The death of retail, workers' rights, and pension plans have sent migrant seniors into the arms of Amazon. What does this mean for a generation saddled with debt?
All photos by Jessica Bruder
As online retail has become a way of life, the classic American shopping mall has been presented with seemingly inevitable extinction. Mom-and-pop stores succumbing to big-box competitors is an old story, but these days even retail behemoths like J.Crew, Sears, and Kmart are in trouble. One recent casualty on this front was Toys R Us, which announced last week it was filing for bankruptcy; observers were quick to argue e-commerce was at least one key factor.
Meanwhile, as pensions have increasingly been replaced by 401(k) programs that can run out before death, an untold number of Americans now work until they physically cannot continue to do so. But with brick-and-mortar storefronts on the outs, employment options for low-wage workers are shrinking. What's a retiree supposed to do in order to supplement a measly Social Security check when the local JC Penney shuts down?
According to a new book by journalist Jessica Bruder, their best bet might be joining the shocking number of seniors who travel the country working seasonal odd jobs at places like Amazon's network of warehouses. Bruder took to the road, working undercover at one such facility in Texas and as a sugar beet harvester. She also interviewed scores of elderly, van-dwelling Americans in this line of work who seemed to have been utterly failed by the social contract—even if some of them found perks in their postmodern way of life.
I asked Bruder—who happens to be my former professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism—what she learned during the three years she reported Nomadland documenting the lives of these so-called workampers, and what it all means for the future of work in America. What she said made me fear for a generation that not only is unlikely to enjoy pensions but also has the additional burden of crippling student loan debt.
Here's what we talked about.
VICE: I was tasked with buying a shower curtain today on Amazon, but after reading your book, the thought makes me a bit queasy. For the uninitiated, can you describe the process that's set in motion when an order is placed on the site, and the physical labor involved in completing it?
Jessica Bruder: They've got these warehouses, which they call "fulfillment centers," which to me sounds like Orwellian jargon, all over the country. And when you place an order, it goes through to whichever one is near you and has it. And these warehouses are essentially just huge input/output machines. When I see one when I'm driving past on the highway, they remind me of these giant pigs laying on their sides, with the trucks kind of suckling at them. It's really kind of creepy. So you've got inbound and outbound, all the merchandise comes in on side of the house, and it all goes out on the other side. Essentially, the humans are inside, kind of doing the digestion work. They're unboxing it, getting it on the shelves, and when you want that shower curtain, somebody is going to have to find it.
So what does that entail for the people who work at Amazon, many of whom are seniors?
The weird thing about how Amazon does all of this is that they are using robots to ferry the shelves around. So I'm a warehouse grunt, I'm standing at a station. I am what's called "a picker." I would be holding a handheld scanner gun, like a bar-code reader, and that bar-code reader has a screen on the front, and it would tell me that the next thing I'm gonna pick is this shower curtain for you. And then if i'm in a warehouse with robots, the robots bring me the shelves, and I get up on a ladder, and I shove my hands into the shelves. Any kind of shelf could have just about anything in it. So it could have a dildo, three fishhooks, which you really don't want to stab your fingers on—I've heard stories of that—two guitar picks, a children's book, and your curtain. And then basically I would take it out, take it to where it would get boxed, and then it would go over to the outbound side, where it would go in the mail and go to you.
Amazon markets this kind of work to old people as a positive thing, using language about freedom and flexibility. But why even worry about optics when they're dealing with people who are kind of desperate?
There is so much corrosive shame in our country about not having made it financially. If you walked into the casino and you lost, you're not unlucky, you're a bad person—so people are told by the culture. They're told that they're lazy, they're told that they're stupid, they're told that they're good for nothing. And you know, shame is an incredibly powerful tool for keeping people down.
So what I see out there is a lot of people don't want to say to other people, "Yeah, I'm going to work at Amazon this winter because I'm broke, and I need money." It's a lot easier to say, "I'm going to stay active, I'm going to make friends, I'm going for some camaraderie, and, yeah, maybe I've gotta take a lot of ibuprofen, but that's really a weight loss program, the 15 miles a day of walking I have to do." So in a weird way, I don't blame the people, but it's really creepy. I kind of feel like, to make jobs like this sound like summer camp is just really exploitative, and it's misleading, but it's also capitalizing on the sort of shame people feel and the kind of how they need to spin what's really going on to get out of bed in the morning. I have an Amazon Camperforce newsletter, and the headline reminds me of My Little Ponies. It's "CamperForce: The Value of Friendship."
There's one person in the book who alluded to the fact that that lifestyle kind of gave them—it was uncharacteristically empowering to old women, which isn't a group of people that get to have adventures later in life. Is there any positive aspect to this?
Yeah, no absolutely. It's very complicated, and one of my challenges as a journalist is there are people who read the book, and it's all about adventures, and there are people who read the book and think it's all about the Grapes of Wrath. And the reality is more complicated. The communities that these people have created on the road, I think, sometimes bolster them better than the communities that they had at home.
Did it seem like there was any hope for workampers or Amazon employees unionizing—or is management in pretty strong shape there?
