new migrants illustration

The 10 Best Observer Stories of 2016: ‘The New Migrants’

In the harsh post-2008 economy, builders like my father live on the road.


Illustration by Rebekka Dunlap

Editor’s Note: Sarah Smarsh plays Studs Turkel to her father, a country carpenter from Kansas whose native intelligence and skills have been devalued by the market. Sarah writes insightfully and touchingly about the rural working class — and never more so than when it concerns her own family. She portrays her father as a man of dignity and good humor who is doing the best he can to navigate an economic system that offers low wages, little job security and meaningless labor.—Forrest Wilder

The New Migrants
By Sarah Smarsh
Published March 23

The next year, of course, the debt-driven housing bubble burst. Banks stopped lending to low-income homebuyers and big-shot developers alike, and the construction industry halted. After 17 years, Dad was laid off by the contractor whose T-shirts I once slept in. So too were 34 other workers who, like my father, were older and higher-paid.

Suddenly Dad had a home loan, no equity, an ailing wife who couldn’t work — and no job. While looking for work at age 53, he exhausted his unemployment benefits and cashed in the 401(k) plan he’d paid into for years at his old company. Soon that was gone too.

Walking into interviews where resumes were piled 2 inches high, he found himself settling for lower wages and titles than he’d earned years prior — $18 an hour as a carpenter, say, instead of $22 an hour as a superintendent. And his new bosses were more likely to bid on faraway projects and put him on the road. If jobs don’t come to builders, builders go to the jobs.

Read the full story. 

Read more of the Observer‘s Best of 2016.