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Nomadland: A Review

KEVIN RITTER

Wall Drug in Wall, SD. Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

As urban planners and policymakers, we sometimes have a myopic focus on the cities in which we work. But cities never exist as autonomous structures: they are enabled and shaped by larger geographies such as metro regions, states, and international vectors of migration and trade. The lifestyles many workers enjoy are often contingent upon the exploitation of other workers, often at a significant geographic distance. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated changes in how and where people live, how we consume, and how we interact with each other. Popular news articles have proclaimed that as many in the professional class now enjoy permanent work-from-home positions, some workers have taken on new, nomadic lifestyles, picking up and changing locales whenever they get the urge. Amongst many other upbeat human interest stories, the New York Times highlighted digital workers who temporarily made their way to far-flung locales like Barbados and Estonia,1 and Bloomberg News highlighted young, childless remote workers reporting in daily from stops on their COVID-era road trips.2 Many people have turned to shopping online; as an unprecedented amount of New Yorkers ordered from Amazon, the company expanded its physical footprint during the pandemic.3 Of course, these shifts in work and consumer patterns are experienced differently across socioeconomic groups. Upon the lifting of the eviction moratorium set to expire later this year, many will certainly become homeless, and homelessness has increased amongst single adults during the pandemic, despite the moratorium.4 Many people have lost their jobs, primarily those who were working in financially precarious, low-wage positions.5 And there is, of course, the flip side to the increases in delivery — workers at Amazon’s warehouses contracted COVID-19 at high rates as they worked to keep up with consumer demand.6 Nomadland, Chloe Zhao’s 2021 Oscar-winning film, explores the ways in which the Amazon delivery on our doorstep and the food we put in our mouths is enabled by spatialized inequality.

Nomadland tells the story of nomadic workers in the United States, primarily a subset of older, white, workers who adopted the lifestyle after taking a hard hit in the wake of the 2008 recession. These workers have very different circumstances than the new COVID-era “digital nomads” profiled in news media accounts. The film focuses on Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman in her 60s who lives out of her van and moves around following a range of temporary jobs. The cast is rounded out by many individuals who are featured in Jessica Bruder’s book of the same name, upon which the film was based, including moving performances by Swankie Wells and Linda May. The characters lack good options for work, for housing, for healthcare, and they must make tough decisions between a variety of inadequate choices. The decision to forego housing costs and live in a van while migrating from state to state for temporary work is such a choice — not sufficient in the long run, but a choice nonetheless. As Bruder observes in her book, many nomads resist being labeled with the “h-word:” “homeless.” Even though they may have been de facto forced into living on the road, many of the nomads Bruder interviews frame their lifestyle as a “choice,” claiming some personal autonomy in an untenable economic situation. The picture Nomadland paints of this “choice” isn’t especially rosy. Fern has to fashion a toilet out of a 10-gallon bucket, and withstand frigid temperatures as she sleeps in her van. When her vehicle needs significant repairs, she is unable to pay the mechanic.

T-Rocks in Quartzite, AZ. Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

In addition to the difficult logistics of living on the road, Nomadland also explores the exhausting and dangerous working conditions faced by people like Fern. McDormand-as-Fern performs this work with a fierce concentration, whether she is sorting rocks in blistering sun at Quartzsite, Arizona, cleaning grills at Wall Drug in South Dakota, harvesting thousands of pounds of sugar beets, or working at an Amazon warehouse. In the wake of 2008’s recession and shifting demands in the workforce, many workers (especially older ones) were left with limited options. When older workers find themselves laid off from jobs, whether due to economic instability, industrial change, or pandemic-related closures, they often discover that it is difficult to find comparable employment: older workers are half as likely to land a new position than younger ones.7 For workers who cannot survive on their low social security payments, they cannot afford retirement, and have few options to sustain themselves. Linda May, a character in both the book and the film, describes the experience of discovering her social security payments were much less than she had anticipated, and turned, like many others, to a nomadic lifestyle finding work across the United States. The positions available to workers such as Linda May or Fern are often back-breaking, exhausting, and poorly compensated. Workampers — an HR-friendly term for nomadic workers — tasked with guarding the gate to a Texas oil field were paid only $125 each day for shifts that lasted round the clock — the workers were only able to sleep in tiny spurts.8 A workamping position training llamas paid $7.50 an hour, but only after a 20-hour/week threshold of unpaid labor was met.9 Even some seemingly benign work can be quite dangerous: workers managing campsites often put in dozens of unpaid hours in a week, and in Bruder’s book, Linda May sustains significant injuries while managing the campsite.

The film is set throughout the American West, luxuriating in wide-open desert landscapes dotted with just a single camper. While the film looks rural, we must understand the work that the nomads undertake as part of an urban economy. Many of the nomads formerly lived in urban regions, but after facing job insecurity and eviction, have taken to life on the road in order to scale back their expenses. In the film, real-life nomadic advice guru Bob Wells encourages his audience to eliminate their housing costs by adopting a nomadic lifestyle. The nomads’ labor in exurban warehouses prepares shipments to appear on the doorsteps of city dwellers. Rural sites of tourism enjoyed by urban vacationers, ranging from national park campsites to amusement parks like Dollywood, often employ older nomadic workers at very low wages.10 The fruit of back-breaking labor – sugar beet harvest – is later consumed by urban and rural alike. 

