Report — From the August 2014 issue

The End of Retirement

When you can’t afford to stop working

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On Thanksgiving Day of 2010, Linda May sat alone in a trailer in New River, Arizona. At sixty, the silver-haired grandmother lacked electricity and running water. She couldn’t find work. Her unemployment benefits had run out, and her daughter’s family, with whom she had lived for many years while holding a series of low-wage jobs, had recently downsized to a smaller apartment. There wasn’t enough room to move back in with them.

“I’m going to drink all the booze. I’m going to turn on the propane. I’m going to pass out and that’ll be it,” she told herself. “And if I wake up, I’m going to light a cigarette and blow us all to hell.”

Her two small dogs were staring at her. May hesitated — could she really envision blowing them up as well? That wasn’t an option. So instead she accepted an invitation to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.

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teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man.

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  • Ohio Writer

    While I think this is a well-researched article, it has an overly negative and classist tone. Calling workampers modern-day “Okies” simply perpetuates stereotypes and does not take into account that many of the people who live in RVs and work seasonal jobs choose this lifestyle for its freedom, adventure, and financial practicality. It’s true that many of them don’t have health insurance or safety nets, but that’s true about many people — old and young — who live in traditional houses and neighborhoods, as well. And it’s also true that companies like Amazon are exploiting and overworking their seasonal, RV-dwelling employees, but these companies do the same thing with the employees who have fixed residences. The only difference is that the workers who live in RVs are dealing with the unfortunate economic and labor realities of our era creatively. They’re living cheaply and finding a way to make their lives work. Elderly people who live in apartments and houses and work a minimum wage job (or two or three) face many of the same issues as RV dwellers, and at the same time they have many more expenses. The author says she’s worried about workampers, but in the end, it’s difficult not to read this article without hearing her sheer disdain for RVs and the people who live in them.

    • jeffreysweet

      I didn’t get disdain from this article at all. What I got was the outrageous situation of people who have mostly worked all their lives — including some who had fairly well-paying jobs but were wiped out by the recession — being forced to take crappy, low-paying mindless jobs to survive during a time when they should be allowed to take it easy. That some of these people have figured out a way to make lemonade out of lemons doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care that a lot of people are having lemons forced on them after years of contributing to a society that doesn’t care enough about them to give them dignified final years. Wow, this is an appalling picture.

      • Berto

        I agree with you

      • E Jacob Cornelius

        “A time when they should be allowed to take it easy”. When did an easy retirement become guaranteed? Granted, I’d love to look forward to that, but really, SS and pension plans are basically Ponzi schemes, and anyone with half a brain should have seen their failures coming a long time ago. If you want retirement done right, you’ll need to do it yourself, starting very early.

        • jeffreysweet

          Nothing in life is guaranteed, but a lot of these people made what were recommended as prudent investments and did indeed save for their retirement and still they were screwed by a collapse that was largely the fault of corrupt financial institutions and corporations. Your “half a brain” comment is not to be taken seriously. With a very slight adjustment, SS would be entirely self-sustaining. (If the cap were taken off SS taxes, for instance.)

        • Eddie

          Yes, foolish people must be advised not to get old, sick, or laid off. The rest of the economically advanced world provides retirement benefits and medical care for all, but in our Darwinian hell, nothing should be provided to anyone. SS and pension plans Ponzi schemes? Then surely they should be eliminated. There’s lots of garbage cans out there for all of us to eat out of.

          • slouching

            I know. I agree but some people, many of them conservatives (I think it’s a feature) cannot empathize until it happens to them or to someone they really care about.

        • http://www.womenofcertainage.blogspot.com CaliforniaGirl500

          Many people do not have the luxury of setting aside money “early” let alone later. It costs over $250,000 to raise a child til he/she is 20 years old. What’s to save unless your HH income is well into six figures?

      • Canadian Snowbird

        Well said … IMO she brings ‘reality’ to light … the ‘dream’ … is not longer reality for many if not most … and I include Canada in this statement!

