The merits of capitalism aren’t usually top of mind when you’re scrabbling to make ends meet. Choosing to juggle a full-time job plus a couple smaller gigs on the side is more about surviving an economy that can leave people exhausted and wondering in bed at night why it’s so hard to get ahead.
The discouraging reality is built on decades of small social, political, business, and labor changes that, piled together, have pushed some Americans to forego conventional living arrangements and try their hand at “wheel estate.”
One by one, scrappy individuals have turned in house keys and adapted their vehicles, joining a growing subculture of nomads and van-dwellers who travel the nation working online or in temporary jobs for companies like Amazon. Many are older or retired but lost their retirement savings in the Great Recession. More than a few find it difficult to rejoin the traditional workforce.
Derived from photo courtesy Michelle
The movement is increasingly fueled by younger itinerants who both live and work in their vehicles in order to save money for future endeavors.
It’s a phenomenon highlighted in Jessica Bruder’s eye-opening 2017 novel Nomadland, which follows a number of unhoused people as they crisscross the nation working in sugar beet factories, national forests, and Amazon warehouses. Nomadland was released as a motion picture in February.
The trend was also addressed on a deeper level by University of London professor Guy Standing, who extends the movement across the globe as the rise of the precariat—an emerging class of people who face financial insecurity, moving in and out of precarious work that provides little meaning to their lives.
A play on proletariat—workers whose value lies in their labor power—Standing writes that the precariat includes millions of people doing online piecemeal jobs or temporary work in the rapidly growing global gig economy.
Washington State University Carson College of Business associate professor Kristine Kuhn studies the gig economy and says over the last decade, technology has triggered huge growth in online platforms like Uber, Task Rabbit, and Upwork, which offer short-term jobs ranging from driving and delivery, photo tagging, home repairs, and moving furniture to accounting, graphic design, and writing.
Although gig work offers flexibility and some freedom to be your own boss, it comes at the cost of worker protections and a stable and predictable income.
Kuhn says that although exact numbers are hard to pin down, the platform movement has now grown so massive, it is beginning to disrupt workplace norms and trigger changes in public policy and employment regulations around the world.
In the United States, however, the subculture of precariat van-dwellers and car-based nomads remains largely under the radar.
“It sounds like the Dust Bowl all over again,” says Jennifer Sherman, WSU associate professor of sociology. “People are escaping places they can’t afford only to be exploited by some new sector in a new place and then, they move on when they can’t afford to live there either.”
Derived from photo courtesy Jennifer Sherman
Sherman says the American mythology of retiring and traveling the country in an RV is built on the romanticism of the road and RV culture. But it was always meant to be a leisure activity, not a way of life.
“Living in a vehicle and being an itinerant worker sounds like a really great adaptation to terrible circumstances,” she says. “But it’s not a sustainable one.”
That’s something Michelle, who has traveled 30,000 miles over the last two years, is trying to determine for herself. During a phone call last January, the self-professed professional vagabond agreed to share a few details from her peripatetic lifestyle. Due to some sensitive topics, we use only her first name.
Michelle, age 56, was employed at WSU for five years before going on the road full time in 2019. She says, at the time, life just hadn’t been working well and she was ready for a change. She didn’t like her job or being tethered to house payments or doing the same thing day after day. So, finally, she loaded her 2015 Jeep Wrangler Sport with three layers of emergency supplies and an inverter box for charging electronics and put the wheels in motion.
“I’m currently working at Big Bend National Park in Texas on a six-month seasonal contract,” Michelle says. “It’s a dark sky area—very remote and quiet. I’m enjoying exploring the desert on a deeper level.”
While she’s happy with this gig and even considering a longer stay, some of her earlier experiences were a little less homey.
“Last March, I had just begun working as a shuttle driver at the Snow Mountain Ranch in Colorado,” she says. “I got free lodging, meals, and activities but it only lasted two weeks as COVID hit and we all got kicked out.
