Five years ago, Susan and Rob Beck moved into an RV, after they were forced to sell their home in upstate New York. Rising property taxes had doubled their monthly housing bill, and Rob didn’t receive his usual bonus at work. Then he lost his job. And neither Rob nor Susan could find work locally.
“Nobody would hire us, not even the Dollar General,” said Susan Beck, 63. “Talk about an eye-opening slap in the face.”
For cash, they donated plasma and took whatever temp jobs they could find. For food and health care, they relied on food stamps and free medical clinics.
Frustrated, the Becks decided to hit the road in their RV. For two years now, they have been moving from one place to another, working temporary jobs. Currently they’re at Strom Thurmond Lake, a campground on the Georgia/South Carolina border owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. They staff the visitor center and gatehouse in exchange for a free RV hookup, including site rental, electricity, propane and laundry. Social Security covers their health insurance and other necessities.
While this path began with financial misfortune, the Becks have learned they enjoy discovering new places and meeting fellow nomads, who’ve worked everywhere from lighthouses to trains to isolated islands. Ignoring criticism from relatives who call them “homeless,” they’ve embraced life on the road.
“We just love it,” said Rob Beck, 63. “We live so simply. We can just pick and go when we want.”
Like the Becks, many older Americans are opting for a nomadic lifestyle. Instead of aging in place, they’re aging anywhere and everywhere: in RVs or vans parked at campgrounds and on federal lands or in short-term rentals through AirBnb. They move from place to place, to the next job or the next adventure. Some do remote work from wherever they are; others move to find seasonal work. Some live nomadically as a way to travel inexpensively in retirement; others found themselves living on the road because of economic hardship.
The lifestyle is enjoying a moment in pop culture, thanks to the 2020 film Nomadland, based on the 2017 book by Jessica Bruder. The movie tells the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow who lives in a cramped van and travels from one seasonal job to another, working long days as a campground host, a packer at an Amazon warehouse, and a day laborer for a beet harvest. Like the book, the movie portrays people who turned to the lifestyle out of economic necessity.
“In a time of flat wages and rising housing costs, [nomads] have unshackled themselves from rent and mortgages as a way to get by,” Bruder wrote. “They are surviving America.”
But many real-life nomads say they live this life by choice. Some even take offense to what they feel is the film’s negative portrayal of the nomadic life.
“It was always my dream to live in an RV,” said Shelley Fisher, 61. She spends her summers “workamping” in California, serving as a gate manager at a KOA campground in exchange for a free hookup and a paycheck; she banks the money and spends her winters relaxing at an RV park in Nevada.
“I love the freedom,” Fisher said. “I like meeting and taking care of people. I even love the driving. The travel is as exciting as the destination.” When moving from one place to another, Fisher parks her RV at roadside rest stops, truck stops or Walmart parking lots.
Amazon hires workers who live in RVs or vans to go where they’re needed during peak times.
Denise Green, 59, and her husband are nomads who work part time and travel inexpensively between gigs. They’ve lived full time in an RV for the past three years. The couple is in good shape financially—they’re both veterans of the corporate world and accumulated a nest egg for retirement. But they don’t want to dip into it yet, so they work for a few months each year, long enough to fund their travels the rest of the year. Currently they’re working at a campground in Valdez, AK; she’s managing the cleaning operation and he handles maintenance. They typically change locations every three to four months.
The work can be grueling. One of the couple’s first workamping gigs was as part of Amazon’s Camper Force. The online retail giant hires workers who live in RVs or vans to travel to where they’re needed, providing extra warehouse staff during peak times.
“Amazon ran us into the ground,” Green said. “We are hard workers. I used to run 100-mile races. But we had to work the night shift and often walked 12-15 miles a night. I don’t know how some of the older retired folks do it.”
But they’ve also enjoyed some relatively easy gigs, like a stint at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Arizona, where they worked in exchange for a free hookup for the RV and had free run of the place after hours.
“I learned a lot about desert plants and wildlife that winter,” Green said.
The nomadic life was also a choice for Susan White, 62, and her husband. College-educated, White worked for Fortune 500 companies but became frustrated with the corporate world. Two years ago, after retiring, the couple sold their home and gave away or sold most of their belongings. They’ve traveled in an RV and worked at campgrounds in their home state of Washington as well as in Florida and Texas. Currently, they’re at an Army Corps of Engineers campground in Texas.
“Having the freedom to pick up and leave is a luxury most people don’t have,” White said. “We miss some physical comforts, but the fun, adventure and experiences outweigh the trappings of traditional happiness. Americans are in debt and overburdened with ‘to do’s.’ I wish I knew about this life when I raised my kids. We were slaves to a high mortgage for a brand-new, five-bed, three-bath home, two cars, braces, ad nauseum.”
A Growing Population
While it’s difficult to find reliable numbers for older Americans who have chosen the nomadic lifestyle, most who live that life believe their numbers are growing. Numerous Facebook groups have sprouted up and continue to grow, such as Workampers (54,000+ members), Full-time RV Living (104,000+) and Full-time RVers over 50 (12,000+).
Harvest Hosts, a membership network that connects RVers with wineries, breweries, farms and other spots that offer free RV parking spots, saw its membership more than double in 2020 to 170,000 members. Ten percent live full time in RVs; 80 percent are over 55.