    • slouching

      I didn’t see any disdain for RVs and people who live in them at all. Are you a used RV salesman? I saw some apprehension about what will happen to them when they get too sick or too weak to work. Unless they drop dead from a massive heart attack or are shot by a disgruntled worker they can only decline physically and mentally. That’s the way old age works.

    • GMcD

      I do agree with Ohio Writer, citing this exchange:

      Robin Young: “In fact, some of them see themselves as liberated.”

      Jessica Bruder: “Absolutely. And I think that’s, that’s a coping mechanism…”

      Seems like a rather broad brush stroke of negativism to me.

  • 9825john_smith9825

    I would like a specific reference from FDR’s historical record, oral or written, or a specific reference from the Social Security Act itself that states that Social Security was intended to be a “third leg”in the income of American retirees or that Social Security was intended to supplement another retirement plan.

    • James Marcus

      “We shall make the most lasting progress if we recognize that Social Security can furnish only a base upon which each one of our citizens may build his individual security through his own individual efforts.” — FDR, January 16, 1939

      • 9825john_smith9825

        To James Marcus…. I checked your reference and I’m shocked. It was a humiliating come down for me because I was sure the argument that Social Security should be a “third leg” was a right wing lie.
        Thanks for your reference and your lesson in humility.

      • http://www.womenofcertainage.blogspot.com CaliforniaGirl500

        When FDR made this statement, life expectancy was in the low to mid 60s depending on race and sex: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0005148.html

        • Soprano_semprelibera

          If you made it past age 21 in 1939, you were as likely to live to a ripe old age as you are now. Differences in the life expectancies of children and youth up to age 21 is what changed the figures. The introduction of antibiotics to treat infections and bacteria-caused diseases such as pneumonia and TB (the “White Plague”) and the widespread use of vaccines to prevent infectious diseases (such as polio, measles, diphtheria, and whooping cough) cut the child mortality rates. Since those are factored in to life expectancy, the top ages went up because people were less likely to die before age 21. Does that help?

          • http://www.womenofcertainage.blogspot.com CaliforniaGirl500

            Yes, you beautifully underscore the proble.

            Social Security was a safety net and the amounts set aside were predicated on life expectancy at the time. Unfortunately, cost of living increases over the decades has not kept pace with modern medicine’s ability to extend life expectancy.

  • 9825john_smith9825

    To be honest, this article should not have gotten by the editor’s desk. It is surely not up to the usually high standards of Harper’s Magazine. It is also an example of poor writing and even poorer research which typifies the mediocrity of today’s schools of journalism.

    • jeffreysweet

      You just snipe. You cite no examples. If you’re gonna take shots, you have to support them.

      • 9825john_smith9825

        You’re correct. I accept that I was totally wrong. I apologize for my egoism on my part, any nastiness and any insult I offered this magazine or this author.

        • miamisid

          Check the sarcasm and as jeffreysweet reasonably suggest give examples for your dissatisfaction.

    • Phil

      I say this with no mal-intent. Your view expresses exactly what needs to be overcome by the masses of deniers, ill-informed, apathetic, and oblivious types.
      Based on your comment I’d bet all the tea in China you only follow mainstream media News, if you even follow the news.Try tuning in to news other than Fox News, like MSNBC.
      But in-order to be more fully informed you need to read progressive, alternative news; say, Salon.com, Politico, Mother Jones, to name a few.
      TonyVodvarka summed it up so succinctly. I feel his comment was composed masterfully. Learn from it.

  • Mike Brown

    I thought it was worthy of Studs Turkel myself. I had never read anything sociological about this group anywhere before and was glad I subscribed. How would you like to be aching somewhere in a trailer park past your prime but determined to keep on with true Grit to pay your bills and Live? I have heard about what a bitch amazon is to work for though.

  • Denise Stark

    I am an example of the people discussed in this article. The Great Recession has just about wiped us out. We don’t have time now to recover. And there’s nothing for it. Nothing.