“I thought, ‘Shoot, what do I do now?’ I had a job booked in Minnesota in April, so I drove up to Kenosha, Wisconsin, and got hired at the Amazon fulfillment center. It’s a giant warehouse where packages get sorted, scanned, repacked, and loaded onto trucks—thousands of packages are whirling above your head on conveyor belts.
“They tell you you’re signing up for a physical job—up to 8–10 miles of walking a day,” says Michelle. “I chose jobs like loading and unloading trucks and I ended up working as much overtime as my mind and body could stand. They pay $17 per hour and $34 per hour overtime.
“Amazon served a purpose; I saved some money,” she says. “Then I drove to my next job in Minnesota where I worked through September as an outfitter at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.”
Michelle’s Jeep is too small to sleep in, so she usually sets up a tent camp at each new gig, which fits well with her lifelong love of camping, hiking, and spending time in beautiful natural areas. Occasionally, the weather can be daunting.
“I can’t do high winds or the tent will collapse. I went through a really raucous storm in North Dakota; it scared the pants off of me,” she says. “The cold can also be a problem, as could a hurricane.”
The question Michelle encounters most often on the road is, “Aren’t you afraid?”
“I’m no spring chicken, I don’t have a boyfriend or a dog,” she says. “But when people ask if I’m traveling alone, I say yes. Some people lie and put out extra shoes by the door. I think if you’re afraid, you need to address the thing that scares you.
“I’ve always been a little nontraditional and not very approachable. But I’m not naïve, I know I could still be targeted.”
To that end, Michelle has armed herself with two concealed carry permits, a 9mm pistol, and a Smith & Wesson .357. She’s done self-defense training, jujitsu, and knows how to kickbox.
“Twice I was in a situation where I was afraid,” she says. “But it was just my imagination. One night in Arkansas, I was at a free campground on a back road and everyone else left. I was alone and it hit me, ‘I’m out here by myself’ and I felt really small and vulnerable. But nothing happened and later the other campers returned.”
Michelle says her biggest challenge is getting health care. She’s struggling with a few health issues and has insufficient insurance coverage.
“I live and work amongst fairly low-trained, less educated people. Many don’t have a lot of life skills or resources. Nobody can get health care,” she says. “Then, when they do, they’re run through the clinics like cattle. People with higher incomes can see whomever they want. But the people working on their cars, nannying their kids, or cleaning their houses can’t get access to that. That really burns my toast.
“When you live like I do, you live a lie,” she says with frustration. “I rent a mailbox in a small town but I don’t have a permanent residence. I’m technically homeless so I have to lie to get stuff like a driver’s license or car tabs. If you’re homeless, you can’t vote as you have to sign an affidavit saying you live at a specific address. So, I didn’t vote.
“You’re not allowed to be homeless in this country and you just can’t live a life if you are. We don’t have national health care, national libraries, gun permits, or driver’s licenses. You always have to affiliate somewhere.
“To be honest, I don’t know how long I will continue being a vagabond,” Michelle says. “It’s nice to be able to cook in the house the park provides for me—it was always cans and boxes on the road. I’ve created a new narrative for my life and I’m pretty proud of that. I don’t think I can go back to a conventional life again.”
Brian Siler x’14 had just graduated from Gonzaga University and found himself a bit at loose ends.
One morning, he awoke with Tom Petty’s song “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” running through his mind. A couple days later, he got in his car and took off for California, planning to visit his sister.
Derived from photo courtesy Brian Siler
“Besides the song’s obvious reference to marijuana, I took it to be about a guy in his twenties with the years ticking by and he’s not doing anything with his life,” Siler, 25, says from his family home in Pullman. “It was a pivotal moment for me.”
He spent his first night in the car in Ashland. “I was wondering if I should sleep in a hotel or my car and decided, ‘Screw it, I’ll sleep in my Camry and see what that’s like,’” says Siler.