“Technology has unlocked the ability to do almost everything from your phone,” said Harvest Hosts CEO Joel Holland. The growing availability of wi-fi and cell service, and expanding data caps, make it easy for nomads to stay in touch with family and friends. Websites, social media groups and online booking services allow them to easily find their next job or plan their next adventure from the road.
Job opportunities for nomads seem to be increasing too.
“We’re seeing more help-wanted ads from employers this year than we’ve seen in the last 10 years,” said Jody Anderson Duquette, executive director of Workamper News, the largest resource connecting nomads with short-term job opportunities. She thinks that is due in part to the tight labor market, as well as more awareness about the option of working from the road.
Duquette says most workampers enter the lifestyle by choice. In an informal survey by Workamper News, only 14 percent said they embarked on the lifestyle after a job loss or financial or personal hardship. But Duquette does see several factors leading older adults into workamping. Medical expenses, health insurance and housing costs have skyrocketed in recent years. While previous generations retired with pensions or other resources to lean on, “Most people today are entering into retirement, or the latter half of their lives, with less financial stability,” she said. “There is a need to continue to earn at least some income to support themselves in the life they want to live.”
Nudged by COVID
As a health care insurance agent specializing in Medicare and Affordable Care Act policies, Siobhan Farr, 64, earned most of her annual income during the health care insurance enrollment period, from October to December, from her home base in Dallas. She often traveled during the slow months. Last year, Farr decided to spend a few months exploring Ecuador and arrived in Quito on March 5, 2020. Two days later, COVID-19 locked down the country. Farr stayed in her Airbnb rental for the next 13 months, managing her insurance business remotely. To her surprise, it worked fairly well. That led her to start Digital Nomads Beyond 50, a networking group for older people.
“Because of the pandemic, there are more older people looking at this opportunity of working remotely and traveling,” she said. “They want to continue in their current jobs, or to find a way to combine retirement with part-time remote work.”
Farr represents another segment of the nomadic life—those with “location independent” jobs, such as software engineering or freelance writing, who can work from anywhere with a good wi-fi connection. In contrast to workampers and full-time RVers, digital nomads skew younger—with an average age of 32, according to research by T-Mobile. (When Farr completed a preliminary application for a coworking village—where nomads share living and working space—in Caye Caulker, Belize, she was told she was too old.)
Farr is now living in Mexico City and is energized by the wide range of options before her. She picked a theme song for this new stage of her life: REO Speedwagon’s “Roll with the Changes.”
“You need to have flexibility to do this,” she said.
As Farr learned, the nomadic lifestyle demands an ability to pivot when faced with the unexpected, and resourcefulness when faced with snafus or breakdowns.
“You have to be your own MacGyver,” Fisher said. “If there’s a leak in the plumbing, or the fridge stops working, or a fuse blows, I need to figure out how to fix it. YouTube videos help.”
Most nomads must also adapt to life with fewer creature comforts. Living in an RV or van means coping with small spaces. RVs may have air conditioning and heat, but most don’t handle extreme temperatures well. And most are not equipped with laundry facilities.
“You learn to live with five shirts and five pairs of underwear,” Rob Beck says.
However, many nomads say these occasional challenges and unplanned adventures keep them more engaged and vital as they get older.
“Comfort is the enemy of progress,” said Don Wilks, 60, a Dallas native who’s lived on the road for 20 years. “When you’re traveling, you’re always challenged. You’re always learning something and trying something new, every day.”
Many nomads say that sooner or later, they’re likely to settle down again.
Wilks’s travels have taken him around the world, hopping between hotels, Airbnbs and hostels—and occasionally couch surfing and camping. He spent most of the past year in his Jeep, exploring Wyoming, Montana and Florida.
Palle Bo, 56, says that constant challenge has changed his perception of time. He sold his home in Denmark and began traveling full time in 2016 while working as a “location independent” radio producer, podcaster and travel blogger. Bo lives out of a suitcase, staying in short-term rentals booked through Airbnb, and has visited 95 countries so far.
“When I was in my 30s and 40s, I felt like time was moving faster and faster,” he said. “Time moves slower when I’m traveling. I’m not on autopilot.” Daily chores that most people handle mindlessly—like shopping at a grocery store or doing laundry—often become challenging adventures in unfamiliar places. By living on the road, Bo believes he’s getting more out of life.
Among those nomads who can, many admit that, sooner or later, they’ll likely settle down again in a “sticks and bricks” home.
Originally, Denise Green and her husband planned to stay on the road as long as their health allowed, maybe 10 years. But now they’re looking at a shorter timeline. They miss their five grandchildren, who live in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“I underestimated the craving for some roots,” she said. “I think we’ll come off the road within five years, but we won’t go back to a large home. All I want is a cabin or a cottage and a place for the grandkids to come.”
Freelance writer Mary Jacobs lives in Plano, TX, and covers health and fitness, spirituality, and issues relating to older adults. She writes for the Dallas Morning News, the Senior Voice, Religion News Service and other publications; her work has been honored by the Religion Communicators Council, the Associated Church Press and the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Visit www.MaryJacobs.com for more.