There are a lot of strange, disturbing, bizarre aspects to this long book excerpt that ran on the Wired website: Meet the CamperForce, Amazon's Nomadic Retiree Army.
The article is an excerpt from an upcoming book, by the way, it's not intended to be a stand-alone article on Wired.
The article winds through a long and close examination of what it's like to chase jobs in Amazon distribution centers around the country, camping out in your R.V. at night, getting up at 4:00 A.M. to get to work on time, taking advantage of the "the free generic pain relievers on offer in the warehouse".
You won't be surprised to hear that this is No Fun At All:
Chuck was a picker. His job was to take items down from warehouse shelves as customers ordered them, scanning each product with a handheld barcode reader. The warehouse was so immense that he and his fellow workers used the names of states to navigate its vast interior. The western half was “Nevada,” and the eastern half was “Utah.” Chuck ended up walking about 13 miles a day. He told himself it was good exercise. Besides, he’d met another picker who was 80 years old—if that guy could do it, surely he could.
Barb was a stower. That meant scanning incoming merchandise and shelving it. Stowers didn’t have to walk as far as pickers did, though Barb’s muscles still ached from the lifting, squatting, reaching, and twisting motions that her job required. Much of the strain was mental. With the holiday season nearing, the warehouse’s shelves were crammed, and one day she wandered around the warehouse for 45 minutes—she timed it—looking for a place to stow a single oversized book. Barb murmured, “Breathe, breathe,” to herself to stay calm.
On days off, many of Barb and Chuck’s coworkers were too exhausted to do anything but sleep, eat, and catch up on laundry.
Much of this article won't be a surprise, as this part of America has been documented for decades (see, e.g., More retirees keep one foot in workforce for pay and play and More Help Wanted: Older Workers Please Apply and Older Workers Survey, Working Longer, Younger Employees, Dear Abby).
And, though CNBC rather sunnily quotes an expert on "Aging & Work" as saying that
"We're in a new era of retirement, and we're not going back."the reality, clearly, is much closer the converse of that viewpoint, as bluntly explained by the AARP, or by the Times, which observes that
He added that "most people assume that seniors keep working due to financial necessity, and some do, but the majority do it to keep active and stay alert."
The recruitment efforts for the elderly are reaching a willing audience, as more older people seek work because they need extra cash and health benefits and sometimes because they miss having a 9-to-5 routine with other workers.
I mean: duh. I DO know some people who are, perhaps, deferring retirement because they really enjoy their current job and don't (yet) have enough saved up to be able to retire as they choose.
"They don't want to go fishing; they want to stay sharp," said Jeanne Benoit, principal director of human resources at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, a military research contractor in Cambridge, Mass., that creates prototypes for aerospace projects.
They want to go fishing.
And they don't appreciate you telling them that they aren't sharp, you young whippersnapper.
Anyway, back to the Wired article.
One of the things that drives me crazy about this whole situation, and which seems vastly under-reported, is how people got into these situations in the first place.
And the Wired article provides some fascinating detail in this area.
Chuck still remembers the call from Wells Fargo that brought the 2008 financial crisis crashing down on his head. He had invested his $250,000 nest egg in a fund that supposedly guaranteed him $4,000 a month to live on. “You have no more money,” he recalls his banker saying flatly. “What do you want us to do?”
Bob worked as an accountant for a timber products firm, and Anita was an interior decorator and part-time caregiver. They thought they would retire aboard a sailboat, funding that dream with equity from their three bedroom house. But then the housing bubble burst and their home’s value tumbled. Neither could imagine spending the rest of their lives servicing a loan worth more than their house. So they bought the trailer and drove away. “We just walked,” Anita says. “We told ourselves, ‘We’re not playing this game anymore.’”
Bob blamed Wall Street. When he spoke about his decision to abandon the house, he’d rush to add that, before that moment, he’d always paid the bills on time.
I mean yes, finances are complicated!
But it doesn't take much more than elementary school mathematics to be able to look at a $250,000 "nest egg" and realize that, if you withdraw $50,000 a year, it will only last (wait for it...): 5 years.
Nor should it take much more sophistication to understand that, if your entire plan for retirement is to depend on your house doubling in value so that you can sell it and buy a sailboat, well, you're gambling. You were a professional ACCOUNTANT? And you blamed "Wall Street"?
Now, part of this shame does indeed belong to the bankers and real-estate professionals and others who sold everyone a pipe dream back in the early 2000's.
They were con artists, and a lot of pain was caused by all that speculation, lying, pyramid schemes, and "financial engineering."
But, really, part of this shame is simpler to understand; it seems undeniable that, as a country, we are clearly failing our people.
We should be teaching basic "financial sense" in elementary school.
We should be making retirement savings accounts MANDATORY.
We should be providing universal health care to all. Yes, even if you're not working. Medicare for all.
And otherwise legitimate media organizations like CNBC and The New York Times should be flat-out ashamed of themselves to publish rot about "staying alert" or "pay and play" or "staying sharp" or "missing that 9-to-5 routine."
Call it what it is: elder abuse.