Nomadland starring Frances McDormand, about the modern day nomadic culture in America, just won best picture. The movie was a hard but breathtaking watch about community, culture, and capitalism. McDormand plays Fern, who chooses to live out of a van and follow the nomad lifestyle after the closing of her small town's major industrialized plant and death of her husband. Without ties to a centered and dependable community, Fern and the other Nomads learn to adapt to uncertainty. The goal becomes about wandering and surviving all in the name of adventure. The risk of long term commitment, connection, and belonging is passed over for the unpredictable and immediate moments of joy and gratitude. The "community" of nomads finds an imperfect balance between "go it alone" and connection with their fellow houseless citizens. As the movie concluded and the credits began to role, I was left with this question, "Can 21st century America still offer belonging when it no longer values stability and dependability?"
Nomadland explores what many American's are experiencing in real life at this moment: independent survivalism and its cost. The audience watches as Fern travels between seasonal jobs that takes her from South Dakota to Washington and California. She fosters kindness with her fellow nomads and offers sandwiches, ad hoc spa days, and even a hospital visit when a member of the community undergoes emergency surgery. But while Fern's inherent kindness is infectious, it is also safely guarded. The scars of loss are deeply felt and the willingness to be present, trusting, and vulnerable are all bridges that carry too much risk to cross, for Fern. All of Fran's connections come with strong and visceral boundaries, keeping her safe but distant from others.
When we first learn of the circumstances around Fern's lifestyle, it is easy to process the information as if reading it in a New York Times article. But as the movie shows us Fern's story, the gut wrenching impact of the death of a spouse, the loss of a home, the closing of a plant, and the abandonment of a company town is heavily felt. Fern's unwavering resilience is beyond impressive but it is also frustrating due to how unnecessary and preventable her (and many American's) circumstances are.
Throughout the 1990's and early 2000's, corporate America was congratulating itself on profits earned through downsizing. Massive layoffs, consolidations, and benefit reductions were all tactics used to boost the appearance of greater profits and generate more enticing stock prices. This began the era of prioritizing shareholders over stakeholders. As a result, thousands of Americans lost their jobs, small towns across America were gutted, and fewer Americans had access to healthcare and retirement benefits. The trust between corporations and their workers was shattered, and Americans could no longer look to their corporate employers for dependable stability or a secure lifestyle. The social contract between capitalism and the worker was broken and that left a major cultural gap. So what has stepped in to fill this void? Well, let's look at America today.
The gig economy rushed in to fill the void left by corporations who failed their workers. Now workers could generate their own income, have independence, and free themselves of the burdens of corporate conformity. The downside to the gig economy? Workers have fewer protections, no benefits, and are often having to work harder for less money. All that, "freedom" comes with a heavy price. But the number one benefit workers see from the gig economy is independence and autonomy from feeling beholden to a system that cannot be trusted to support, compensate, or care for their needs. Often these workers live near major metropolitan areas where the cost of living tends to be higher, requiring a grind and hustle to come out ahead each month.
Other workers effected by the shifting American culture chose to move on. Many workers decided to relocate or start over. Workers who felt good about their odds of finding decent jobs, moved to new areas and adjusted. Typically these workers tended to be younger, more adaptable, and often with children. But if you weren't a young family, or didn't find the gig hustle appealing, your options were fairly limited. This was why the nomadic lifestyle felt like the right choice for so many Americans.
The "go it alone," rugged individualism of the nomad life falls in line with so many aspects of American culture but, it is also a reflection of the failings of capitalism to deliver on its core promises. The Nomads were once workers who believed if they worked hard, followed the rules, and just kept sacrificing, they would be cared for as they aged, until the day came when they weren't. The betrayal of corporate and government trust was not only culturally tolerated by our leaders, it was allowed to leech into other areas of our work force. Government and municipal jobs, long thought to be the most stable and reliable areas for worker benefits, underwent their own form of downsizing as pensions were slashed. Teachers, city bus drivers, lower level government workers, and city administrators all had to rethink what they had been told their future would look like when they first began their careers.
This forced adaptation led many Americans to question if finding belonging and connection on capitalism's terms was worth the risk. For the Nomads the answer is, "No," especially because capitalism is still unrepentant about the damage it has caused. During covid, CEO pay sky rocketed at companies that laid off workers, discounted services, and slashed benefits. The poor were left without a corporate or social safety net. Hitting the road in search of anything else starts to become pretty appealing when you have nothing left to lose. And while, not all of us have hit the road choosing a house with four wheels over one cemented into the ground, we have at least encountered moments where that decision looked enticing.
So what is the cost of the nomad lifestyle? In short, it's trust, intimacy, and belonging. These are the fabrics that get picked out of the American tapestry when we don't hold capitalism accountable. The take away from Nomadland is that the American worker has been failed, but this does not make them failures. They will reinvent, adapt, and survive when left behind by the institutions that promised to protect them. But from a soft skills perspective, this estrangement is beyond heartbreaking and the damage is dangerous for all of us. The lack of trust in any community is always a red flag, and America has been failing at trust for a while.
When the cultural identity of any group becomes one where trust and belonging cannot be fostered we lose our capacity to connect. We struggle to communicate leaving us feeling unheard, unseen, and devalued. If collaboration comes with too much risk, innovation and connection becomes near impossible. If our awareness cannot extend beyond our own need for survival, we struggle to practice empathy with others. This is the price we pay when capitalism lacks accountability, and our shared humanity is the cost. Nomadland looks romantic on the big screen, but when we scratch below the surface we find lives haunted by traumatic and unnecessary pain, rejection, and deep grief that lasts beyond how far you drive to escape it.