Guy and Ann Junkins, it turns out, would’ve been better off if Guy had just gotten fired. When Comcast announced in March 2016 it was shuttering the Dover, New Hampshire, plant where he’d worked doing logistics and inventory since 2010, Guy—who was in his 50s at the time—expected to find his name on the chopping block. His friends and coworkers got sacked, netting small severance packages for their termination. So it seemed like a surprising stroke of good fortune when he found out he was one of only a handful of employees given the option to transfer to a different facility further down the road. He signed on.
It seemed to make sense at the time. The Junkins had expenses—the mortgage they were finally getting close to paying off, two car payments, the loan on the Harley Davidson—and finding a new job in your mid 50s is no sure thing. A career change wasn’t in the cards. Guy had been doing warehouse work for decades, much closer to retirement than starting anew. Plus, he was a hard worker, and proud of it. Often he’d worked multiple jobs, sometimes even two full-time gigs, to make ends meet. “We weren’t living paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “But we did need two paychecks to make it work.”
In the days and months of uncertainty leading up to the transfer, Guy had gotten hooked on watching YouTube videos, particularly the enthusiastic dispatches of Bob Wells, owner-operator of the semi-famous channel CheapRVLiving. Wells had been living in a vehicle for the better part of two decades, proselytizing the virtues of the lifestyle to anyone who’d click and listen (Wells currently resides in a van, rendering the channel’s name a bit of a misnomer).
The snow-capped peaks and virescent forested wilderness Wells broadcasted were compelling, sure, and his lengthy tutorials on van construction became a dependable resource once the Junkinses had purchased a van of their own. But it was buoyant evangelism about the lifestyle that sealed the deal. “Safety is an illusion,” Wells pronounced in one popular video. “What’s the point of prolonging a life you don’t enjoy when you can create a life that you love.” For Guy, that message resonated.
Meanwhile, he still had a job. But adjusting to life at the new plant proved challenging. Guy’s altered schedule and the added commute meant that he was spending at least two hours on the road every day, parrying semi trucks and racking up tolls on the harrowing New England highways. He was waking up at 3 am just to get in on time, and the physical and emotional burden of so many hours on the road was weighing heavy on him and Ann both. It didn’t take long before he realized he couldn’t continue to live like this. He quit.
Guy and Ann had always wanted to travel, and they’d imagined that once they hit those golden years, with the retirement money rolling in, they’d hit the road. Out of a job, that plan accelerated drastically. They cashed out Guy’s 401K and paid the penalty. They liquidated the equity in the house for cash—it sold in one day—and ditched the cars, the beloved Harley, and, then, everything else they owned in three epic yard sales. “Everything we own fits in 150 square feet,” he later said. “I don’t know whether to be ashamed or proud.”
Some of that money became a used Ford E-250, a bulky, white cargo van which they spent the summer retrofitting for full-time living. It wasn’t their first choice for van-dwelling (the Nissan NV had caught Guy’s eye), but the price was right. They built a bed in the back, installed solar panels on the roof, and added a ceiling fan for ventilation, a Fantastic Fan, Ann’s favorite. They rigged a cookstove to the back hatch and pasted twin decals of a compass and a silhouetted treeline on each side of the van’s blank exterior. By August they had moved in, ready to strike out in the new home they’d christened “Forever Lost,” according to Guy, or “Miss Carry Van,” according to Ann.
Wells showed the way, and his promises were manifold—by shacking up in a vehicle and committing to a frugal, minimal, and itinerant life, you could drop out of the rat race, make meaningful experiences, and join a tribe of like-minded individuals who’d thrown off the shackles of hollow, middle-class consumerism. What nomadic living lacked in comfort it would make up for in its connection to nature and its return to radical simplicity. And Wells’ ascendant online profile showcased an implicit possibility: By making videos along the way and posting them to YouTube, that spiritual fulfillment could be monetized to foot the bill.
So Guy and Ann, neither particularly tech savvy nor inclined to the videographic arts, bought a camera and locked down a YouTube channel: Address Unknown. They went through the various steps to monetize the page, which allows for YouTube to deliver a cut of ad revenue to the creators of popular pages on which they run ads. They knew there were people who roamed around in their vans from Amazon warehouse to warehouse, taking temporary jobs to bankroll the lifestyle; but that wasn’t their first choice. They found an “As Seen on YouTube” bumper sticker, which they affixed to the rear window of the van. They even printed off business cards bearing the channel’s name. “That would be the dream, to be able to be able to do this and still be able to eat and buy gas,” Guy told me.
On August 6 of last year, they posted their first video. “We watched a lot of videos, Bob Wells videos, ahead of time. Thank you, Bob!” And off they went. They spent the first few months wending their way through the south, visiting friends in Nashville during the holidays. But their real destination was set: They were headed to Quartzsite, Arizona, where Wells was hosting the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, his annual January gathering for the newly initiated and road veterans alike, part vehicle living crash course, part reunion.
