Released 19 February 2021
Having been a fan of Frances McDormand for two decades, I was eager to see her performance as Fern in Nomadland (2020). She did not disappoint. However, I did not walk away feeling blissful or triumphant. Instead, I was unsettled.
The film is a blend between fact and fiction. The director, Chloe' Zhao, had a lot of people depict themselves in the film, people who are seasonal workers living in in all manner of vehicles--from campers to converted vans.
The film shows Fern, uprooted after the factor closes where she lived in Nevada. She ends up living in a van and working seasonal jobs. She's barely managing to get by, so if she has trouble with her van, her job, or her health, she's poised to lose everything.
Yes, Fern demonstrates industry, creativity, resilience, self-reliance, warmth and compassion. Her character was admirable. However, I kept asking questions about the way the economy in the United States is structured in such a way that laborers like Fern can reach their sixties without savings, equity, or healthcare.
The National Counsel on Aging reports this:
Over 15 million (or roughly 1 in 3) older adults aged 65+ are economically insecure, with incomes below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level.
I'm not an economist, so I am ill equipped to use the most pertinent facts or useful theories to parse this situation in a thorough manner. I can only make a few observations.
I am a gerontologist, so I do come across trends in aging.
Many people who have physically demanding jobs end up suffering a lot of physical complaints that make it difficult to continue working in construction, farming, manufacturing, etc. However, they may not be injured enough to receive disability benefits before they reach the age for qualifying for Medicare and Social Security. And they may not be well prepared to move into a career that is less physically demanding.
Women experience greater poverty because of discrimination in wages. As a group, women earn .80 cents to each $1 men earn. Also, women tend to have erratic work histories because they go in and out of the work force to care for children, parents, and spouses. Some women also care for grandparents, siblings, or end up raising their grandchildren.
Women without a college education and women of color face even greater poverty as reported in a 2018 Forbes article:
And single black women age 60+ without a college degree have a mere $12,000 in wealth (median figure), in stark contrast to the $384,400 in median wealth among single white women with a bachelor’s degree.
This leaves many older adults in poverty or near poverty by midlife. Those living hand-to-mouth often are unable to purchase homes, leaving them with no equity in late life.
Fenelon & Mawhorter in their 2020 article published Public Policy & Aging Report describe the less-than-ideal housing situation for more than half of older adults in the US:
Over half (54%) of renters aged 65 and older are cost-burdened, and nearly one-third spend at least half their income on rent. As with homeowners, cost burdens among renters are more common among older adults than any other age group except those under age 25.
So, yes, Fern works hard, but how did larger socioeconomic factors contribute to her plight? And what can we do--as voters or from positions of influence if we are educators, managers, and employers--to help workers be better equipped by late life?