlooked and ignored sector of American society; downwardly mobile older female Americans.
According to the 2015 census, one in six older women living alone are in poverty, there are nearly twice as many older women in poverty than older men (2.71 million compared to 1.49 million) and due to the gender pay gap, which persists into retirement, women on average receive $341 less per month in social security because their contributions are lower over a lifetime of work more likely to be interrupted by parenting or caring.
Today, Bruder estimates there are at least 100,000 people living in ‘Nomadland’, but a precise number is impossible to measure because people retain a fake address to use for insurance and register their driver’s licence.
Writing the book, Bruder joined the population. She bought her own van – a GMC Vandura (the same model as The A-Team had) – that she called Halen.
“I met people who you wouldn’t think would be on the edge,” she says. “One featured in the book was vice president for research and development at McDonald’s Global. He had invested a lot of his money, it evaporated and he ended up on the road. He was doing work at an Amazon warehouse in his 70s.”
Amazon is one of many companies that actively try to attract workampers. The Amazon CamperForce website is advertising for 2021 assignments: “Come help make our Amazon customers smile by working in one of our state-of-the-art fulfillment centres. You could be picking, packing, and shipping customer orders in a highly technological and safe work environment. All it takes is applying, reserving your own campground spot, showing up and making history!”
Are these companies exploiting nomads or are they offering them a lifeline?
“I wish people had better working conditions but I zoom out further,” Bruder says. “When I look at the system, how flat our wages are, the whole picture is so messy that I don’t even know where to begin. It’s so much bigger than anything any individual company is doing.
Now, one job isn’t enough – even if two people are both working, raising a family together. We have a lot of what should be an oxymoron, the working poor.
“We need an overhaul. I’m assuming this won’t be common knowledge to your readers but the minimum wage in the US is still $7.25 an hour [£5.27], which is morally obscene. People making twice as much often can’t make it, finding a place to live is just impossible.”
The circumstances that have led to the rise in nomads are ubiquitous throughout the world, yet this lifestyle remains a curiously American phenomenon thanks to the country’s sheer size and how it taps into a tradition of pioneering spirit and a pervading sense of individualism.
“In terms of this idea of individualism,” Bruder begins, “well, that means we have less of a social safety net than many other nations. That’s the flip side, right?
“There are precedents. Right after the Great Depression people ended up on the road looking for opportunities but thinking that eventually everything would go back to normal and they would be reabsorbed into housed, so-called mainstream, society.
“Today when I met people who were out on the road, many of them were dealing with a problem we’ve had for a long time, which is that wages have not tracked with productivity, while the price of housing keeps going up.”
Income equality has also greatly increased, Bruder explains. “As of 2019, the average CEO was making more than 300 times the average worker. Go back to the 1960s, the ratio was one to 21, or something like that. One worker earning minimum wage used to be able to support an entire family.
“Now, one job isn’t enough – even if two people are both working, raising a family together. We have a lot of what should be an oxymoron, the idea of the working poor.”
They were creating a community and actually a bit of a safety net, emotionally and otherwise for each other.
Some nomads see the lifestyle as a road to liberation instead of existing in deprivation. And it changes the very meaning of home.
“This goes so far against these American attitudes, which have really said that home ownership is tantamount to citizenship,” Bruder says. “People like to say ‘Home is where you park it’. Home does become about a certain way of living and bonds that you make with other people, rather than a picket fence and a driveway.
“One of the things I liked about the time I spent in Nomadland was that even though a lot of people were by themselves out on the road, they were creating a community and actually a bit of a safety net, emotionally and otherwise for each other. It’s an indictment of our culture that that might be the only thing that they have, but I think it also spoke very well with them.”
When Bruder lived in Halen, people helped her fix the solar panels attached to her roof, advised her that truck stops and casino car parks were good places to sleep, shared so much food that the only danger she felt was an overdose of calories and also, crucially, how to parallel park. “Parallel parking a 19-foot van is no small thing,” she points out.
“Being out there and seeing how many ways people find to share what they have and what they know, even when they don’t have access to tonnes of material resources, that was a tremendous education, something I carried with me.”
Nomadland is premiering on Disney+ on April 30 then will screen in cinemas when they reopen in May. Nomadland by Jessica Bruder is out now (Swift, £8.99)
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