Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
With large parts of the economy still sputtering under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, many people are having to scale back. But some older Americans were already living a minimalist lifestyle on the road -- and some of them have leveraged their nomadic approach into income. Economics correspondent Paul Solman has their story as part of our Making Sense series on Unfinished Business.
This week, a number of major companies, including Disney and American Airlines, announced new layoffs.
With big parts of the economy still hurting from the coronavirus, many are having to scale back. But some older Americans were already living a minimalist lifestyle on the road.
Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, has their story.
It's part of our Making Sense series Unfinished Business. And a note: Portions of the story were shot before the pandemic.
This whole entire industry is just exploding right now.
At Nomadik Customs, Marc Vroman and his crew retrofit vehicles to live in.
I think, with the combination of just how things are in the world right now, people are really wanting to jump into vans and buses and just alternative housing situations.
These days, the hashtag #VanLifeBusiness is booming. Vroman's hired eight new workers, but still can't keep up.
At last count, I think I had something like 180 estimates to write, probably another 400 e-mails to return. And yesterday alone, we received 37 phone calls.
I feel like I hopped onto a rocket ship, and I have just been doing everything I can to hold on.
The last half-year of lost jobs has spurred a desire to escape. Cheap mobile living enables it. But lots of folks, many older, were on the road before the #VanLife hashtag, inspired by this 65-year-old.
Living in nature. Wouldn't you like to be out here and see and live like this?
YouTube celeb Bob Wells moved into a van 25 years ago when divorce left him unable to meet the rent in Anchorage, Alaska.
I knew I could live comfortably in a van on $1,400 a month, because no house payment, no utility payments. I had solar. I was my own utility company. It worked really well. I enjoyed it. That was the amazing thing.
Enjoyed it so much, in fact, he created a Web site, CheapRVLiving.com, and then a YouTube channel, to teach others to downsize and thrive on wheels.
Finding heat in your van is a really important issue for a lot of us.
Everything you need to do to stay clean is right here.
The topic of today is poop. You can just sit right straight down on a bucket.
Wells' videos, viewed over 80 million times, preach the simple life, especially appealing right now to those ages 55 to 70, some three million of whom have been shoved out of the work force.
Twenty-five percent of Americans don't have a penny saved towards retirement.
So, in five, 10, 20 years, that 25 percent are going to be living on Social Security, and Social Security won't be enough for them to live on.
Thanks for all you do.
Every winter in Quartzsite, Arizona, Wells' devotees convene at the RTR,the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, for seminars and community.
I feel like I'm a disciple.
You're Moses, and I'm the disciple. You're spreading the word.
Wells, a self-described introvert, is their celebrity guru.
There's a lot of us here who are on Social Security. And their Social Security is anywhere from $600 to $1,000 a month.
And so you can see they couldn't rent a home on that. But when they move into their vans, most of them slowly have to start dipping into their savings, their emergency fund, and so most of them will have to work some time to replenish it.
So, the topic of one RTR huddle, earning on the web.
If you're not monetizing it, you're not making money through your Web site or social media, then you're kind of missing out.
Well, hello, YouTube family.
Inspired by Wells' success, most people here seemed to have a YouTube channel of their own.
We're Camper Size Living.
And where can we find you?
YouTube, Instagram and Facebook.
YouTuber Linda Mastromonaco lives in her SUV, sleeps in the front seat.
I curl up. I stretch out this way. I stretch out this way.
Two years ago, Mastromonaco gave up her apartment, quit the last of her low-paying, no-benefits jobs.
Target, Kroger's, Chico's, all the retail. I have waitressing background. Just all kinds of things where you're on the treadmill, just trying to really, literally make ends meet.
She now lives on the road, hawks inspirational cards online, has posted hundreds of videos to her YouTube channel.
I am back on the road.
Up to nearly 30,000 subscribers.
More people are feeling stuck right now and making a plan when they can that leaves.
How's your YouTube channel doing in terms of income?
Income has exploded over the last couple months. I was averaging $600 a month, and I'm over two grand for this month.
Hi. I'm Steve Turtle. And I'm a workamper.
Steve Turtle gives his YouTube followers the down-and-dirty on workamping, working seasonal jobs while camping, that is.
I want to show you how I clean toilets.
Woo-hoo! That's how you clean a South Carolina toilet right there.
Turtle's been hamming it online for over two years.
YouTube rewards you for people watching your videos and the commercial.
Welcome, welcome, welcome.
Carol Meeks has a YouTube cooking channel for nomads on a tight budget.
Some people are living on $500 to $600 a month. So, I mean, we're not going to be having salmon and crab legs. You can do a lot of things for a dollar a serving, if you know how to shop, and if you're creative in how you're cooking.
I'm planning on becoming the Anthony Bourdain of van life, OK?
You can wash your hair, and you got some pressure.
But how many itinerants can support themselves on YouTube earnings, like Bob Wells?
For most people, it's not realistic. The idea of making thousands, very few do that.
Consider Steve Turtle's YouTube take.
I was somewhere around $150 a month, and then, in March, it sort of fell apart. There was just not a lot going on.
Turtle stopped livestreaming when COVID hit.
We are live.
He's back at it, but hasn't reached YouTube's pay threshold.
I don't think I'm going to try to survive off of YouTube.
Hi, everyone, and welcome back to my next video.
But if you, like Bob Wells, manage to go viral — pardon the expression…
You make about 75 grand a year from YouTube? That's what I read anyway.
I make an amazing amount of money from YouTube.
More than $75,000, I take it.
An amazing amount of money. You wouldn't — I wouldn't believe it.
OK, very good.
So, what do you do with the money?
I give it away. What do I need money for? I live in a van.
Indeed, Wells has started a nonprofit to provide homes on wheels for folks in need, in tune with his YouTube channel's goal, to lend a helping hand.
I have been devastated in life. In 2011 — I have two sons — and one of my sons took his life.
That's the only reaction possible. There's nothing like it. It's just — how do you express it?
Every morning, you wake up and say, how can I be alive on a planet on which he's not here? And so the adequate answer is, I have something to give.
He gives; his followers receive.
Carol Meeks' YouTube channel has grown since we met in the winter.
Just under 4,400 subscribers. And I actually think that that's been impacted because of COVID, because so many people are looking for entertainment and engagement, and they're doing it online.
In January, she was forming friendships with fellow nomads in the flesh. Since the pandemic, virtual bonds.
I have met so many people online and so many other people who have channels who are in this type of lifestyle, so I feel like I have a community.
Carol Meeks, like so many older Americans, seems to have found a new tribe, on the road, online.
Take care, friends.
For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Paul Solman.
Watch the Full Episode
Paul Solman has been a business, economics and occasional art correspondent for the PBS NewsHour since 1985.
Support Provided By:
Additional Support Provided By: