In Drayton, North Dakota, a former San Francisco cabdriver, 67, labors at the annual sugar beet harvest. He works from sunrise until after sunset in temperatures that dip below freezing, helping trucks that roll in from the fields disgorge multi-ton loads of beets. At night he sleeps in the van that is his home.
In New Bern, North Carolina, a woman whose home is a teardrop-style trailer — so small it can be pulled with a motorcycle — is couch surfing with a friend while hunting for work. Even with a master’s degree, the 38-year-old Nebraska native can’t find a job despite filling out hundreds of applications in the past month alone. She knows the sugar beet harvest is hiring, but traveling halfway across the country would require more cash than she has. Losing her job at a nonprofit several years ago is one of the reasons she moved into the trailer in the first place. After the funding for her position ran out, she couldn’t afford rent on top of paying off student loans.
In San Marcos, California, a 30-something couple in a 1975 GMC motorhome is running a roadside pumpkin stand with a children’s carnival and petting zoo, which they had five days to set up from scratch on a vacant dirt lot. In a few weeks, they’ll switch to selling Christmas trees.
In Colorado Springs, Colorado, a 72-year-old van dweller who cracked three ribs doing a campground maintenance job is recuperating while visiting with family.
There have always been itinerants, drifters, hobos, restless souls. But now, in the third millennium, a new kind of wandering tribe is emerging. People who never imagined being nomads are hitting the road. They’re giving up traditional houses and apartments to live in what some call “wheel estate” — vans, secondhand RVs, school buses, pickup campers, travel trailers, and plain old sedans. They are driving away from the impossible choices that face what used to be the middle class. Decisions like: Would you rather have food or dental work? Pay your mortgage or your electric bill? Make a car payment or buy medicine? Cover rent or student loans? Purchase warm clothes or gas for your commute?
For many, the answer seemed radical at first.
You can’t give yourself a raise, but what about cutting your biggest expense? Trading a stick-and-brick domicile for life on wheels?
Some call them “homeless.” The new nomads reject that label. Equipped with both shelter and transportation, they’ve adopted a different word. They refer to themselves, quite simply, as “houseless.”
From a distance, many of them could be mistaken for carefree retired RVers. On occasions when they treat themselves to a movie or dinner at a restaurant, they blend with the crowd. In mindset and appearance, they are largely middle class. They wash their clothes at laundromats and join fitness clubs to use the showers. Many took to the road after their savings were obliterated by the Great Recession. To keep their gas tanks and bellies full, they work long hours at hard, physical jobs. In a time of flat wages and rising housing costs, they have unshackled themselves from rent and mortgages as a way to get by. They are surviving America.
But for them — as for anyone — survival isn’t enough. So what began as a last-ditch effort has become a battle cry for something greater. Being human means yearning for more than subsistence. As much as food or shelter, we require hope.
And there is hope on the road. It’s a byproduct of forward momentum. A sense of opportunity, as wide as the country itself. A bone-deep conviction that something better will come. It’s just ahead, in the next town, the next gig, the next chance encounter with a stranger.
As it happens, some of those strangers are nomads, too. When they meet — online, or at a job, or camping way off the grid — tribes begin to form. There’s a common understanding, a kinship. When someone’s van breaks down, they pass the hat. There’s a contagious feeling: Something big is happening. The country is changing rapidly, the old structures crumbling away, and they’re at the epicenter of something new. Around a shared campfire, in the middle of the night, it can feel like a glimpse of utopia.
As I write, it is autumn. Soon winter will come. Routine layoffs will start at the seasonal jobs. The nomads will pack up camp and return to their real home — the road — moving like blood cells through the veins of the country. They’ll set out in search of friends and family, or just a place that’s warm. Some will journey clear across the continent. All will count the miles, which unspool like a filmstrip of America. Fast-food joints and shopping malls. Fields dormant under frost. Auto dealerships, megachurches, and all-night diners. Featureless plains. Feedlots, dead factories, subdivisions, and big-box stores. Snowcapped peaks. The roadside reels past, through the day and into darkness, until fatigue sets in. Bleary-eyed, they find places to pull off the road and rest. In Walmart parking lots. On quiet suburban streets. At truck stops, amid the lullaby of idling engines. Then in the early-morning hours — before anyone notices — they’re back on the highway. Driving on, they’re secure in this knowledge:
The last free place in America is a parking spot.
There’s no clear count of how many people live nomadically in America. Full-time travelers are a demographer’s nightmare. Statistically, they blend in with the rest of the population, since the law requires them to maintain fixed — in other words, fake — addresses. No matter how widely they wander, nomads must be officially “domiciled” somewhere. Your state of residence is where you get vehicles registered and inspected, renew drivers’ licenses, pay taxes, vote, serve on juries, sign up for health insurance (except for those on Medicare), and fulfill a litany of other responsibilities. And living nowhere, it turns out, means you can live anywhere you want, at least on paper. So many folks opt for residency in the places with the fewest hassles — Florida, South Dakota, and Texas, which lack state income taxes, are longtime favorites — and use mail-forwarding services to stay in touch. The rules for becoming a South Dakotan are especially laid-back. Spend one night at a local motel and register with a South Dakota mail forwarding service. Then show both receipts to the state department of public safety and you’re in.
Many of these people call themselves workampers. One of them — a man I’ll call Don Wheeler — defined that term with great flair, writing in a Facebook direct message to me:
Workampers are modern mobile travelers who take temporary jobs around the U.S. in exchange for a free campsite — usually including power, water, and sewer connections — and perhaps a stipend. You may think that workamping is a modern phenomenon, but we come from a long, long tradition. We followed the Roman legions, sharpening swords and repairing armor. We roamed the new cities of America, fixing clocks and machines, repairing cookware, building stone walls for a penny a foot and all the hard cider we could drink. We followed the emigration west in our wagons with our tools and skills, sharpening knives, fixing anything that was broken, helping clear the land, roof the cabin, plow the fields, and bring in the harvest for a meal and pocket money, then moving on to the next job. Our forebears are the tinkers.
We have upgraded the tinker’s wagon to a comfortable motor coach or fifth-wheel trailer. Mostly retired now, we have added to our repertoire the skills of a lifetime in business. We can help run your shop, handle the front or back of the house, drive your trucks and forklifts, pick and pack your goods for shipment, fix your machines, coddle your computers and networks, work your beet harvest, landscape your grounds, or clean your bathrooms. We are the techno-tinkers.
The people Wheeler described make up an impressive labor force. Kampgrounds of America (KOA), a major employer of workampers, hires some 1,500 couples each year for its resorts and franchises across the country, a representative told AARP. Workamper News, a bimonthly magazine whose website features a popular job-listing service, claims to reach 14,000 members, with more joining all the time.
Of all the programs seeking workampers, the most aggressive recruiter has been Amazon’s CamperForce. “Jeff Bezos has predicted that, by the year 2020, one out of every four work campers in the United States will have worked for Amazon,” read one slide in a presentation for new hires.
Workampers are plug-and-play labor, the epitome of convenience for employers in search of seasonal staffing. They appear where and when they are needed. They bring their own homes, transforming trailer parks into ephemeral company towns that empty out once the jobs are gone. They aren’t around long enough to unionize. On jobs that are physically difficult, many are too tired even to socialize after their shifts.
They also demand little in the way of benefits or protections. On the contrary, among the more than 50 such laborers I interviewed in my first year of reporting on workampers, most expressed appreciation for whatever semblance of stability their short-term jobs offered. Take 57-year-old Joanne Johnson, who was dashing upstairs at Amazon’s Campbellsville facility when she tripped and fell, striking her head on a conveyor-belt support bar. She was bandaged up at AmCare — an in-house medical facility — and then rushed to an emergency room. The episode left her with two black eyes and nine stitches along her hairline. “They let me continue working. They didn’t fire me,” Johnson recalled warmly.
I wondered why a company like Amazon would welcome older candidates for jobs that seem better suited to younger bodies. “It’s because we’re so dependable,” suggested Johnson. “We know that if you commit to something, you do your best to get that job done. We don’t take days off unless we have to.” (While recuperating from her head wound, Johnson missed only one scheduled workday. It was unpaid.)
The folks who run CamperForce reiterate the belief that older workers bring a good work ethic. “We’ve had folks in their 80s who do a phenomenal job for us,” said Kelly Calmes, an administrator for the program in Campbellsville, during an online job seminar hosted by Workamper News. “The benefit to our workamping population being, for the most part, a little bit older is that you guys have put in a lifetime of work. You understand what work is. You put your mind to the work, and we know that it’s a marathon; it’s not a sprint. It’s kind of like The Tortoise and the Hare. We have some of our younger folks who will race through. You guys are pretty methodical — you just kind of work as you go, and work as you go — and at the end of the day, believe it or not, you both cross the finish line at about the same time.”
Many of the workers I met in the Amazon camps were part of a demographic that in recent years has grown with alarming speed: downwardly mobile older Americans. Monique Morrissey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, spoke with me about the unprecedented nature of this change. “We’re facing the first-ever reversal in retirement security in modern U.S. history,” she explained. “Starting with the younger baby boomers, each successive generation is now doing worse than previous generations in terms of their ability to retire without seeing a drop in living standards.”
That means no rest for the aging. Nearly nine million Americans 65 and older were still employed in 2016, up 60 percent from a decade earlier. Economists expect those numbers — along with the percentage of seniors in the labor force — to keep rising. A recent poll suggests that Americans now fear outliving their assets more than they fear dying. Another survey finds that, although most older Americans still view retirement as “a time of leisure,” only 17 percent anticipate not working at all in their later years.
“Over the last generation, we have witnessed a massive transfer of economic risk from broad structures of insurance, including those sponsored by the corporate sector as well as by government, onto the fragile balance sheets of American families,” Yale political scientist Jacob S. Hacker writes in his book The Great Risk Shift. The overarching message: “You are on your own.”
All of which is to say that Social Security is now the largest single source of income for most Americans 65 and older. But it’s woefully inadequate.
Nearly half of middle-class workers may be forced to live on a food budget of as little as $5 a day when they retire, according to Teresa Ghilarducci, an economist and professor at the New School in New York City. “I call it ‘the end of retirement,’” she said in an interview. Many retirees simply can’t survive without some sort of paycheck.
Millions of Americans are wrestling with the impossibility of a traditional middle-class existence. In homes across the country, kitchen tables are strewn with unpaid bills. Lights burn late into the night. The same calculations get performed again and again, over and over, through exhaustion and sometimes tears. Wages minus grocery receipts. Minus medical bills. Minus credit card debt. Minus utility fees. Minus student loan and car payments. Minus the biggest expense of all: rent.
In the widening gap between credits and debits hangs a question: What parts of this life are you willing to give up so you can keep on living?
Like the nomads, millions of Americans are being forced to change their lives, even if the transformations are less outwardly radical. There are many ways to parse the challenge of survival. This month, will you skip meals? Go to the ER instead of your doctor? Postpone the credit card bills, hoping they won’t go to collections? Put off paying electric and gas charges, hoping the light and heat will stay on? Let the interest accumulate on student and car loans, hoping someday you’ll find a way to catch up?
These indignities underscore a larger question: When do impossible choices start to tear people — a society — apart?
It’s already happening. The cause of the unmanageable household math that’s keeping people up at night is no secret. The top 1 percent now makes 81 times what those in the bottom half do, when you compare average earnings. For American adults on the lower half of the income ladder — some 117 million of them — earnings haven’t changed since the 1970s.
This is not a wage gap — it’s a chasm. And the cost of that growing divide is paid by everyone.
A deepening class divide makes social mobility all but impossible. The result is a de facto caste system. This is not only morally wrong but also tremendously wasteful. Denying access to opportunity for large segments of the population means throwing away vast reserves of talent and brainpower. It’s also been shown to dampen economic growth.
The most widely accepted measure for calculating income inequality is a century-old formula called the Gini coefficient. It’s a gold standard for economists around the globe, along with the World Bank, the CIA, and the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. What it reveals is startling. Today, the United States has the most unequal society of all developed nations. America’s level of inequality is comparable to that of Russia, China, Argentina, and the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo.
And as bad as the situation is now, it’s likely to get worse. That makes me wonder: What further contortions — or even mutations — of the social order will appear in years to come? How many people will get crushed by the system? How many will find a way to escape it?
Excerpted from Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder. © 2017 by Jessica Bruder. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Jessica Bruder is an award-winning journalist whose work focuses on subcultures and the dark corners of the economy. She has written for Harper’s, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Bruder teaches at the Columbia School of Journalism.
This article is featured in the July/August 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
On Halloween in 2008, about six weeks after Lehman Brothers collapsed, my mother called from Michigan to tell me that my father had lost his job in the sales department of Visteon, an auto parts supplier for Ford. Two months later, my mother lost her own job working for the city of Troy, a suburb about half an hour from Detroit. From there, our lives seemed to accelerate, the terrible events compounding fast enough to elude immediate understanding. By June, my parents, unable to find any work in the state where they spent their entire lives, moved to New York, where my sister and I were both in school. A month later, the mortgage on my childhood home went into default for lack of payment.
After several months of unemployment, my mother got a job in New York City fundraising for a children’s choir. In the summer of 2010, I completed school at New York University, where I received a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature, with more than $100,000 of debt, for which my father was a cosigner. By this time, my father was still unemployed, and my mother had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She continued working, though her employer was clearly perturbed that she’d have to take off every Friday for chemotherapy. To compensate for the lost time, on Mondays she rode early buses into the city from the Bronx, where, after months of harrowing uncertainty, my parents had settled. She wanted to be in the office first thing.
In January 2011, Chase Bank took full possession of the house in Michigan. Our last ties were severed by an email my father received from the realtor, who had tried and failed to short sell the property, telling him “it’s safe to turn off the utilities.” In May, I got a freelance contract with a newspaper that within a year would hire me full-time — paying me, after taxes, roughly $900 every two weeks. In September 2011, my parents were approved for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and in October, due to a paperwork snafu, their car was repossessed in the middle of the night by creditors. Meanwhile, the payments for my debt — which had been borrowed from a variety of federal and private lenders, most prominently Citibank — totaled about $1,100 a month.
I would look at the number on my paycheck and obsessively subtract my rent, the cost of a carton of eggs and a can of beans, and the price of a loan payment.
Now 30 years old, I have been incapacitated by debt for a decade. The delicate balancing act my family and I perform in order to make a payment each month has become the organizing principle of our lives. To this end, I am just one of about 44 million borrowers in the United States who owe a total of roughly $1.4 trillion in student loan debt. This number is almost incomprehensibly high, and yet it continues to increase with no sign of stopping. Reform legislation that might help families in financial hardship has failed in Congress. A bill introduced in May 2017, the Discharge Student Loans in Bankruptcy Act, which would undo changes made to the bankruptcy code in the early 2000s, stalled in committee. Despite all evidence that student loan debt is a national crisis, the majority of the U.S. government — the only party with the power to resolve the problem — refuses to acknowledge its severity.
My debt was the result, in equal measure, of a chain of rotten luck and a system that is an abject failure by design. My parents never lived extravagantly. In the first years of their marriage, my father drove a cab. When they had children and my father started a career in the auto industry, we became firmly middle class. Still, there was usually just enough money to cover the bills — car leases, a mortgage, groceries. My sister and I both attended public school. How much things cost was a constant discussion. Freshman year of high school, when I lost my yearbook, which cost $40, my mother very nearly wept. College, which cost roughly $50,000 a year, was the only time that money did not seem to matter. “We’ll find a way to pay for it,” my parents said repeatedly. And if we couldn’t pay for it immediately, there was always a bank somewhere willing to give us a loan. This was true even after my parents had both lost their jobs amidst a global financial meltdown. Like many well-meaning but misguided baby boomers, neither of my parents received an elite education, but they nevertheless believed that an expensive school was the key to a better life than the one they’d had. They continued to put faith in this falsehood, and so we continued spending money that we didn’t have — money that banks kept giving to us.
I’ve spent a great deal of time in the last decade shifting the blame for my debt. Whose fault was it? My devoted parents, for encouraging me to attend a school they couldn’t afford? The banks, which should never have lent money to people who clearly couldn’t pay it back, continuously exploiting the hope of families like mine, and quick to exploit us further once that hope disappeared? Or was it my fault for not having the foresight to realize it was a mistake to spend roughly $200,000 on a school where, in order to get my degree, I kept a journal about reading Virginia Woolf? The problem, I think, runs deeper than blame. The foundational myth of an entire generation of Americans was the false promise that education was priceless — that its value was above or beyond its cost.