The centering of whiteness in both Zhao’s film and Bruder’s book paint an incomplete picture of migratory work and its associated exploitations. While the film focuses primarily on white seniors, the agricultural sector relies heavily on a migratory workforce that is made up of mostly undocumented people of color.11 The film begins to gesture towards the ways in which urban life is inextricably linked to rural exploitation, but is held back from mapping this full picture by Zhao and Bruder’s limited cast of characters.

The spectre of Amazon looms over the film’s narrative, critical reception, and even distribution. Over the past two decades, Amazon has consolidated its monopolistic control over digital spaces, physical landscapes, and human labor, largely through controlling the vectors through which products and information travel. This consolidation manifests as a large physical infrastructure of fulfillment and distribution centers like the one Fern works in that have become a dominant feature in the American landscape. It also manifests in the digital sphere in the control of data about third-party sales, which Amazon has notoriously utilized to undercut small businesses attempting to sell on their platform,12 and their cloud computing arm, Amazon Web Services, which controls forty percent of the cloud market.13

 A fair amount of criticism leveled at Nomadland believes that the film centers Fern’s independence and self-reliance but elides the deck of economic hardships stacked against her, especially Amazon’s role in shaping an economy of contingent labor. Some critics take particular issue with a scene towards the beginning of the film in which Fern runs into an acquaintance at a store; the acquaintance asks how work at Amazon is, and Fern replies with a short, clipped statement: “Great money.” To read the scene as an endorsement of Amazon’s working conditions is a misrepresentation. McDormand is a skilled actress, and Fern’s face in this scene belies that things are bleak in the Amazon warehouse; she certainly does not convince her acquaintance that things are going well. We know that Amazon warehouses are dangerous and difficult places to work: from the high rates of COVID-19 amongst warehouse workers, to repetitive stress injuries,14 to management discouraging bathroom breaks in order to meet quotas.15 While Amazon’s distribution centers are dangerous and offer inhumane working conditions, Fern’s claim that the job pays “great money” is probably not untrue for her. Amazon’s $15/hr minimum wage is less than work at other warehouses16 (where a worker like Fern might not be hired) but is more than many of the other similarly dangerous “workamping” positions discussed above. When Fern needs to borrow money from her sister, she says she will repay it after she works at Amazon again in a few months. Given her limited options, work in a dangerous fulfillment center might be one of the least bad opportunities available to a worker like Fern. But Amazon’s $15/hr minimum wage is not something we need to applaud or praise: it also serves Amazon’s self-interest. When Amazon pays a bit better than other options for nomadic workers, it can attract a seasonal workforce of senior citizens who do not feel empowered to demand benefits or unionize. When the busy holiday season is over, Amazon can send away these workers in what they charmingly call a “tail-light parade,”17 a term that obscures the exploitative temporary employment arrangement with celebratory vocabulary.

Beet Harvest Facility in Nebraska. Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

But in the face of exploitation, the film shows the ways in which nomadic workers are able to build networks of aid and support. While we often think of mutual aid as place-based, the nomads build these networks across large distances, sharing tips over the internet for sleeping in a van in an urban area, and good methods for retrofitting a small sedan. This online information-sharing often transforms into real-world meetups, collective gatherings in the desert to share meals and tips for life on the road, and sharing supplies to maintain their aging vehicles on the cheap. Aid also extends beyond teaching and learning. In one scene, Fern’s friend, Dave (played by David Straithairn), is laid up with a flu in his van, and Fern prepares soup on a hot plate and takes his temperature. While scenes like this point to the social bonds and networks that allow this community to care for each other, they also point to the massive economic systems that have rendered this community with neither adequate healthcare nor permanent homes.

In one brief scene Fern visits an RV show with her friends, Swankie and Linda May. Fern attempts to find work, giving her resumé to a vendor who seems distinctly uninterested in receiving a job application. Afterwards, the three women walk into the parking lot to check out a luxury model RV. They ooh and aah over the well-appointed vehicle, with its washer and dryer and glamorous finishings. They laugh, imagining where they might drive together. Such a comfortable life is not a possibility for any of the three of them. They do not have the finances to purchase such a luxury vehicle — later in the film, Fern does not have the money she needs to make repairs to her van. Standing in a luxury RV, the three women gaze across the widening chasm of inequality. Over there, the people who live financially secure lives on the road in large, comfortable, and expensive vehicles. And over here, people who live in cheaply converted vans because they have few, if any, other options. As much as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times may breathlessly detail the lives of new, digital nomadic workers taking on professional-managerial jobs from their RVs, another set of nomadic workers comes from a significantly different vantage point. As much as cities from Tulsa to Savannah attempt to lure newly mobile tech workers with plush financial incentives,18 many migratory workers live in poverty, and certainly are not offered grants to relocate. Most nomadic workers do not take up the lifestyle out of wanderlust or a desire to travel while Zooming into the office; they take up nomadic work because it makes financial sense to move around the country following short-term gigs. 

