In the August edition of Harper’s Magazine, author Jessica Bruder wrote a cover feature about ‘The End of Retirement: When You Can’t Afford to Stop Working‘ focused on down-and-out retirees becoming “elderly migrant workers” trudging from one job to another across the country, being taken advantage of by employers like Amazon along the way.
Ironically, the article is behind a pay wall – not overly accessible to the downtrodden she’s writing about.
Since that article has come out, RVing blogger’s e-mail boxes has been full of requests for interviews asking for our take on the realities of working on the road.
The common story angles tend to be focused on how poverty is striking our nation, and many people are being forced out of their homes and retirement and onto the road in RVs seeking any work they can find.
These stories seem to be building on the Harper’s article, and an assumption that no one would ever intentionally choose this sort of full-time life on the road.
Sure – some people retire and go on permanent vacation in an RV. But anyone actually working on the road must surely be in dire straights! Really, who on earth would ever want to give up a fixed house and a stable job?!!
We usually don’t get very far when these interview requests come in, as we’re just not interested in lending our voices to stories seemingly set on promoting that vision. And of course, we don’t fit the mold these journalists are trying to produce a story around.
Jessica’s story in particular is hyper focused on one very small segment of RVers, and while we certainly have run into those down on their luck and in predicaments like the case studies she followed – they represent the vast minority of RVers out there. Her examples provide a poignant commentary on our society in general, and heck any of us could be one choice or incident away from being there ourselves.
But these scenarios exist in stationary life too. The RV angle just makes for sensational press.
It is so frustrating to see this sensationalistic nonsense drowning out the reality we see out here on the road.
Yes, some are able to choose a RVing lifestyle as a last ditch way to cut expenses to adjust to their financial situation better and avoid true homelessness.
But it is also true that for many dealing with tight finances or a lack of options – RVing is a consciously chosen positive alternative. RVing can be a cheaper and more variable lifestyle than living in a fixed location. Putting wheels under your house gives you more flexibility to go where the work is and adapt your living expenses to match your income levels.
And most full-time RVers really are out here by choice – even those still needing to make a living.
But these positive aspects seem to get glossed over.
Rather than a story portraying RVing and workamping as a great alternative to the traditional path, the press seems interested in showing it as the absolute last resort of the most down-and-out – forced out onto the road, their retirement dreams in tatters.
The reaction to the Harper’s article by some mainstream media is to paint a picture that most of us working RVers are in this poverty predicament and forced out on the road to find work. The idea that folks actually CHOOSE this lifestyle if they had other alternatives, seems to be treated as the anomaly.
During our eight years on the road, we have certainly crossed paths with folks in “no other alternatives” situations. But honestly, of the thousands of RVers we have met in person and online – those living this lifestyle with no other choice are a tiny minority.
Most of us out on the road have made a conscious choice to be out here. The advantages are vast – and not just financial.
Workamping jobs are a great way to help fund this lifestyle – not a new form of indentured servitude.
There are many RVers who have consciously given up higher paying career tracks to find sustainable work on the road instead, for the sheer adventure of embracing a life of travel and quality time with loved ones scattered about the country.
There are RVers of all ages who find ways to be self employed on the road, or working remotely for their employers.
And there are plenty of retirees on the road who earned & planned their retirement, and are enjoying the fruits of their investments. A lot have intentionally chosen to retire early while they still have their health, even if that means needing to supplement retirement savings with a few months of workamping each year.
Why wait until you are 65 (or older!), working and slaveing for a week or two off a year – if you can make life on the road work when you are 50 (or younger!), mixing in a few months of grunt work each year to afford an early break away from the rat race?
Most of the “elderly migrant workers” we have met wouldn’t give up life on the road even if you offered them a monthly stipend and a luxury condo on the beach in Boca.
The Amazon Salt Mines
For years since we blogged about workamping at an Amazon fulfillment center (now called ‘Camperforce‘) for the Christmas 2009 rush – every fall and winter we start getting interview requests to talk about the experience.
And it never fails, the story is focused on the grueling conditions and all the poor elderly folks forced to work in shackles in the mines.
That’s not to say the work isn’t physically demanding. It is. It pushed our younger bodies to the limits, that’s for sure.
But we had people twice our age working beside us and thriving, and with many actually viewing the physical work as an opportunity to stay active and get paid for it.
While we’ve not done a formal study on it, we have talked to a lot CamperForce workers then and in the years since. And you know what? In our experience, the majority of folks who take these seasonal jobs do it by… choice. And many keep happily returning year after year.
They really do tend to view it as an opportunity – not as a sad last resort.
Working a season at Amazon, or any of the other opportunities out there, is a great way to do some temporary work without too many hoops to jump through, little commitment and bank up some reserves to fund the next adventure. And you can make some great new friends in the process.
Because workamping positions like this exist, it has allowed more people to retire or hit the road earlier than they could otherwise, and to get out on the road sooner knowing they can supplement their income sources.
They don’t look at Amazon as a salt mine, they view it as a quality of life improvement.
But not in Jessica’s world… When asked how many “elderly migrant workers” there are, she points to the growth of CamperForce as proof that more and more people are reaching the lowest point.
From our viewpoint, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
But that sure doesn’t make for a good headline…
More of our posts & resources about working on the road:
- Mobile Income Sources for Non-RetiredRVers – Jobs, Careers and Workamping
- Affording Full Time Travel
- Ramblings: Tales from Nomads – Our video interview series with working on the road nomads
Catch us on Al Jazeera
We recently were asked to participate in a segment on The Stream on Al Jazeera America on this topic, and after our first round of talks it sounded like they wanted to present a more fair and balanced view of the RVing lifestyle. They pitched us as being part of a segment on ‘tech savvy mobile lifestyles.’
It wasn’t until filming day that they gave us the full line-up of guests, and we realized just how heavy the piece was going to be on the Harper’s article angle.
They opened with Jessica Bruder about her study of the elderly migrant workers, Jaimie Hall Bruzenak about workamping… and then had us bring up the rear showing how some folks work on the road by choice. Bob Wells of CheapRVLiving and Richard W. Johnson from the Urban Institute were also participants.
Other than Jessica and Richard, the rest of us had a very positive take on life on the road. Yet here’s the official show description we just found:
The Stream: There’s no place to call home
A cycle of low wages, poor pensions and expensive real estate is leading a growing group of aging Americans to become nomads in their own country. They crisscross from state to state in their RVs, looking for temporary work. These are not outliers. They’re average elderly Americans with no place to call home.
With a lead in like that, we are now unsure if the piece will have quite the balance we were hoping for, but hopefully our presence will add to the conversation that RVing isn’t all doom and gloom.
And we’re not too thrilled that they prefaced our segment as ‘well off RVers’. We’re far from being ‘well off’ – we’re solidly mobile middle class. If we were well off, then why has our average work week been about 60+ hours this year?
If you have a TV and get Al Jazeera America, catch us on The Stream on Monday 9/15 at 12:30p EST, Wednesday 9/17 at 12:30p EST, or Saturday 9/20 at 5:30p EST.
We don’t think there will be an online version to share, unfortunately.
But do let us know if you see the segment, and your thoughts on how it is portrayed. We’re really curious if the balance is there.
Update: We’ve had a chance to view the episode, and despite the skewed show description, the whole piece was well done and balanced. They stuck to exactly what we recorded, and feel our point of view came through to help wrap up the perception.