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The Mobile Future

It would appear that the average citizen rarely reflects on questions pertaining to whether they are realistic, live in the ‘real world’ or are sensitive to what is happening around them. Witnessing sometimes harsh reality is not understanding its impact on people, the community or society in general. Nomadland, the marvelous new book by Jessica Bruder (W.W. Norton, 2017) reveals the tender but tough underbelly of America, but does so in a way that pays tribute to the millions of people who no longer live at fixed addresses associated with brick and mortar homes. Rather, they are the new nomads who, by choice or circumstance live in vans, motorhomes, truck campers, cars, old busses, tents or SUVs. Numbering in the millions, this growing segment of society is not what they may appear, and, in some ways, may provide a glimpse of what lies ahead for a society characterized by escalating inequality, declining job skills, and an evolving global workplace.

Bruder spent five years experiencing the nomadic life, living in her own van for months on end, while befriending many ‘houseless’ people who have evolved into a broad and amazingly supportive, peaceful and productive subculture. She weaves multiple stories around a theme of self-reliance, optimism, harmony, hard work, and acceptance of an emerging and redefined American dream. It was not the dream most embraced when young, but it remains energized by common purpose, camaraderie, necessity and practical application.

While one might imagine this story is about the dregs of society, nothing could be further from the truth. It is amazing how many nurses, professors, administrators, teachers, craftsmen, and virtually every conceivable type of working person is represented in this growing cohort. Homes lost through the market crash, upside down home mortgages, medical emergencies (theirs or family members’), evolving workplace requirements, downsizing, and natural business cycles gave way to less expensive and more adaptable housing. More critically, this includes mobile housing that can be moved to locales where work is available and transient labor is both acceptable and cherished.

For those who constantly or at least occasionally consider what the future might hold, one might wonder if this rapidly growing trend portends a much more pervasive social reality. While these ‘workers on wheels’ for the most part remain gainfully employed, at least seasonally, could it be that, as housing prices rise, industry evolves, and living costs escalate, more U.S. citizens will downsize to a mobile, more adaptive and cheaper lifestyle?

There is another series of questions associated with those raised by Bruder, as she sought motive, circumstance and rationale for the trend toward houseless, mobile people. For those of us raised by a conservative family that preached conservation, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and saving for retirement, there is a natural tendency to wonder how and why these people found themselves in circumstances that required losing a home, not being able to afford one, having zero savings or just being totally unprepared for challenging times. Certainly, there are unforeseen circumstances involving medical costs, job loss, stock market reversals, recessions, etc., but Bruder’s reporting indicates the vast majority of working and non-working campers lacked adequate foresight and discipline to properly prepare. Even saying this sounds narrow, cruel and judgmental, but good fortune indeed favors the prepared.

A November 2017 McKinsey report provides a sweeping review of what the future of work will mean for jobs, skills and wages. Similar reports have been compiled for generations and, when taken seriously, can provide parameters, guidelines and cautionary examples of how to prepare. It is one thing to celebrate self-reliance once a home is lost, bank accounts are drained and you’re living in a 1996 Winnebago. It is another to foresee opportunity and emerging challenges and construct a life that ensures, to the extent possible, multiple opportunities and options backed by several fail-safe mechanisms.

Looking toward a reality-based future, a January 2017 McKinsey report* raised several key questions:
• What impact will automation have on work?
• What are the possible scenarios for employment growth?
• Will there be enough work in the future?
• What will automation mean for skills and wages?
• How do we manage the upcoming workforce transitions?

*Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation

While I loved Bruder’s book and encourage everyone to read it, I would also raise questions regarding after the fact human interest stories and celebrating self-sufficiency and survivorship after one’s life no longer has the characteristics historically considered ‘normal.’ Even though it sounds paternal, the central preemptive questions would be: Why did you put yourself in this position in the first place? Were there options and opportunities to seek other alternatives, or was it just time to redefine the concept of freedom and concept of community? Keep in mind that many people retire, sell their homes and hit the road, seeking freedom from work, supervision, deadlines and the many restrictions, costs and expectations that accompany homes and community life.

The tale of lost jobs in the wood products industry is one often told in the Pacific Northwest. While cautionary, this story is also instructive regarding what happens when one fails to prepare. For over twenty years beginning in the 1980s, there were studies followed by admonitions that sawmills were going to close; that the industry was evolving and jobs would be lost. Retraining was widely recommended and offered by many companies with assistance from federal and state agencies, but few took advantage. When the mills closed, many, many people were out of work and many never recovered. Why didn’t they move into a new profession? Training was subsidized or paid in full, but many ignored the signs, embracing instead a posture of ‘it won’t happen to me,’ or believing absolutely that ‘management’ was merely seeking wage concessions.

Finger pointing and blame became an obsession and way of life. As one who has worked with coal miners and consulted onsite at large coal mines, I can attest that the same is true with the very predictable and predicted decline of jobs throughout that industry. Industrial evolution is well-proven and has been a fact of life for hundreds of years. Like biological organisms, businesses, industries and institutions are subject to a Darwinian process.

Nomadland is much more than a review of an emerging social, cultural and economic phenomenon. It is both a mirror reflecting modern times and portal through which we can view essential questions about forces that are unraveling American society. We all applaud self-sufficiency, self-reliance and the innate search for freedom. With study and reflection, we should all explore and understand those patterns that are accelerating the growing tendency to seek a freer, less expensive and more spiritual normal. But, at least for some and based on much of Bruder’s reporting, Janis Joplin might have said it best: ‘Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.’

jfl-pic-blue-shirtyellow-tie.jpgWith over four decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies. Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out several times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).


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