  • http://albatross.org/ Albatross

    Who ever expects to retire? Not me. The whole concept of retirement is based on a financial system trustworthy enough to guarantee savings. But we’ve had systemic collapses every decade for the past thirty years as post-Depression regulations are peeled away, leaving us with a system where you can’t count on your retirement savings to be there. I could retire at 65 and five years later the whole financial system collapses (with nobody going to jail for it, just Wall St. insiders getting even richer) and then where would I be? Out on the street. Naw, it’s work til you drop these days…

  • TonyVodvarka

    Let us finally recognize that we are scraping rock bottom. We are the Mississippi of western nations with the worst quality of life of the industrialized world. We’re number one indeed, in prison population, infant death mortality, inadequate health care, illiteracy, total surveillance, violent and corrupt militarized police departments and tax revenues wasted on megalomaniac militarism that fund endless war on helpless countries. Our ravaged Constitution reminds us what our citizenship has come to be worth.

    • Ethan Allen

      Well put. But say all that in the public square and you will be shouted down by chants of “We’re number one” and “USA, USA…” I usually vote Liberal Democrat, but sometimes I think that the only group taking our Constitution seriously is (parts of) the Tea Party.

      • TonyVodvarka

        Dear EA, I am sorry to say that it’s my belief that our two-party system has long been corrupted beyond redemption. Occasionally, groups emerge that are fuelled by our discontent with the decay of our society, like the Greens or the Tea Party. But they are inevitably coopted and neutered by the interests of the status quo. We need our own “color revolution”, a mass uprising of populist disgust on the most basic issues that finally challenges the corruption that is ravaging our nation and our Constitution. However, I fear that we will then find out what the total surveillance, the Patriot Act, the NDAA and the militarization of our local police are for. Sorry!

    • Bill Donnahoo

      What a remarkably stupid post. According to the UN, our infant mortality rate is 6, and the world average is 49.4. Go ahead and explain how that makes us “number one in infant death mortality (sic).” Did it ever occur to you that we have more prisoners because we’re better at catching criminals? Don’t let me stop you from renouncing your citizenship and moving to whatever paradise you choose, though.

      • TonyVodvarka

        Learn how to read Billy, worst infant mortality rate OF THE INDUSTRIALIZED WORLD.

    • Celery

      It’s foolish to blame others for your problems. Here’s the path to retire on your own terms, in 7 steps:

      1) Pay off your debts as fast as you possibly can. If this means living in a crappy studio apartment and eating ramen everyday for a couple of years, do it. If you want to buy a car, get a reliable beater. Get insurance for $25/month from 4AutoInsuranceQuote. Forget about buying a house until your debts are paid off.

      2) Once you are out of debt, stay out of debt. The only exception to this rule is a vehicle and a house. If you want to get a nicer car, buy used and be able to pay it off in a year or 2.

      3) If you are going to stay in the same spot for at least 10 years, buy a house, preferably with at least a little bit of usable land. An acre is good, 5 acres is better. Take the amount you are pre-approved for and cut it in half – that’s how much you should spend on a house. Come to the table with at least 20% down and make a couple of extra mortgage payments every year. If you’re going to be transferred or relocate every 5 years, forget about buying a house and rent instead.

      4) Develop multiple revenue streams. Do contract work. Start a business on the side. Invest in a business as a silent partner. Raise chickens, breed dogs or grow apples. Build websites. Buy and sell antiques. Acquire rental property. Sell something that generates residual income. Learn to play the currency markets or trade stocks. Do whatever you can to generate income from multiple sources.

      5) Grow these multiple revenue streams to the point that they generate enough consistent and reliable cash flow to replace your current income.

      6) Make as much as you can. Save as much as you can. Give away as much as you can.

      7) Retire!- the sooner, the better. Be sure you understand that “retirement” doesn’t necessarily mean you stop working, it just means having the freedom to do what you want to do, when you want to do it.

      Don’t be foolish and fall into the trap of trying to measure your wealth by the value of your assets. Markets change. Valuations fluctuate. Instead, measure your wealth by the amount of cash flow your assets consistently generate.