I heard from people I've been following for like four years now that a couple weeks before I got there there had been union organizers in the parking lot, and every morning during what they call Stand Up—which is kind of an announcements meeting with stretches—the managers were warning the employees not to talk the union organizers. And from what I understand, they were using scare tactics, basically, saying, "Look, once you give your name to one of those union organizers, they'll track you for life, you can't get off that list," kind of making it sound like the unions were some Orwellian nightmare. But organizing workampers would be really hard. These people are not in the same place long enough to coalesce and fight. They're there long enough to organize a potluck, but not really to organize an actual group that would better their employment situation.*
What do you think the bigger threat is to our society: the automation of jobs or storefronts closing?
We've been hearing the argument over and over again that the robots are going to take over and that automation is bad, and we're all screwed, but I think automation debate has actually become a proxy for distribution. I have, like, hundreds of newspaper clips of these incredibly off predictions from the 1950s that I'm fascinated with because it's basically people just saying, "Oh my God, the robots are going to do everything and what will we do, because people will be so bored! There will be a crisis of ennui! How will people find purpose?" It wasn't, "How will people eat?"
The one thing they were missing was income inequality—that was what they did not factor in. They couldn't imagine things would get as polarized as they've become. So right now, I don't think automation is the problem. I think what we do in terms of income distribution, as automation continues to evolve and concentrates wealth among those who own the technology and how we handle that—I think that will probably be the bigger issue. Manufacturing has gotten romanticized so much just because those jobs were well paying, and now in short supply, but you know, nobody wants to work at a furnace in a steel plant. We can romanticize those jobs, but if you had a better option, something that's a little gentler on the body, people might choose the latter.
Some people have suggested that the new blue-collar jobs are in computer programming, which I don't really buy, since it takes a particular kind of person to do that. So what do you replace this unskilled labor with that's easier on the body?
Did I tell you what's happening in Japan with exoskeletons? This is fucking crazy.
The population is aging in Japan, and there are some employers whose workers have heavy lifting jobs—and they've started giving them these exoskeletons so that they can lift heavier loads.
In a weird a way, I kind of think this hybridization is what we're going to see in the immediate future. Some people look at it as positive, like, "Oh, it makes things easier on your body," and maybe I'm a bit more cyclical because I think, Oh, wow, you can squeeze even more exertion out of this human piece of meat.
Right. Maybe instead of working to get Amazon workampers exoskeletons, maybe we should be working toward pensions so our elderly can die with dignity.
There are cool uses for exoskeletons, like for people who are injured, and for helping people walk again—like, I'm not anti exoskeleton. But as a way to wring every last bit of energy and productivity out of human meat, that's not pretty to me.
There's actually a more cynical progressive take to all this, which is that tech companies are starting to realize perhaps that if 90 percent of your consumer base is broke, you're not going to have people to sell shit to. I don't think that universal basic income without something that allows for social mobility is a solution. If it creates a subsistence level where people are alive and sheltered and whatever, but there's still no way to better their lot, then that's not good enough.
The other thing I kept noticing in the book that a lot of your characters who work for Amazon might characterize it as an evil company, but they also use it constantly. One woman even self-published her memoir on there!
Yeah, they're exhausted, and they want speedy delivery, and it's the cheapest out there. I mean, Amazon is the perfectly evolved predator for the ecosystem we've created. For the most part, they're staying within the law, unless we revive antitrust, which would be fantastic.
Yeah, especially with Amazon buying Whole Foods and getting into the brick-and-mortar game—how is that not a clear-cut case?
The problem is that the law is so dated, and there is so little willpower to actually enforce it. But monopoly capitalism is really bad for democracy. You know, say what you will about capitalism itself, the whole point of antitrust legislation is that when companies reach a certain size, they can't be competed with any more, and they also, you know, they may become more powerful than the government.
I mean consider the fact that they're an e-tailer, but every outlet that has to sell through them. Amazon takes all the data, cuts the merchants, and actually makes cheaper versions of what they're making. Amazon sells a lot of cloud space, and their clients include CIA and NASA. I mean, it's pretty insidious, they're everywhere.
But the people you've written about can't escape it. They might think that a uniquely massive retail giant is not good for the world at large, but they're stuck because most people can't afford to get a shower curtain anywhere else.
I don't rail on people about—like I'm not militant about people using it. I've used it from time to time, though I'm currently on a fast from using Amazon. But it's like, I kinda feel like sometimes that if people are just more conscious about how they're shopping and what they're doing in general, it's better than if they're trying to be perfect consumers. Sometimes you can spend the extra five bucks, and sometimes you can't. But I'd be a jerk if I blamed the characters in the book for using Amazon. It saves them money, it gets there fast, and they have challenging lives. So you know, bless 'em.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about Nomadland here.
*Update 10/11: An earlier version of this article included an editor's note stating that Bruder contacted Amazon for comment on her book, Nomadland. It has since come to our attention that while the author did reach out to the company about a specific excerpt of the book adapted for another publication, Amazon was not given the opportunity to comment on the book as a whole.
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