The importance of community and humanity: Nomadland, ageing and place

Rebecca Lawthom, School of Education and iHuman

Ageing is often presented as a grand challenge, a problem facing society. The deficit images of ageing are drawn upon to give the impression that growing older is beset with degeneration, mobility difficulties and community inclusion. A recent ESRC research project (PlaceAge) explored urban contexts of how ageing-in-place occurs. The theories and data drawn on provide rich food for thought in relation to Chloe Zhao’s Oscar winning empathic film, Nomadland.

In a contemporary account of growing old in an increasingly unequal USA, we follow the character of Fern, an older woman recently bereaved from a downtrodden recession town, aptly called Empire. Loss in a life partner and in an established economic town gives the main character little choice. With insufficient funds to maintain a house, Fern invests in a van and takes to the road. Unlike the classic road trip movie trope, this film quietly and without pity, documents a life on the road, as Fern literally locates work and finds friends and chosen family.

The van dwellers in the film, the ‘new nomads’ of recession-hit America, are based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book of the same name. Zhao hired some of the people Bruder had interviewed during her reporting journey. These real life nomads, including Linda May, Swankie and van-dwelling guru Bob Wells blend beautifully in the documentary style film.

It is a film that, as Mark Kermode notes, ‘eschews conflict in favour of quiet humanity’. The lush and spacious landscape of the film is a beautiful backdrop which documents the glorious colour laden skies of mid-Western America. Living a life untethered to the quotidian drudge of life is deeply contrasted with the realities of perilous scrimping and saving in a compressed leaky living space, harsh weather and the ‘bullshit jobs’ (Graeber, 2018) that characterise this nomadic life.

Working in an Amazon fulfilment centre (the US term for a distribution centre), is necessarily seasonal work which further jeopardises the regularity of income. We see a community of van dwellers enmeshed in living from hand to mouth, all thrown together and meeting the consumerist dreams of fast retail whilst seeking out an alternative living of their own. Indeed the irony of these nomads is clear. They are looking for something outside of dominant consumerist dreams, whilst simultaneously meeting the consumerist dreams of others in the fulfilment centre. Precarity, the harshness of the weather and legalities around parking overnight provoke a move further South for warmth (in both weather and community).

The film has a documentary feel to it (rather like the UK filmmaker Loach or Leigh) and successfully engages in portrayal of life and humanity. When we normally hear of ageing and mobility, we are often thrust into the world of mobility aids — a raft of technologies to return walking, bathing, accessing stairs, and sitting to as near normal as possible. In Nomadland, ageing and mobility is about housing, home and place, albeit in vans. Fern, as a new van dweller, has to pick up the skills needed for this life.

The van as home is both a haven and a hostage to fortune. Leaving behind many of the objects curated across a lifetime in a house, we see Fern putting belongings in a garage and selecting certain objects to take with her in the van. Empire, an ex-mining town, can no longer provide a home for Fern, and upon meeting a young person, Fern enunciates that she is not homeless — just houseless.

The film’s workings of age, humanity and mobility chime with the recent ESRC project, Placemaking with older adults. Working with older adults in nine cities in the UK, Brazil and India, a global team explored how people can age well in urban places, often seen merely as vital cityscapes for youth and dynamism. The ageing-in-place agenda posits that the preferred environment for older adults to age is in the community, where they can remain active, engaged, socially connected, and independent. However, contemporary urban cities can be ‘unfriendly’ and ‘hostile’ to older adults, acting as a barrier to accessing social, economic and civic opportunities.

In Nomadland,, we see a group of mobile, itinerant older adults following work and building a sense of community. We encounter the camaraderie of nomadic communities, the ordinariness of people’s lives and the connectedness. The small stories of illness, human emotional and mental repair and van physical repair, make this a film which centres on humanity. The lives of van dwellers are rooted in relationships, and the real life narratives in Bruder’s book translate well into the film.

Van dwelling guru, Bob Wells, plays himself in the film, as a figurehead of this unexpectedly joyous community. Time magazine notes that Wells has been a full-time camper for the last 12 years, and is the founder of the website Cheap RV Living, where he shares resources on how to live on the road. He also has a Youtube channel of the same name with more than 400,000 subscribers, where he provides helpful tips on everything from budgeting to the best van heaters to staying safe while living in a vehicle. His non-profit, Home on Wheels Alliance, funds programs that bolster the nomadic community.

The work around how we understand ageing in relation to place has some interesting parallels with the ESRC Placemaking project. In a recent paper, we presented qualitative findings from 294 semi-structured interviews collected across nine cities and 27 neighbourhoods. The findings reveal that older adults cultivate their sense of place insideness, their knowledge and competence in navigating place, in old age through three dimensions. The dimensions are physical insideness (i.e. environmental competence in navigating and engaging in the community), social insideness (i.e. knowing others) and autobiographical insideness (i.e. shared place histories).

The van dwellers employ the same curatorial skills with much loved vans, building communities and developing skills. Belonging and commonality in Nomadland are being quietly and sometimes uproariously constructed round campfires. Physical competencies of adapting to van life and the challenges of this make for a difficult life, although one which could be seen as an alternative to atomistic single person living. The feeling of ‘at homeness’ that PlaceAge participants reported on, as familiarity with their social community, is reproduced in the film, where materialities of van living or ‘workacamping’ invite a shared sense of feeling part of something.

In the PlaceAge study, Woolrych et al (2020) argue that ‘meanings of home and community are continually being renegotiated in the context of changing mobilities and urban transformations, and it’s the relationality between these that needs to be better understood and designed within age-friendly city and community interventions. This is important if we are to create urban environments that are not only physically accessible, but which are also sensitive to social and cultural dimensions of ageing in place and provide the resources and support to age well’.

The film’s quiet portrayal of how a mobile life (even if not a neoliberal imagining of a road trip) can and does engender community, demonstrates the power of humanity, whilst rupturing dominant assumptions of loneliness and old age.

Graeber, D. (2018) Bullshit Jobs: A theory. London and New York: Penguin.
Woolrych R, Duvurru J, Portella A, et al. Ageing in Urban Neighbourhoods: Exploring Place Insideness Amongst Older Adults in India, Brazil and the United Kingdom. Psychology and Developing Societies. 2020;32(2):201–223. doi:10.1177/0971333620937106


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