“I parked downtown in an artsy district and wondered if I could sleep there. But I had no window coverings and worried someone might think I was drunk or dead and try to break the window and call police.
“So, I drove around for two hours and got very paranoid,” Siler recalls. “I considered going out into the country but when you’re alone out there, no amount of Cat Stevens helps.”
Finally, around midnight, he found a tiny street that allowed parking on the Southern Oregon University campus. “It was warm, so I cracked the window but got paranoid again thinking what if some weirdo came by and threw up through the crack,” Siler says. “At first, your brain is telling you everything scary that could happen but that faded after the first week.”
Eventually he learned the rules of counterculture car sleeping, such as spending nights in Walmart parking lots. He looked at apartments in the Bay Area but they ran an exorbitant $2,500 per month. After five weeks, he moved to Seattle.
“I rented a room in a huge house with a bunch of other human beings. I was paying $750 for one room,” Siler says.
“When I heard Amazon was hiring, I went down to the Kent warehouse and walked in wearing jeans and flip flops. I filled out the form and got a job. It was like a modern-day gold rush—all kinds of people were showing up from former white-collar workers to others who looked like they’d just gotten out of prison the day before,” he says. “They all got jobs. If you could pass the drug test, you’d be hired 48 hours later.”
Working at the Amazon fulfillment center, Siler met many people who lived in their cars and parked in various areas around town.
“Those in their 20s said their rationale was that if you live in your car, you only need to pay for auto insurance and gas,” he says. “You can make about $200 per day five days a week. And if you do that for six months, you can spearhead it into better things.
“I met a lot of interesting people and they all had stories about doing it temporarily to get pocket change, or they were bored, or were waiting for their real job to start.”
While working at Amazon, Siler also drove for the ride-hailing service Lyft.
“I love meeting people and making small talk and I don’t mind having strangers in my car,” he says. “A majority of the drivers were college graduates or middle-aged people trying to pay the bills. It was 2018, and many of them were making up to $150 per day.”
Kuhn generally agrees with Siler’s observations and says research shows most people do gig work as a side hustle.
“They might have a regular job and also drive for Uber on the weekend,” she says. “Or work as a graphic designer but are trying to set up their own business and Upwork lets them see if they can build up some clients.
“That gives them some flexibility but if it’s their only source of income, they can be locked out of traditional benefits like health insurance or paid sick leave.”
Derived from photo courtesy Kristine Kuhn
Kuhn explains that many gig platforms consider their workers to be independent contractors or freelancers and pay them on a 1099 basis. This differs from short-term temp workers who are paid on a W-2 basis and have an employment relationship with the firm or intermediate staffing agency.
“If you’re a temp employee and become injured while working, you may be eligible to apply for things like worker’s compensation,” she says. “But if you are a 1099 employee, those sorts of workforce protections, including minimum wage requirements, overtime rules, antidiscrimination laws, or health insurance benefits, don’t apply to you.”
Kuhn says that under normal circumstances, 1099 workers are not eligible to receive unemployment benefits. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft were hit so hard by the economic downturn that they lobbied Congress to allow 1099 workers to receive unemployment. For the first time ever, the US government agreed.
“Unfortunately, the system wasn’t set up for people who aren’t W-2 employees, since unemployment benefits are tied to payroll taxes,” Kuhn says. “Some gig workers managed to collect unemployment, but it generally was more difficult for them to apply and took longer.”
And while ride-hailing service calls tanked during the pandemic, Kuhn says demand for deliveries skyrocketed. In response, the Uber platform set up Uber Work Hub to help drivers find alternative gigs with warehouses or delivery services.
Growing increasingly powerful, Uber and other platforms have begun flexing their muscles to lobby for more regulatory changes in the workplace. The fight to retain gig workers as independent contractors rather than legal employees recently reached the boiling point in California.
In 2019, California legislators passed a bill to curb deliberate worker misclassification—the practice of dubbing workers as independent contractors instead of employees to avoid paying higher labor costs. It was aimed in large part at gig companies that argue their self-employed workers enjoy being their own bosses and don’t merit extra protections.