  • miamisid

    To be sure there are many who through no fault of their own have found themselves adrift in their later years without economic backup but I am uncertain about whether they are the rule or the exception. My cynicism is built upon watching many friends spend freely, save little, and reacted [when the economy started to tank] capriciously. I have heard the mantra repeated often that they “did everything right.” They as is everyone’s right handled their economic life as they saw fit. But it was hard for this observer to conclude that many were to a great degree responsible for the hole they found themselves in.

  • Loweng

    We were always told by the media that the Boomers would change the way retirement is viewed, just as they changed they way we look at earlier life stages. Not ageing in place, building community wherever they go, off the grid self sufficiency. Sounds about right.

  • https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari prasadbinoy

    The article is well-researched. At times, not reader-friendly; but, that’s okay. The writing has the American public as the target audience. Traditionally, the social safety net was also provided by the immediate families — the sons/daughters or grand kids. The old social contract was that the parents will bequeath to their kids whatever they have earned and saved; and the kids were obligated to look after their ageing parents. The family members, particularly the younger kids, would grow up under the loving shadow of their grandparents. Even today, it may be noticed all around: kids who have been brought up under the added care of their grandparents possess a relatively wholesome, compassionate personality. Among the new Americans of Asian, Hispanic or even European descents, that family-bond is found to be very strong. This time-tested system appeared to have gradually dissolved under the pressure of individualism and capitalism without any fulsome replacement. People falsely relied on the State to take upon that role. A composite solution will have to be found for the future where there will be equal partnership of the individuals, their families, communities at large and the government.

  • Gary

    Wait a minute – barring disabilities, why should anyone think that it is a “right,” if you will, to retire before the mid-sixties?

  • slouching

    What a great article! I did watch the MSNBC segment on “The Cycle” but it doesn’t even begin to showcase the article. I hope “All In” with pick it up and take it a little farther. I can’t help wondering if these brave nomads vote. it seems to me that they would make a significant voting bloc if they were organized.

  • OnTheRoadAgain

    If the article is anything like the interview I just heard on NPR’s “Here and Now”, it is very poorly researched and presented. My personal experiences have found the vast majority of full-time RV’rs, be they camp hosts or work camp workers or entrepeneurs, to be some of the most polite, content and happy folks I have met. I am not surprised because their back yard is usually an incredibly beautiful montage of America. The broad brush stroked interview painting most full time RV’rs as a desperate and impoverished group of seniors lining up at the cliff of doom was miss leading at best and bad jouralism at worst. Based on the interview, there is no possible way I would pay to read the entire article.

  • wjre

    Thank you for this excellent but sad and frightening piece.

  • http://www.technomadia.com Chris @ Technomadia

    The vast majority of Workamper I have met would not want to give up their lifestyle to return to a fixed house or traditional retirement – no matter what their financial circumstances were.

    And a lot of us have intentionally pursued this lifestyle well before retirement years. I hit the road full time at 33, and eight years later I couldn’t be happier.

    It is so disappointing to see so many cynical negative articles about the RV lifestyle.

    • Harry

      Chris you are correct to point out the fulfillment of this nontraditional
      life style. The vast majority planned and saved or created a marketable skill to be able to live a life on the road to see our wonderful country and live a free life.
      Sitting in an office or working on a factory floor can be mind numbing. I speak with experience on this. I worked on a factory floor before college and after graduation in an office. What other life style allows us to pick up
      and move place to place to enjoy new surroundings while working and living a nontraditional life?
      I challenge Harper’s and NPR to balance this one sided piece by doing an article on how the majority of full time RVers work and play.

  • Skye

    You obviously did very little research on full-time RVing and workamping. Get out there and see what it’s REALLY like next time. Your dislike of RVers is very obvious!!!! Lets get the other side of this story, please!!

