Is Nomadland that Common?

When many of us envision our careers, it’s a vision of chaos followed by order. Our 20s and 30s may be decades of rapid change, but then its time to settle in. I mean, I know my 20s and 30s were nuts. Oh, wait, I’m remembering the TV show “Breaking Bad,” which I watched in my 20s and 30s…right.

Anyway, at the very least, by the time we are in our 50s we expect continuous employment with benefits like retirement and health insurance. It may seem like a low bar. But, the book and subsequent movie “Nomadland” certainly hit people in the mouth with the idea that this late-career stability is no guarantee.

Indeed, the book offers a somewhat extreme vision of late-career instability. The workers in the book have neither permanent jobs nor permanent homes, let alone benefits. But, how common are these types of situations really? Is Nomadland just an interesting anecdote? Or, is it illustrative of some large group of people?

How Common are “Nontraditional” Jobs?

Sadly, these questions don’t have a simple answer. As the public has become more interested in jobs that break the traditional employer-employee mold (e.g., seasonal warehouse worker, Uber, TaskRabbit), a lack of data has hampered research. Many of the best economic datasets have been collected since the 1960s. In the interest of consistency, core questions about the nature of work are not often changed. So, to the extent that workers like those in Nomadland represent new phenomena, the data can be slow to catch up.

Of course, this fact hasn’t stopped researchers from trying to estimate these jobs’ prevalence. Some researchers have focused on workers in the “Gig Economy,” who use online platforms like Uber. Others have focused on “Contingent Workers,” whose employment is not expected to last long. And, still others have focused on workers in “Alternative” arrangements like independent contracting. Or, on workers who file 1099 Tax-forms instead of W-2s. Heck, I even took a crack at it. Some colleagues and I defined these “Nontraditonal” jobs based on a lack of both health insurance and retirement benefits.

What do the Numbers Say?

The figure below focuses on the Nomadland demographic — workers in their 50s and early 60s — and shows how many of these workers fit in the various definitions of nontraditional work. Workers in jobs using online platforms are actually pretty rare, representing less than 1 percent of all workers. But, the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) concept of nontraditional work – which includes self-employed and part-time workers – covers 31 percent of the workforce. My own definition falls somewhere in the middle, with about 20 percent of workers in jobs lacking both health and retirement benefits. To put it mildly: the definition matters.

Figure 1. Percentage of Workers Ages 50-62 in Nontraditional Jobs By Definition

Note: The “Gig” and “1099” definitions include workers of all ages.
Source: Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

So, if the question is: how common are the jobs in “Nomadland,” I get to use my favorite economist answer: “It depends.” (Every time someone types “it depends,” an economist gets her wings.) But for convenience, let’s go with our “No Benefit” definition. Then, about one fifth of workers in their 50s and early 60s are in jobs with such a weak attachment to their employer that they have no benefits. That’s a lot of people without the late-career stability we all hope for.

Of course, the “Nomadland” story isn’t just about one bad, but stable job. It’s about a pattern of movement between jobs that is inherently unstable. Is that common?

Are Many Older Workers Job “Nomads”?

To answer this question, my colleagues and I did something a bit fancy. Basically, we used a statistical method called “sequence analysis” to divide people into groups based on their pattern of employment. I won’t bore you with the details, but if you like to learn about statistical methods, see here.

The results show that many people approaching retirement are, in fact, job nomads. The figure below is a bit complicated, but let me explain. The tan rectangles represent a year when someone was in a “traditional job” with benefits. The red rectangles represent a year in a job with no benefits. Black and grey bars represent years not working or retired respectively. Give it a look, and I’ll explain my takeaways below.

FIgure 2. Late-Career (Age 50-62) Employment Patterns

Source: Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

The big takeaway from the figure is that just half of workers are in mainly traditional jobs in their 50s and early 60s. Another fifth retire early. And nearly 30 percent are either weakly attached to the labor force — moving in and out of work — or in mostly nontraditional jobs. In other words, nearly a third of workers are in fact late-career “nomads.” They lack consistent employment. And, when they do work, they often lack basic benefits.

So, while the world of Nomadland depicts a unique group of individuals with respect to their lack of attachment to place, the lack of attachment to jobs is, in fact, quite common. Next time you watch the movie, know that it is not just depicting some anecdote, but rather a picture of many people’s lives.

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