What Advisors Can Learn From Triple Oscar-Winner ‘Nomadland’

Rich or poor, Americans seek purpose, direction and connections in the second half of life.

By Jerilyn Klein

“Nomadland,” winner of best picture, best actress and best director at the 93rd Annual Academy Awards last night, should be on the must-see list of anyone who works with clients age 50 and up.

The movie — a drama which captured three additional Oscar nominations and is based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book with the same title — tells the stories of older van-dwelling Americans who move around the country for seasonal jobs. It was directed by Chloé Zhao, the first woman of color (she is Chinese) and only the second woman to ever win an Oscar for best director.

“Finding that Social Security comes up short, often underwater on mortgages, these invisible casualties of the Great Recession have taken to the road by the tens of thousands in late-model RVs, travel trailers, and vans, forming a growing community of nomads: migrant laborers who call themselves ‘workampers,’” says the description of the book.

Bruder got to know many members of this group while initially researching this topic for a Harper’s article.  Many didn’t expect to end up in this position, including a former director of product development at McDonald’s Corp. who lost his nest egg and home, and other former white-collar professionals.

Members of this group have had to create new lives to survive financially and to find purpose. It’s rethinking 65 on steroids.

A number of van-dwellers portrayed themselves in “Nomadland.” The film revolves around Fern, a fictional composite character played by actress Frances McDormand (who took home her third best-actress Oscar last night). The widowed former substitute teacher hits the road after she is laid off and her mining town is abandoned. She too never imagined this would be her life, but she is determined to stay independent and positive.

Universal Retirement Challenges

But even for many older people who haven’t become nomads, the second half of life has gotten increasingly challenging.

As of January 2021, 3 million people age 55-plus were jobless because of the pandemic-induced recession. Leaving work can be a double whammy, between not being able to save as much for retirement and having to start dipping into savings sooner. It could also mean having to start collecting Social Security sooner than planned, reducing the monthly benefit.

A 65-year old couple that retired in 2020 will need about $295,000 to cover medical care expenses in retirement, excluding long-term care. Throw in a medical crisis and it can push even a wealthy family over a financial cliff.

For example, the total cost of medication in one therapy used to treat a common type of lymphoma averages $527,000 and the total cost of care can exceed $1 million.

Caregiving can also eat up retirement savings. According to Genworth’s Cost of Care Survey, the median national monthly cost of a home health aide was $4,576 in 2020, assuming 44 hours a week.

A gray divorce can put seniors in a precarious financial state, writes advisor Bonnie Sewell, owner of American Capital Planning LLC. So can the death of a spouse, a bad financial decision and unexpected family demands.

Many people worry about outliving their money in retirement. Over the years, many female clients have told advisor Lynn Ballou, a partner of EP Wealth Advisors, they have a constant fear of becoming a “bag lady.”

Pride, Purpose and Resilience

“Nomadland” also sheds light on non-monetary factors that are important to address when working with older clients. This includes pride, the desire to be purposeful and part of a community, and the importance of being resourceful and building resilience.

Bob Wells, a longtime van-dweller who runs gatherings for this population and played himself in the movie, offers advice for other van-dwellers on his website, Cheaprvliving.com. One of the quotes on his site is, “We have an unconscious fear that ‘An unpleasant but acceptable present is better than an unknown and dangerous future.’”

And as Gail Cohen, chair and general trust counsel of Fiduciary Trust International says, “no one wants to have to ask their children for money.”

Older people may be less or more prepared for retirement than they think they are. Either way, they could often use guidance, education and a bigger safety net. As a financial advisor, you can help steer your clients to a more secure financial future, teach them how to live with a smaller financial footprint, and help them get over their fears.

“Nomadland” is currently available for streaming through Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube and Google Play, and in limited theaters.

Jerilyn Klein is editorial director of Rethinking65.





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