After the dust settled on the collapse of the economy, we found ourselves in an impossible situation: We owed more each month than we could collectively pay. And so we wrote letters to Citibank’s mysterious P.O. box address in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, begging for help, letters that I doubt ever met a human being. The letters began to comprise a diary for my father in particular, a way to communicate a private anguish that he mostly bottled up. In one letter, addressed “Dear Citi,” he pleaded for a longer-term plan with lower monthly payments. He described how my mother’s mounting medical bills, as well as Chase Bank’s collection on our foreclosed home, had forced the family into bankruptcy, which provided no protection in the case of private student loans. We were not asking, in the end, for relief or forgiveness, but merely to pay them an amount we could still barely afford. “This is an appeal to Citi asking you to work with us on this loan,” he wrote to no one at all.
Finally, at the beginning of 2012, my father started writing to the office of Congressman Joseph Crowley, who represented the district in the Bronx where my parents had relocated. My father described himself and my mother to Crowley as “the poster children for this entire financial event,” by which he meant Americans who seemed to have done everything right on paper, but in doing so contributed to their own downfall. By the time he wrote to Crowley, my father was working again, but it had taken him two years to find another job for much less money. After his run of financial calamity, he knew better than to believe anything good would last. “We are in our 60s and I figure when we get to our mid-70s, life will become difficult again,” he wrote.
Crowley’s office wrote back. It was the first time in about two years that a person had responded to our correspondence with encouragement, or something like it. Kevin Casey, who worked for Crowley in Washington, helped arrange a conference call with government liaisons from Citigroup to discuss a different payment plan. The terms were reasonable enough, but the response was like an automated message brought to life: “We are precluded from a regulatory perspective from being able to do what you are asking,” each of the representatives said. What made these exchanges more ridiculous was the fact that Citibank was in the process of retreating from the student loan market by selling off my debt to Discover Financial, who would give us the same response. We were nothing to these companies but a number in a database.
I used to wonder what the people who worked for these lenders would do if their own children had to take out loans to pay for college. After 10 years, I have come to think of my debt as being like an alcoholic relative who shows up to ruin happy occasions. But when I first got out of school and the reality of how much money I owed finally struck me, the debt was more of a constant and explicit preoccupation, a matter of life and death.
I had studied English because I wanted to be a writer. I never had an expectation of becoming rich. My M.A. fed an intellectual curiosity that eventually led me to newspapers. I understand now the extent to which I was among the most overeducated group of young adults in human history. Once I could no longer delay and the payments began, I would look at the number on my paycheck and obsessively subtract my rent, the cost of a carton of eggs and a can of beans (my sustenance during the first lean year of this mess), and the price of a loan payment. The question was: What will you do when the money from the paycheck is gone?
I never arrived at an answer to this question. At my lowest points, I began fantasizing about dying, not because I was suicidal, but because death would have meant relief from having to come up with an answer. The debt was mind-controlling — how I would eat or pay my rent without defaulting was a constant refrain, and I had long since abandoned any hope for a future in which I had a meaningful line of credit or a disposable income or even simply owned something — but also mind-numbingly banal. I spent a great deal of time filling out paperwork over and over again with my personal information and waiting on hold for extended periods in order to speak to a robotic voice rejecting my request.
And so it felt good to think about dying, in the way that it felt good to take a long nap in order to not be conscious for a while. These thoughts culminated in November 2010, when I met with my father one afternoon to retrieve more paperwork. My hope for some forgiving demise had resulted in my being viciously sick with strep throat. I refused to go to the doctor in the hope that my condition might worsen into a more serious infection that, even if it didn’t kill me, might force someone to at last lavish me with pity. I coughed up a not insignificant portion of yellowish fluid, and I started the conversation by asking, “Theoretically, if I were to, say, kill myself, what would happen to the debt?”
“I would have to pay it myself,” my father said. He paused and then offered me a melancholy smile. “Listen, it’s just debt,” he said. “No one is dying from this.”
My father had suffered in the previous two years. In a matter of months, he had lost everything he had worked most of his adult life to achieve — first his career, then his home, then his dignity. He had become a 60-year-old man who had quite reluctantly shaved his graying 40-year-old mustache in order to look younger, shuffling between failed job interviews where he was often told he had “too much experience.” He was ultimately forced out of the life he’d known, dragging with him, like some 21st-century Pa Joad, a U-Haul trailer crammed with family possessions, including, at the insistence of my mother, large plastic tubs of my childhood action figures.
Throughout this misery, my father had reacted with what I suddenly realized was stoicism, but which I had long mistaken for indifference. This misunderstanding was due in part to my mother, who had perhaps suffered most of all. Not that it was a competition, but if it were, I think she would have taken some small amount of satisfaction in winning it. The loss of home and finances felt at least like a worthy opponent for cancer, and yet here was my father telling me that none of this was the end of the world. I was ashamed of my selfishness. The lump in my throat began to feel less infectious than lachrymal. “Okay,” I said to him. When I got home I scheduled an appointment with a doctor.
“Theoretically, if I were to, say, kill myself, what would happen to the debt?” I asked.
Much of the dilemma about being in debt came down to numbers that I could only comprehend in the abstract. $38,840 at 2.25 percent interest, and a notice that in May 2016, the interest would increase to 2.5 percent. A $25,000 loan at 7.5 percent interest, to which my family and I had contributed, over the course of three years, $12,531.12 and on which I now owed $25,933.66 — more than what I started out with. I memorized — or, more often, didn’t — seemingly crucial details about my debt that turned out to be comically meaningless: a low-interest loan from Perkins was serviced by a company called ACS, which had rebranded to Conduent Education and sent out notices with their new logo and the message “Soon to be Conduent.” Citibank, referring to itself as “Citibank, N.A. (Citibank),” transferred the servicing of my loans to Firstmark, and I had to create an account with Firstmark. Sallie Mae’s lending arm spun off into an independent company called Navient, which became the country’s largest supplier of private student loans, and eventually sold a portion of my debt to a lender called Great Lakes. In 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued Navient for deliberately creating problems for borrowers trying to pay off a loan by supplying them with faulty information — for instance, according to the litigation, encouraging borrowers to enter payment plans that temporarily postponed bills instead of enrolling them in repayment plans that promised forgiveness after years of steady payment. This lawsuit seemed bathed in significance, but of course resulted in nothing at all, save for a widely circulated public statement from Navient claiming, “There is no expectation that the servicer will act in the interest of the consumer.” When I received a notice from Navient in February 2017 that my monthly payments would be increasing, for reasons I did not comprehend, the email came with a note at the bottom saying, “We’re here to help: We’re happy to help you navigate your options, provide you with resources, and answer any questions you have as you repay your loans.” The company’s motto is, hilariously, “Solutions for your success.”
These announcements flooded my inbox with the subject line “Important Information,” but none of them altered my fate. Sometimes the monthly payments would go up, sometimes my salary would go up, sometimes I made a check out to a different company. The only stable thing was the money I owed, which never seemed to get any lower. My mother’s cancer went into remission, and both of my parents found, in their 60s, new careers. I maintained steady employment in journalism since finishing school, and in 2016 I was hired as an editor at The New York Times. Was it possible we had become lucky?
It was in the summer of 2017, after my father, now nearing 70, had lost another job, that I finally removed him as a cosigner and refinanced my loans with one of the few companies that provides such a service, SoFi. My wife would help with the payments when she could. Sharing the burden of my debt with my spouse instead of my parents was a small, depressing victory, a milestone perhaps unique to members of my generation.
SoFi has not made my situation much more tenable, necessarily. The main differences are that I now write one check instead of several, and that I have an end date for when the debt, including the calculated interest — about $182,000 — will be paid off: 2032, when I’ll be 44. What I have to pay each month is still, for the most part, more than I am able to afford. I rely on the help of people I love and live by each paycheck. I still harbor anxiety about the bad things that could befall me should the paycheck disappear.
But the so-called Important Information I receive has changed. SoFi, which bills itself as a “modern finance company” (its name is shorthand for Social Finance, Inc.), is a Silicon Valley startup that offers, in addition to loans, membership outreach in the form of financial literacy workshops and free dinners. Their aim is to “empower our members,” a mission that was called into question by the resignation, in September 2017, of its CEO, who employees allege had engaged in serial workplace sexual harassment and who ran the office, according to a New York Times headline, like “a frat house.” The news came out not long after I refinanced my loans with the company — I became, I suppose, a SoFi’er, in the company’s parlance. Around this same time, I started receiving curious emails from them: “Dear NYC SoFi’er,” one of these emails read. “Grab a single friend and join us for a fun night at Rare View Rooftop Bar and Lounge in Murray Hill! You’ll mingle with some of our most interesting (and available!) members …” The invitation cited a statistic that promised “86 percent of members at other SoFi Singles events said they met someone they want to see again.”