In response, Uber and Lyft banded together with DoorDash to sponsor the $200 million California ballot initiative Proposition 22 which would legally exempt them from classifying their workers as employees and protect them from lawsuits. The ballot passed with nearly 60 percent in favor last November.
By January, grocery giant Albertsons, which owns Safeway and Vons, announced the layoff of many of the company’s in-house delivery drivers, saying they would be replaced by third-party apps or gig platforms like DoorDash. The few company workers who were unionized were not affected.
It’s a result predicted by labor advocates who decried Prop 22 as an incentive for businesses to eliminate traditional middle-class jobs in favor of independent contractor agreements with fewer benefits and protections.
Kuhn says similar regulatory challenges are taking place all over the world.
“In France, courts decided a gig worker was falsely classified as self-employed and the company was ordered to make changes to its business model,” she says. “So, gig work is still evolving.”
Though the ubiquitous gig economy might tempt some people to forfeit traditional home life and take up residence in an RV, it’s only one piece of a complex puzzle.
WSU associate professor and labor economist Ben Cowan says over the last 40–50 years, middle-skill jobs like manufacturing and office clerical work have steadily declined in the United States, thanks to changes in automation and globalization.
Derived from photo by Ben Schuh/The Daily Evergreen
“For those who aren’t increasing their education and training, especially in high-growth fields, oftentimes the best alternative is a lower-skilled generic kind of job and those are the kind increasingly available,” Cowan says.
“That means real wages have progressively fallen since about 1980 for a good segment of the US population, even as wages for other segments, high-skill, high-education positions, have risen, often considerably so. All of that has contributed to wage inequality in the US.”
Cowan says escalating housing costs are another factor, especially in large urban centers like the Bay Area, Seattle, and New York—areas that attract a high-skill labor force and companies that require those skills such as technology firms.
Combined with a simultaneous shortage of affordable housing, he says it becomes very difficult for lower-wage workers to live in these areas, which ultimately deprives them of some of the best job opportunities.
Sherman, who specializes in rural sociology, says the Pacific Northwest used to have many more jobs in extraction industries like logging and mining.
“Even if you were seasonal, they paid a living wage,” she says. “Now, they’ve often been replaced by service sector jobs that don’t pay a living wage. You really can’t support a family on service sector work anywhere.
“The labor markets in rural areas are so small and nondiverse that they have little else to offer,” says Sherman. “Those making high wages are often telecommuting for work outside of the community.”
Sherman believes the nation needs to provide some kind of societal safety net, whether that’s health care, wages, or housing.
“Something has to change as this isn’t sustainable. It will be a disaster,” she says. “But we’ve come to accept disaster as an acceptable cost of the capitalistic system.”
Dalton Russell (’16 Acc.) is a young tax accountant in Seattle who last year paid $1,200 per month rent in Bellevue. Then he became a van-dweller.
“Rent is so expensive,” says Russell, 26. “So, I bought a 1987 Ford E350 van for $1,000 and put a couple thousand into repairs. I built it out with a kitchen and bed and was able to live and work in it for a long time. It cut costs really quickly.”
Derived from photo courtesy Dalton Russell
He initially planned to park the van in different areas around the city while continuing to work at the office.
“My main goal was to save money so I could eventually buy a house or a plot of land,” Russell says. “But COVID happened and I couldn’t go back to the office, so I ended up working remotely. Summer’s pretty slow for me, so I was able to take advantage of that and travel throughout the west at the same time.”
On the road, he saw other people living in vans and busses.
“Vanlife is becoming very popular,” Russell says. “I think it’s bigger than most people realize. Unless you dive into that world and explore it, you wouldn’t really know.
“It’s kind of like tiny homes. People are realizing they actually don’t need a lot to live a good life.”
Derived from photo courtesy Dalton Russell