They wouldn’t be the only ones. The bankruptcy rate among Americans 65 and older has tripled since 1991, and with wages stagnant and the cost of housing soaring, places like Seattle’s Kings County have seen vehicle residency increase 46 percent in the last year alone. Driven ceaselessly to the margins, some of them have come across Wells’ channel, and heard his siren call. “Being forced into a van is the very best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “I love my life and so can you.” The Junkinses, and thousands of others like them, were making a pilgrimage to the Arizona desert for a meeting with the man himself to see if it was really all possible.
Quartzsite, Arizona, is a natural spot for Wells to hold his annual gathering, which has convened for nine years running. Ask any pensioner behind the wheel of a 40-foot road yacht and they’ll know the place immediately. It’s balmy, sunny, and arid, even in January, which makes it a climatological refuge for road warriors in the winter, when much of the rest of the country is cold and the roads are socked in with snow. An estimated 2 million snowbirds—retirees on the lam from the elements—pass through here every year, giving it the distinction of America’s boondocking capital.
But Wells’s followers are of a much different ilk, and the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, known colloquially as the RTR, is staged in the yawning, indiscernible scrub brush a few rough miles from town. Some would say that this is the land even homesteaders wouldn’t want, but its oversight by the Bureau of Land Management guarantees free camping here for up to two weeks at a time, a critical asset for a community dedicated to living on the cheap. For months Wells had hyped up the gathering in video communiques and exhorted his followers, who hail from places as far flung as Louisiana, New York, and even Canada, to come camp with him. “Come join the tribe!” he encouraged. He even fronted the money to rent port-a-potties and dumpsters.
When I arrived on the festival’s first morning, the number of vehicles on hand had just crossed into the thousands, strewn chaotically about the desert’s endless washes and the odd saguaro cactus. And if the landscape was lacking in landmarks, so too were the vans scattered atop it. To the untrained eye there’s not much that differentiates a white Chevy Express van (Wells’s chosen make) from a white Dodge Sprinter or a white Ford Transit Connect, all of which were heavily represented, alongside a smattering of SUVs, campers, and repurposed school buses. Images broadcast from the drones buzzing overhead capture a landscape that looks like a box of Tic-Tacs spilled in the sand.
Look closer though, and you can see distinctions. Posters with names of YouTube channels were emblazoned on bumpers and side doors, along with entreaties to watch, subscribe, and follow. Some had custom decals and logos, others bore the YouTube logo itself. The names reinforced some common themes—Nonstop Nomads, Nomadic Fanatic, Campervan Kevin.
By 10 am, an anxious throng had gathered at the designated main camp to hear Wells speak. Some had set up folding chairs, others searched out a sliver of shade beneath the insistent Arizona sun. The crowd, like Wells, skewed old. Gray hair was the most common trait; clothing with some derivative of the mantra “not all who wander are lost” ranked below that. Some, like Ron Blevins, who drove from Modesto, California, had been here before; others had not. Many came for the educational seminars; others were here to find common cause and make friends with fellow residents of the road. Almost all were here to see Bob. The dust, like the anticipation, hung thick in the air.
The crowd hushed when Wells arrived at the front, flanked by his dog Cody, who was identified as such by numerous rapt onlookers as though the recognition might be reciprocal. Even here, among peers, Wells was unmistakable—his stocky build, his colorful forearm tattoos, and his unkempt, fluorescent-white beard and hair which seem to encircle his face with perfect radial symmetry—like Santa Claus on summer vacation, his red suit doffed in favor of the REI catalog. Two large speakers had been set up so that his message could be broadcasted effectively to the back of the pack and the hearing impaired. His camera woman straddled a tripod in the front row. All eyes were trained on him; so too, were scores of cameras from his audience, all ready to capture his opening salvo. Ron, whose YouTube sobriquet is RonInAVan, lifted his handheld 4K camera above the crowd, and pressed record.
“If you’ve never spent a night before in your vehicle, I’m so glad you’re here,” he proclaimed. “If you’ve been living on the road for 15 years, I’m so glad you’re here. Together we can accomplish something, and be something, and have better lives.”
Feedback shrieked as the sound system revolted. He paused, adjusting the mic, hoping to fix it.
“Bear with us,” he said. “We’re not professionals.”
The comment was met with unironic laughter as volunteers tried to sort out the issue. “I see a lot of cameras pointed at me,” Wells said when he resumed. I’m going to ask that you turn them off, we aren’t going to have anyone else filming the seminars.”
A faintly perceptible groan emitted from the crowd, along with a soft chorus of chimes, the sound of various cameras powering down. Ron switched off his camera with a grumble, commiserating with a nearby malcontent. Wells’s event, Wells’s rules, and his YouTube channel would be getting an exclusive on the RTR’s content.
Popular internet sites like Tumblr, Instagram, and YouTube built empires by plumping their pages with content that was consumable, shareable, and most importantly, free. But beneath this churn was a dirty secret: The content was free to consume, but it was a trojan horse for advertising. Get enthusiastic viewers first, enchanted by the possibility of virality, sell ad space later. Blogs loaded up with links to online retail pages and were paid for driving traffic; product placement, banner ads, and video teasers proliferated.
