A Disturbing Look at the New Retirement

For an increasing number of American workers, traditional retirement no longer exists. They keep working, often in physically challenging jobs, for as long as they possibly can, simply because they have to. In the August issue of Harper's magazine, journalist Jessica Bruder delves into the hidden world of these older, struggling American workers, many of whom live in RVs, frequently moving to the location of their next job opportunity.

Bruder spent three weeks camping on federal land in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and interviewing members of this itinerant community. They told her what it was like to work at Home Depot for $10.50 an hour while struggling to pay for a $600-a-month trailer, and about traveling to find seasonal jobs shipping packages out of Amazon warehouses or picking fruit. "Aging isn't what it used to be," Bruder observes. U.S. News spoke to Bruder about these workers and what retirement means for them. Here is an edited version her responses:

[Read: How to Ruin Your Retirement Savings.]

How did you first hear about these communities of older workers living in RV parks?

I started to research working RVers about a year ago -- I'd seen short mentions of them in the news -- and got fascinated by the community they'd formed online sharing job tips, advice and moral support, often in the face of financial crises. I wanted to see what that community looked like in the real world and what that could teach us about the fallout from the Great Recession.

Did you know you were going to find such stories of despair when you started your trip?

I worried I might. But you never really know what you'll learn until you show up and talk with people face to face.

You write that people told you they were happy, yet you were still concerned about them. Why do you think they seemed so happy?

People are incredibly adaptable and resilient. I'm a fan of the author Rebecca Solnit, who wrote a book called "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster." Hell, in this case, is the current economy. But people help each other out and find meaning in the kinship they've created. And yes, I'm certain some people were more stressed than they told me. Protecting your vulnerable parts is human nature, too.

[See: 10 Ways to Feel Better About Your Money.]

You found that many older workers are doing what sounds like back-breaking labor, such as working on farms, picking crops or working in Amazon warehouses. How can they physically handle that type of work?

Many can't. I met a bunch of people who had to quit because their bodies just couldn't do it. And for those who kept going, it was still a fight. I met one woman working in an Amazon warehouse who took four ibuprofen pills in the morning and another four at night. I visited with people in RVs that were stocked like mobile apothecaries, with Icy Hot pain relief gel, tubs for soaking tired feet, Epsom salts and bottles of Aleve and Advil.

Why is it that so many older Americans are facing such financial difficulty?

Americans of all ages saw their savings -- and home equity -- vaporize in the Great Recession. Older Americans face other systemic problems, too. The gradual shift that began in the 1980s from pensions to 401(k)s has been a windfall for employers, but a total disaster for workers. For the majority of Americans 65 and older, Social Security is now the single largest source of income, but FDR and the framers of the New Deal never intended the program to fully fund retirement -- it's not built to bear that kind of weight.

[See: 6 Steps to the Retirement Lifestyle You Want.]

What do you think would help the people in your article?

Three words: Expand Social Security. This shouldn't be a divisive issue pitting the old against the young. That doesn't make any sense, because everyone ages. Everyone deserves dignity.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the writer Duncan Black have been especially brave about bringing that idea back into the mainstream. And I'm no financial planner, but deciding on a percentage of each paycheck to squirrel away for the future -- and sticking to it -- buys you options.

Could anyone end up like the woman you start your story with, who can hardly afford a trailer?

If we don't fix the economy, yes. These people aren't other folks' families. They're us.

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