Report — From the August 2014 issue

The End of Retirement

When you can’t afford to stop working

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Aging isn’t what it used to be. In an era of disappearing pensions, wage stagnation, and widespread foreclosures, Americans are working longer and leaning more heavily than ever on Social Security, a program designed to supplement (rather than fully fund) retirement. For many, surviving the golden years now requires creative lifestyle adjustments. And for those riding the economy’s outermost edge, adaptation may now mean giving up what full-time RV dwellers call “stick houses” to hit the road and seek work.

May is a member of that tribe. Many of her peers describe themselves as retired, even if they are obliged to keep working well into their seventies or eighties. They call themselves workampers, travelers, nomads, and gypsies, while history-minded commentators have labeled them the Okies of the Great Recession. More bluntly, they are geriatric migrant labor, meeting demands for seasonal work in an increasingly fragmented, temp-driven marketplace. And whatever you call them, they’re part of a demographic that in the past several years has grown with alarming speed: downwardly mobile older Americans.

“We’re facing the first-ever reversal in retirement security in modern U.S. history,” Monique Morrissey of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., told me. “Starting with the younger baby boomers, each successive generation is now doing worse than previous generations in terms of their ability to retire without seeing a drop in living standards.”

That means no rest for the aging. Nearly 7.7 million Americans sixty-five and older were still employed last year, up 60 percent from a decade earlier. And while 71 percent of Americans aged fifty to sixty-five envision retirement as “a time of leisure,” according to a recent AARP survey, only 17 percent anticipate that they won’t work at all in their later years.

Of course, some older laborers remain in the workforce to stay busy and socially engaged. But most lack the luxury of choice — and since many of the regular jobs eliminated since 2008 will never come back, the seasonal work available to RV dwellers becomes even more tempting. There’s a national circuit extending from coast to coast and up into Canada, a labor market whose hundreds of employers post classified ads on websites with names like Workers on Wheels and Workamper News. As compensation, some offer only a version of bed and board — a place to park, with hookups for water, electricity, and sewage — while others pay an hourly wage.

1 Some of these workampers made national headlines in 2010, when the U.S. Department of Labor claimed their employer, Gate Guard Services LP in Corpus Christi, had misclassified them as independent contractors rather than employees and therefore owed them $6.2 million in back pay. A federal judge later dismissed that order.

Depending on the time of year, these geriatric migrants may be summoned to roadside stalls selling Christmas trees, Halloween pumpkins, or Fourth of July fireworks. They’re sought to pick raspberries in Vermont, apples in Washington, and blueberries in Kentucky. They give tours at fish hatcheries, take tickets at NASCAR races, and guard gates at Texas oil fields.1 They maintain hundreds of campgrounds and trailer parks from the Grand Canyon to Niagara Falls, recruited by private concessionaires along with the U.S. Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers. They staff many of the nation’s prime tourist traps, from Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park in Tennessee to Wall Drug, the kitschy roadside mall in South Dakota with its eighty-foot-long concrete brontosaurus and animatronic singing cowboys.

Linda May at her camp in the desert outside Ehrenberg, Arizona

Linda May at her camp in the desert outside Ehrenberg, Arizona

And then there is the annual sugar-beet harvest. The last week of September, the American Crystal Sugar Company musters hundreds of RV dwellers to Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota. Weather permitting, they work day and night in twelve-hour shifts. What they get in return is a starting wage of twelve dollars an hour plus overtime, along with the standard parking space. American Crystal, which has been losing seasonal laborers to the booming oil fields of the Bakken formation, hopes to import 600 workampers this fall, and a recent recruitment flyer invites them to “Be Part of an ‘Unbeetable’ Experience!”

“It was cold. It was snowy. It was wet,” recalled Gretchen Erb, a sixty-nine-year-old widow who lives full-time in a 1999 Fleetwood Bounder RV. Assigned the overnight shift in Minnesota two years ago, she stood outdoors in subfreezing temperatures to collect paperwork from truck drivers and “take samples” — i.e., to fill and lift thirty-pound sacks of produce. Another worker, sixty-two-year-old Brian Gore, described driving a Bobcat loader with a broken-off door during the 2013 harvest and getting pelted with sugar beets — including one the size of a grapefruit — that flew off a malfunctioning conveyor belt. He compared the experience to being strafed by “an automatic potato gun.”

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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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