I am a 30-year-old married man with more than $100,000 of debt, who makes less each year than what he owes. Buying a pair of pants is a major financial decision for me. I do not think myself “eligible” in any sense of the word. Still, I felt as if in 10 years, the debt hadn’t changed, but the world had, or at least the world’s view of it. This thing, this 21st-century blight, was now so normal — so basic — that it had been co-opted by the wellness industry of Silicon Valley. My debt was now approachable, a way to meet people. It was, in other words, an investment in my future, which is why I had gone into debt in the first place. Would SoFi be this friendly if I lost my job and missed a monthly payment?
Let’s say I was morbidly intrigued. The day after Valentine’s Day, I went to a Mexican restaurant for a SoFi community dinner — this was not a single’s event, but simply a free meal. SoFi had rented out the back room, where a few dozen people had gathered, all wearing name tags and discussing financial woes. Sid, a software developer who had racked up credit card debt after college, told me that the debt was a unifying force at these gatherings. “When there’s a break in the conversation, someone can just say, ‘So, debt, huh?’ and things will get going again,” he said. “If we walked outside of this room,” he continued, gesturing to the suits by the bar, “everyone out there would have debt, too. It’s just a little more out in the open for us.”
Despite the name tags, the dinner turned out to resemble something more like an AA meeting, an earnest session of group therapy. Everyone had their story about the problems caused by their student loans and how they were trying, one day at a time, to improve things, and no story was exceptional, including my own. Ian, an employee for Google who had recently successfully paid off his debt from a Columbia MBA program, said he had a few “bone dry” years, where he lived on instant noodles. I told him I had a long way to go. “At least you’re doing something about it,” he said, sincerely.
We sat down to dinner. Across from me was Mira, a defense attorney who attended law school at Stanford. Her payments amount to $2,300 a month, more than double my own. When I asked her why she came to this event, she glanced at me as if the answer should have been obvious: She went to law school at Stanford, and her payments are $2,300 a month. After the food was served, a waiter came by with a stack of to-go boxes. The group was reluctant at first, but then Ian said, “The chicken was actually pretty good,” as he scooped it into one of the boxes. Mira shrugged, took a fork, and added, “This is a little tacky, but I’d hate to waste free food,” and the rest of the table followed her lead. Maybe the next generation will do better, but I felt like we were broke and broken. No number of degrees or professional successes would put us back together again. For now, though, we knew where our next meal was coming from.
M.H. Miller is the arts editor for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.
This article is from the January/February 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
In “Who Stole the American Dream?” in the July/August 2013 issue, Hedrick Smith explores the increasing financial burden that companies in the U.S. have shifted to their employees while inflating company profit margins and, in the process, shouldering the middle class with debt and little if any savings.
These concerns aren’t all that novel to the Post, as we’ve covered class, inflation, the insecurity of retirement, and the growing portion of Americans who see themselves on the unstable side of an ever-increasing wealth gap. You might find that the following stories from our archives from 1934–1952 don’t look all that different from 2013.
“The basis and boast of American patriotism is that ours is the greatest democracy in the world, where all men are free and equal, with no division of our people into classes, and instead a happy and homogeneous whole. That, no doubt, was an underlying principle when this republic was formed, and it has worked out through the years until we have now arrived at the point where few men are equal, no man is free, and the division into classes is clearly defined and politically recognized.”
“Today, our struggle to keep decently clean, fed, and warm, is typical of the plight of people who were formerly in the comfortable middle class, but have been forced by inflation down the ladder.”
“More and more of us, I think, are going to have to work in our retirement. In fact, I prefer that kind of retiring—not a dead stop, but a change of direction. But unless you make plans things can be extremely bleak. Most people are pathetically unprepared for their old age, and the smarter ones are deeply worried. Those I met were far more worried about an old age of financial insecurity than about getting killed by an A bomb.”
Read more: “So You’re Going to Retire,” April 9, 1949.
“More than half of the nation’s families now have a middle-class income—as against a quarter 50 years ago. And with the fullest allowance both for the rise in prices and for the great expansion in needs and demands for new things such as car, radio, or movies, a middle-class income, even after taxes, is still a bigger income than the middle-class income of 1900.”