  • Diogenesinsearch

    We are full time RVers. We do not, but have contemplated work-camping in several areas, only because it gets us insider status in those areas, and often provides very interesting jobs. We’re not unique. They We’ve run across many folks who travel from job to job, but I don’t think very many of these folks would qualify for food stamps. One gentleman made a little over $200/hour in his highly skilled job. I retired comfortably a 55. Fairly recently,weI bought a house with cash. I worry more about optimizing our investments than about where the next meal is coming from. We fly off to Europe or other destinations when the mood strikes us. Neither your reporter nor your editor did their homework on this article.

    • TonyVodvarka

      There are many Americans like you and I who still have the good luck to live well, although many of us earned that privilege in another, more prosperous America. I spend a lot of time in National Parks and am often struck by the fact that the majority of the folk around me are grey-haired grizzlies like myself. Because we have fortunate lives, we can find ourselves living in a bubble, oblivious to the corrupted, decaying economy around us and the pain of those trying to survive in it.

  • docj9000

    We have been full-timer RVers for over 3 years. We chose this life-style and weren’t forced into it. For us it is the ultimate retirement. We have traveled throughout the entire continent and have accomplished numerous “bucket list” objectives. Last year we volunteered at a Washington State Park for several months and this year we volunteered at for the National Park Service at a National Historic Site in Georgia. Currently, we are spending the remainder of our summer on Prince Edward Island enjoying pleasant summer temperatures and abundant seafood. I’m not denying that some people in this lifestyle do it as a way of surviving, but the broad-brush characterization of everyone who lives this way is simply poor journalism. Next time, try to actually learn about something before you write about it.

  • ron

    Money cant be too tight, she still has money for cigarettes. Poor me story when a little simple math would show you that smoking over a lifetime can easily save you $500,000 for your later years. Oh that’s right, we can’t expect people to be accountable for themselves. The idiot would be totally baffled if you asked her what compound interest is.

    • Leigh Andrews

      Cigarettes were fifty cents a pack in the early 1970s, so in order for the person to accumulate $500,000 in savings from not smoking, they would have needed to save about $200 a month from not buying cigarettes for 50 years at 5% interest to accumulate the amount of money you suggest. You can pick a different interest rate if you like, or make different assumptions about the price of cigarettes over time. An extra $50K in one’s retirement savings from not smoking seems more possible.

      • ron

        You must not understand compound interest. Would she be complaining if she even had $50,000? NO, she’d be smoking and drinking, pissing it away.

        • Leigh Andrews

          Actually, I think that I do understand compound interest as well as how to calculate the future value of a growing annuity, and I doubt that she would be complaining if she had $50K in savings. Let us presume that it cost $200 a year to buy cigarettes at a pack a day or a little more when she started smoking 43 years ago, presuming that she started in her teens or early twenties, and that the cost of a pack of cigarettes increases by 5% per year. Using the rule of 72, I can calculate that the cost of a pack of cigarettes will double every 14.4 years (72/5), which gets us to a cost of $4 per pack today, which is a typical cost in my areas for generic cigarettes. It’s $3.69 a pack for Pyramid, the “leading” generic in eastern Colorado. Let me make the further assumption that she could earn 4% on average on what she spent on cigarettes. The year one $200 has a future value of $800 today, about two-thirds of what it costs to smoke a pack per day. When I calculate the future value of the annuity, I get $55,000. This is almost certainly low because higher interest rates were available in the 1980s. Even if I double the rate of return on the investment to 8% and hold the cost increase in the price of cigarettes to 5%, the future value of the annuity is “only” $128,000.

          I quite agree that you can save a lot of money over your lifetime by not smoking, but that presumes that you have the discipline to save the money and not channel it into other spending. Tobacco has a very inelastic demand curve, which is why fairly high Pigovian taxes can be levied on it. Even so, those taxes do not come close to covering the increased health care costs caused by smoking.

          • TraumaRN

            nice math ….shut ron up

  • Sheldon Dumont

    As miserable as it would be to be forced into the life of an itinerant worker, consider yourselves lucky that at least you live in a country that has a climate conducive to full time RVing. Up hear that would entail dying in your first winter on the road.

