The Senior Gypsy Economy

by Sue Halpern

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Every so often a random confluence of articles makes it possible to see into the future with the clearest of crystal balls. In this case, the articles come from The New York Times and Harper’s, and the story they tell together should give us all pause. For years we’ve heard about how Americans were lousy savers, and how a significant segment of the population had done a poor job of planning for retirement. We heard less about what was going to happen to those people when they were no longer steady earners. But now we know.

Writing in the Times’ money column, David Wallis puts a romantic sheen on it: “Increasingly, Retirees Dump Their possessions and Hit the Road.” Shedding the house and mortgage and sleeping on other people’s couches in one’s late middle age is shown to be a wonderful adventure. One can travel the world, help others, live unencumbered. Here’s fifty-year-old Stacy Monday, who used to be a paralegal:

“I sold everything I had,” Ms. Monday recalled earlier this summer from San Francisco before she headed to Las Vegas, Dallas, Memphis and Knoxville. “I paid off all of my debt. I have no bills and no money.” She estimates that she now spends $150 a month — sometimes less if she is saving up for a flight — and earns a modest income through “odds-and-ends jobs,” as well as the tip jar on her blog.

To stick to her tight budget, Ms. Monday volunteers for nonprofits and organic farms in exchange for room and board or finds free places to stay through Couchsurfing.org. The company puts its membership of people 50 and older at about 250,000.

So that is one vision of the future: American retirees, unrooted, becoming, in the words of one of them, “Bedouins.”

And here is another:

older Americans who can’t retire, and don’t have a house and possessions to sell, also roaming around, putting miles on their vehicles as they look for work here and there. According to yet another Times piece, “the number of workers employed through temp agencies has climbed to a new high — 2.87 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and they represent a record share of the nation’s work force, 2 percent.” And some of them, it turns out, according to Jessica Bruder in Harper’s (subscribers only), live hand-to-mouth in their trailers, in Joad-like encampments, having been recruited to harvest beets or pull items for Amazon packages at barely minimum wages. According to Bruder, “Amazon first hired a handful of migrant full-time RVers in 2008 through a program the company later named CamperForce. As of 2014, it had expanded to employ some 2,000 workers, according to a recruiter I met in Quartzsite, Arizona.”

And she goes on:

The ads [for CamperForce] are surreal. They sound like an invitation to summer camp, and not just the ones for Amazon jobs. “Feel like a kid again!” and “Hey workamper, it’s time for fun!” are a couple slogans used by recruiters for Adventureland, a theme park in Altoona, Iowa where migrant workers run the rides, games and concessions for $7.25 to $7.50 an hour. Recruitment materials for the beet harvest, with 12-hour overnight shifts in subzero temperatures, refer to the work as “an unBEETable experience!”

This stuff is propaganda, pure and simple. It panders to the illusion that older Americans are free to retire, working only for fun, rather than acknowledging the reality that many folks need to keep bringing in money to survive.

The Harper’s article is not online for non-subscribers, but a haunting interview with Bruder is, and is worth reading.

Happy Labor Day!

(Photo of trailer park by Matthew Hester)