National parks in the US have an interesting mix of visitors—go to any park, and you’ll see families with sticky-fingered children packed into suburbans, college students in brand-new hiking boots taking Instagram pictures at every turn, and veteran campers with their beat-up REI gear.
But the demographic at Carnarvon National Park was different. Anywhere I looked, I saw silver-haired, sexa- and septuagenarians with weathered, gentle faces. They were everywhere—hiking along the trails, hanging laundry at the campsite, sitting out by their campers in the evenings. Anyone under 50 was a rarity.
After dinner one night, our bus driver, a lanky, stubbly Aussie named Colin, told me about these people, the “grey nomads.”
“Do they know they’re called that?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “It’s a thing here. Some of them sell their homes and spend thousands of dollars on a camper, and just travel around the country until the end.”
A little research told me that the grey nomads are indeed a very established “thing” in Australia. Thousands of adventurous senior citizens pack their lives into their camper vans each year, fueling an industry of over $2.5 billion.
The movement started gradually around the early 2000s, when more and more older retirees packed up, plastered the back of their vehicles with bumper stickers reading, “spending the kids’ inheritance,” and hit the tourism trails. They live simply, staying at caravan parks instead of fancy resorts, and preferring hiking and enjoying nature to more expensive activities.
Colin said that the grey nomads follow the sun: they start out in the south, travelling around Victoria or South Australia, and work their way up to the warmer North as the winter advances. Their movements reminded me of migrating birds.
I thought about the older people I know. My granddad has a glass case filled with hundreds of roadrunner figurines of all shapes and sizes. My parents just built their dream home and are firmly rooted to their space.
They are such a stark contrast to these people, who look at retirement as a time to travel, and be free of the restraints of a settled life. Many grey nomads do keep a home to return to for Christmas or other important days, but many do not. I find this aspect of Australia culture fascinating—why is this the trend here, while in the US it seems like people become more firmly rooted.
Our guide, Simon Ling, hit on a similar theme when he told us that 20 percent of Australians between the ages of 35-55 downsize. In other words, they purposefully take a job that pays less or move to a smaller house. The grey nomads, mostly falling in the 55-75 demographic, do more than just downsize. They compact themselves and their lives into a tiny space, and live in the wider world.
The concept of downsizing and reassessing values is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. The way people I know seek an excess of stuff reminds me of many people’s attitudes towards money. If you asked college students about their idea of success, they might say, “to work hard, make a difference in people’s lives—and to get a six-figure salary.”
Simon told us about a study, done by the Princeton Center for Health and Well-being, which shows that yearly income correlates with self-reported happiness only up to a salary of $75,000. After that, it disconnects. So why do people still seek to be above this line?
I think the reason is evolutionary. We have been primed to want an excess, to be comfortable, to be padded. In the wild, animals will sometimes gorge themselves when there is an available food supply, because they cannot be sure of their next meal. Our bodies, too, show this tendency. We can eat and eat, until our tissues store the surplus in fat, until we are padded to an unhealthy extent. Humans are hardwired to seek excess.
But the way we live today means we do not need excess. In fact, some kinds of excess can be detrimental to ourselves, to our level of contentment, and to the planet.
Maybe the answer is to downsize. Or to take it a step further, and never upsize at all. Maybe we should look at our ideas of traditional success, and analyze the motivations behind them. Why is it a life goal to have a house with three TVs and a pool? Is it worth it to work 60, 70, 80 hours a week to bump up my salary so I can buy a bigger truck? A bigger house? More needless collections of stuff?
I don’t think we need to give up all our dreams of excess, but I think the grey nomads are an interesting movement, and provide a good example of living simply without placing too much emphasis on unnecessary things. And although I probably won’t pack my life into a camper van and travel the parks of Australia, I think learning about the grey nomads has made me more conscious of the way I choose to live.