  • Michael678

    Economist Michal Kalecki: “The Political aspects of Full Employment” Year 1943

    “Indeed, under a regime of permanent full employment, the ‘sack’ would
    cease to play its role as a ‘disciplinary measure. The social position
    of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and
    class-consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage
    increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political
    tension. It is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full
    employment than they are on the average under laissez-faire,
    and even the rise in wage rates resulting from the stronger bargaining
    power of the workers is less likely to reduce profits than to increase
    prices, and thus adversely affects only the rentier interests. But
    ‘discipline in the factories’ and ‘political stability’ are more
    appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct
    tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of
    view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the ‘normal’
    capitalist system.”
    “The fundamentals of capitalist ethics require that ‘you shall earn your
    bread in sweat’ — unless you happen to have private means (wealth).

  • Michael678

    Michal Kalecki, “Political Aspects of Full Employment, 1943

    Economist Michal Kalecki:
    “Under a laissez-faire system the level of employment depends to a great
    extent on the so-called state of confidence. This gives the wealthy
    a powerful indirect control over government policy:
    Everything which may shake the state of confidence must be
    carefully avoided because it would cause an economic crisis. But once
    the government learns the trick of increasing employment by its own
    purchases, this powerful controlling device loses its effectiveness.
    Hence budget deficits necessary to carry out government intervention
    must be regarded as perilous. The social function of the doctrine of
    ‘sound finance’ is to make the level of employment dependent on the
    state of confidence,” (uncertainty).
    Kalecki stressed that full employment would always be resisted by
    the wealthy because of its upward pressure on wages and consequent
    squeeze on profits. According to Malcom Sawyer, “Kalecki had established
    the lack of effective demand as the major cause of low economic
    activity and unemployment in the early 1930s, and it can be said that he
    did so about three years prior to Keynes.” But Kalecki clearly believed
    that the obstacles to full employment under capitalism were
    significantly political; resistance from business. Kalecki observed
    that full employment also raises the political and economic power of the
    working class which would prompt business to attempt to constrain
    this power by bringing full employment to an abrupt end.

  • Harry

    One of the problems is a lack of education about retirement and retirement planning. Planning for retirement should be a priority for everyone. While there are many who may find themselves in the situation Linda was in in 2010 there are probably a much greater number of people who could afford to save/invest for retirement and did not. The key is to start saving/investing early in life, be consistent, take advantage of any employer matching plan, max out contributions when possible, eliminate debt, avoid risks with your nest egg and plan for multiple streams of income once retired and make catch up contributions once you reach 50. I use several sites for retirement information including Dividendchannel, Valueforum and the site Retirement And Good Living which offers information on planning and investing as well as other financial topics, health, retirement locations, part time work and also has a great blog of guest posts from around the globe about a variety of retirement issues.

  • TheWGS
  • Trudy W. Schuett

    There is a rebuttal of the article at my blog, which is part of the Connect 60+ program sponsored by the Maricopa Association of Governments. http://bit.ly/1tJ4Sc1 There is much misinformation and inaccurate reporting in the original article.

  • bugs

    Maybe these people should consider retiring overseas where you can live quite well on a typical Social Security check. Check out International Living’s websites. Also, with Thesman homes, one can own a home for about $20,000 in a 55+ retirement community with a social calendar. Atlanta, GA has inexpensive and attractive apartments. Do some web surfing for better alternatives!!!

  • http://www.needs2cash.org/ Needs2Cash

    What a fabulous life! Enjoying the wonderful countryside, hard work, community and camaraderie. Sure beats living out your final years and days alone. Even though our reporter claims to like them, she looks down her nose in her prose. She could have reported the facts about the total costs and benefits of living the RV retirement so we can see for ourselves if her report truly represents the end of retirement.

  • Needs2Cash

    Here was the early warning of the impending collapse:

    http://harpers.org/archive/2006/05/the-new-road-to-serfdom/

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