Nomadland offers a vital corollary to the myth of the new digital nomad. Most nomadic workers do not look like the photogenic tech workers heralded by certain publications. Planners and policymakers should, as much as they consider creating programs to encourage affluent workers to relocate to their cities, also ensure that their cities remain affordable for those who are already living there. These approaches must include deeply affordable housing, expanded social welfare benefits, and retention of working-class industrial jobs. Planners and policymakers must ensure that cities and regions can support working-class families, so they are not forced into the Faustian bargains depicted in Nomadland.


Notes

1.  Charu Suri, “Why Work from Home When You Can Work FROM Barbados, Bermuda or … Estonia?,” The New York Times (The New York Times, August 19, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/19/travel/remote-worker-visa.html.

2. Olivia Rockeman, “Free to Work Remotely, Young Americans Are Covid Road Tripping,” Bloomberg.com (Bloomberg, October 1, 2020), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-01/covid-news-remote-work-lets-young-americans-take-road-trips.

3. Celine Castronuovo, “Amazon Added 9 Delivery Stations in New York City during Pandemic,” The Hill (The Hill, March 4, 2021), https://thehill.com/policy/technology/541596-amazon-added-9-warehouses-in-new-york-city-during-pandemic.

4. Tyler Kendall, “Why New York City’s Homeless Rates Skyrocketed for Single Adults but Dropped for Families during the Pandemic,” CBS News (CBS Interactive, April 29, 2021), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/homeless-new-york-city-adults-families-covid-pandemic/.

5. Elise Gould and Melat Kassa, “Low-Wage, Low-Hours Workers Were Hit Hardest in the COVID-19 Recession: The State of Working America 2020 Employment Report,” Economic Policy Institute, May 20, 2021, https://www.epi.org/publication/swa-2020-employment-report/.

6.  Karen Weise, “’Way Too Late’: Inside Amazon’s Biggest Outbreak,” The New York Times (The New York Times, May 19, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/19/technology/amazon-coronavirus-workers.html.

7. Jasmine Garsd, “Older Workers Worry about the Prospect of Finding a New Job,” Marketplace, October 21, 2020, https://www.marketplace.org/2020/10/20/older-workers-new-jobs-unemployment-retirement-layoffs-hiring-age-discrimination-health-care-training/.

8. Jessica Bruder, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2018), 48.

9.  Ibid., 49.

10.  Christopher Farrell, “Migrant Workers in Recreational Vehicles,” The New York Times (The New York Times, October 21, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/22/your-money/retirement-migrant-workers-recreational-vehicles.html.

11.  Miriam Jordan, “Farmworkers, Mostly Undocumented, Become ‘Essential’ during Pandemic,” The New York Times (The New York Times, April 2, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/02/us/coronavirus-undocumented-immigrant-farmworkers-agriculture.html.

12.  Dana Mattioli, “Amazon Scooped up Data from Its Own Sellers to Launch Competing Products,” The Wall Street Journal (Dow Jones & Company, April 24, 2020), https://www.wsj.com/articles/amazon-scooped-up-data-from-its-own-sellers-to-launch-competing-products-11587650015.

13.  Russell Brandom, “Using the Internet without the Amazon Cloud,” The Verge (The Verge, July 28, 2018), https://www.theverge.com/2018/7/28/17622792/plugin-use-the-internet-without-the-amazon-cloud.

14.   Will Evans, “Ruthless Quotas at Amazon Are Maiming Employees,” The Atlantic (Atlantic Media Company, January 21, 2020), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/11/amazon-warehouse-reports-show-worker-injuries/602530/.

15.  Shannon Liao, “Amazon Warehouse Workers Skip Bathroom Breaks to Keep Their Jobs, Says Report,” The Verge (The Verge, April 16, 2018), https://www.theverge.com/2018/4/16/17243026/amazon-warehouse-jobs-worker-conditions-bathroom-breaks.

16.  Matt Day and Spencer Soper, “Amazon Has Turned a Middle-Class Warehouse Career Into a McJob,” Bloomberg.com (Bloomberg, December 17, 2020), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-12-17/amazon-amzn-job-pay-rate-leaves-some-warehouse-employees-homeless.

17.  Jessica Bruder, “Meet the Camperforce, Amazon’s Nomadic Retiree Army,” Wired (Conde Nast, September 14, 2017), https://www.wired.com/story/meet-camperforce-amazons-nomadic-retiree-army/.

18.  Sarah Holder, “Paying Remote Workers to Relocate Gets a Pandemic-Era Boost,” Bloomberg.com (Bloomberg, June 23, 2020), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-23/cities-are-looking-to-lure-newly-remote-workers.


Kevin Ritter is an urban planner and administrator in New York City. He holds a master’s in urban planning from Hunter College. He currently serves as the Convening Technology Producer for Common Field, and has worked for a range of cultural institutions in New York City.