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“Keep on using me until you use me up,” sings Bill Withers. But he isn’t talking about people being used by big business. The labor shortages in the news reveal the deep dissatisfaction workers have felt about their jobs and the pitiful compensation that has been their reason for staying. And then the pandemic forced them to stay home and inadvertently reminded them life could be enjoyed. Independence feels good. Old dreams don’t die, but they do dry up…as Langston Hughes wrote in his poem Harlem, “…like a raisin in the sun.” Where is the success surrendering dreams for practicality was supposed to produce?
In the film NOMADLAND, people who have worked hard all their lives find themselves used up in the eyes of corporate America. They’re suitable for part-time, seasonal, benefit-less, manual labor. There is no current American safety net that can sustain them adequately. They’re expendable. And so they travel from temporary job to temporary job in whatever conveyance they can afford, learning to be self-sufficient, learning to let their community and friendships come and go and come again, according to fate. Even a person such as Fern, the character Frances McDormand plays, falls victim to the hole at the bottom of the system, in spite of her varied work experiences and her education (she’d worked as a substitute teacher). When her husband, who had been a lifetime miner, dies, she loses her house and outfits a van for living.
NOMADLAND is not entirely fictional. Many of the characters are playing themselves in their real circumstances—nice people the society doesn’t want any longer. Some can’t fit into society due to PTSD or terminal disease or perpetual grief over loss. They’re independent workers who don’t want charity. They want the autonomy they imagined they’d have in old age. For many of the workers who made the economy run throughout their lives, there is no golden retirement. Workers today are beginning to realize corporate America, often backed by segments of the government, keeps trying to de-fang unions so they can seize higher profits. They pay exorbitant amounts to behavioral scientists to tell them how to persuade workers that giving up what is joyful about being human—healthcare, family time, security—is patriotic.
When the pandemic sent workers home, they had a chance to realize they had been hamsters running on a wheel. Why kill yourself to do a miserable job you hate for wages that keep your family struggling to pay the bills when you know you may end up living in a van, anyway? You take risks with your health, and who cares when you fall? Who will applaud your sacrifices? Your children…who are pursuing their own paths? Recently, a young filmmaker created a documentary called “Duty Free” shown on PBS Independent Lens about his mother who had lost a long-time executive position in hospitality, so she stood to be evicted from her apartment without enough income to preserve her modest way of life. He assigned her to develop a bucket list and used a funding app to collect enough money to help her check off her items. And then, in the end of the film, at 78 years old she had to go back to work part-time as an assistant to someone she had trained. She finally realized how much of life she had missed by being loyal to her corporation.
As many older people fiercely defend the billionaires and corporations that have used them up, they fantasize a return to the way things once were for them—back when a single income financed a good living and employers took care of their own. But the world has moved on, and one day they may choose to become nomads, too.