When I drive along the highway, I frequently pass campers and recreational vehicles driven by older people. I used to think of them as well-to-do retirees, enjoying a life of leisure wandering around the country and seeing the sights. But it turns out that in many cases, I would be wrong. The people in these vehicles could well be migrant workers.
When we think of migrant workers, we tend to view them as people who work in agriculture as seasonal workers under harsh conditions, often undocumented, moving from place to place depending on where the crops need to be picked. But the August 2014 issue of Harper’s magazine highlights a different kind of migrant worker that I had no idea existed. These consist of Americans who have reached what used to be considered retirement age of around the mid-60s but do not have enough to retire on, either because they never earned enough to save for that day or because their savings in the form of their homes were wiped out by the financial crisis or some other debacle.
These people are now forced to work until they die but they can only find minimum-wage part-time or seasonal jobs. So they sell whatever they own and sink that money into campers or RVs and use them as their homes and move around from place to place as the jobs open up. So some of the RV’s you see on the highways may not belong to rich people enjoying a vacation but are the homes of poor people on the way to their next temporary job. They even have a name for this group: workampers.
These jobs are often in warehouses like Amazon and are often quite demanding physically but they have to take what they can get. In the article The end of retirement: When you can’t afford to stop working, Jessica Bruder follows a group of older people as they move from job to job depending on the weather and availability. They form a community of transients, sharing information about cheap places to hook up their vehicles, to eat, how to manage their lives, and the kinds of medications they need to carry around for the aches and pains that accompany doing this kind of physical labor at their age. It reminded me of the camaraderie of hoboes that George Orwell wrote about in what I consider one of his best books Down and Out in Paris and London.
What I found interesting was that there are employers who actively seek out these people as workers and have recruitment sessions for them. (One of the largest recruiters of these workers is Amazon and its program to recruit such workers is called CamperForce.) Employers find them desirable because these older workers are industrious, responsible, grateful for whatever work they get at whatever pay, and don’t cause any trouble.
Workampers are plug-and-play labor, the epitome of convenience for employers in search of seasonal staffing. They appear where and when they are needed. They bring their own homes, transforming trailer parks into ephemeral company towns that empty out once the jobs are gone. They aren’t around long enough to unionize. On jobs that are physically difficult, many are too tired even to socialize after their shifts.
They also demand little in the way of benefits or protections. On the contrary, among the more than fifty such laborers I interviewed, most expressed appreciation for whatever semblance of stability their short-term jobs offered.
But the author realizes that this is putting off the ultimate day of reckoning when they are too old to do this kind of work. What happens then?
Still, I grew increasingly worried about them: under the carefree veneer, it was hard not to read something darker. I began wondering: What happens to all these people when they’re too old to scrub campsite toilets or walk ten hours a day in an Amazon warehouse or lift thirty-pound sacks of sugar beets in the cold? When they can’t see well enough to drive cumbersome rigs on the highway? Some geriatric migrants I met already seemed one injury or broken axle away from true homelessness. Vans and trailers don’t last forever. Neither do bodies.
I heard about Rainbow’s End, a trailer park in Livingston, Texas, with medical care in an adjacent facility for RV dwellers who were too old to drive. But I also heard much bleaker stories. Iris Goldenberg, a former wound-care technician in a Colorado hospital, recounted how an acquaintance named Ron drank himself to death while boondocking in a Walmart parking lot thirty-six miles from Quartzsite. No one found his body for a month, she said. An Isaiah 58 Project volunteer, Becky Hill, told me that an eighty-year-old who had taken shelter at their church for three months later turned up dead in his RV in the desert near Ehrenberg, Arizona.
What would be the endgame for this new generation of aging migrants?
These workers are aware that what they have done is shift the end point a few years down the road and are either resigned to an uncertain end or have a macabre sense of humor about it.
The Social Security system in the US was never meant to be the sole income for people in retirement. It was meant to supplement income from savings. If people manage to pay off the mortgage on their homes by the time of retirement, it may be sufficient to cover their bare living costs if they live very frugally. But we now have an economy where many elderly people haven’t been able to save enough and do not own their homes. This is why the move by Ohio senator Sherrod Brown to increase Social Security benefits is a welcome one.