YouTube created a marketplace of its own. In August 2005, mere months after the site’s inception, YouTube boasted 58,000 visitors. Now, the site has more than a billion users, representing for one-third of all internet users worldwide, and streams a billion hours of video a day.
That astronomical growth wouldn’t have been possible without a horde of content creators willing to post their videos to the site for free. As YouTube surged in popularity, home videos and sketch comedy wannabes became overnight sensations. Virality created a gold rush.
YouTube splits the amount of money that’s made from the ads they sell on a video; 55 percent goes to the creator, YouTube—a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet—pockets the remaining 45. More views, more ads, more money. For viral videos with view counts in the millions, that ad revenue can be significant, and rumors circulated of kids banking thousands of dollars just by posting clips online. By 2015, a new class of YouTube millionaires had been minted. According to Forbes, Rosanna Pansino, then 30, was pulling down $2.5 million a year for videos about baking; Michelle Phan, at 28, reportedly made $3 million for her series of hair and makeup tutorials.
But the internet can be an old man’s game as well, and that’s where Wells comes in.
In 1995, Bob Wells was 40 years old, living in Anchorage, Alaska, working at a Safeway where his father had worked, taking home just shy of $30,000 a year, when his marriage unraveled. By the time the divorce proceedings were complete, the terms of the separation stipulated he send half his income to his wife in alimony and child support for their two sons. With only $1,200 a month coming in and $800 of that going to his apartment, a financial reckoning came. He evaluated his finances, and some back of the envelope math showed that there was one big thing he would have to cut out to make it work: rent. He was on his way to work one day, the story goes, when he spotted a green box van for sale. “I could live in that very comfortably,” he thought. He bought the van, and gave it a go.
Initially that inspiration proved misguided. “I cried myself to sleep my first night,” he said in one of his videos, a winding confessional that doubles as a 15-year anniversary video of his vehicular residency. “I had failed as a father and a husband, I’d wrecked my marriage…I felt like an utter failure at life.”
But then something changed. The shame he felt about his own condition subsided. He retrofitted his van to bring back some of the creature comforts of a traditional dwelling, like insulation and bedding. He began to sense a profound freedom in rent-free, mobile living, even if he couldn’t exactly stand upright in his new abode. “I became the landlord of my own life,” he would later proclaim in a video. “Every single thing in my life has been better since I moved into that van.” He lived in it for six years.
Life, as it does, intervened. In 2001, Wells met a woman and remarried. She lived in a house, and eventually he had no choice but to move in. But not before he had a moment of inspiration. One morning, in a parking lot where he had clandestinely camped the night, he awoke to see he had company. The windows of the nearby sedan were frosted up, which meant to him that there were people inside. Sure enough, in the front seat was a mother, her three children in the backseat, all sleeping, braving the Alaska cold without preparation. Wells felt profoundly moved, responsible even, for the family’s dire situation. It stuck with him. In 2005, then sorely missing the van life he’d left behind, he bought the domain cheaprvliving.com, and began posting tips and tricks for better vehicle living. “That was the seminal moment in everything I’ve done, in YouTube and CheapRVLiving,” he said.
Soon after, he decamped from Alaska and moved with his wife to North Carolina, having ditched the van for a truck more suited to conventional domestic living. It didn’t go well. “I despised living in that house. Owning a house is preposterous,” he says For Wells, it was fast becoming clear that the arrangement wasn’t working. He tried to save the marriage by taking long trips, a month at a time, to the Florida Keys and to Maine for wildflower viewing. But being a mere hobbyist wasn’t enough. In 2008, he left for a trip that both he and his wife acknowledged he wouldn’t return from.
Wells’ return to full-fledged vehicle living came just as the economy nosedived, providing his unlikely big break. As jobs, apartments, and homes across the country disappeared, traffic on his website soared. Almost 10 million homeowners were foreclosed on between 2006 and 2014 as the housing crisis roiled the American middle class; Wells’s site rocketed to the top of search engine results for vehicle living.
Wells was a willing and generous mentor. He posted articles with tips and tricks about building out a van for long term habitation, where to stealthily park in urban areas, how to pick up work on the road. He added a forum, where readers could post about their own experiences and commiserate about the nomadic lifestyle.
His pivot to video was still a few years out. In 2015, he forged a partnership with a friend who ran a YouTube account, Enigmatic Nomadic. They worked together on the production process and split the proceeds. But after less than a year, Wells struck out solo, migrating some of the older videos to his new channel, also titled CheapRVLiving, and focusing on new content. By fall 2016, he was posting multiple videos a week; a year later he’d hired an editor, and the operation had become a full-fledged business.
Quickly Wells settled on a signature style that ranged from close-cropped confessional to old-fashioned infomercial, complete with an introductory jingle and an opening catchphrase: “Hi everyone, welcome back to my next video.” He peppered in quotes from the great American authors, like Mark Twain and Jack London. He indulged his penchant for logorrhea—many of his videos exceeded the 20 minute mark. From 2016 to 2018 he posted more than 360 videos and livestreams, averaging one every other day.
Wells weighed in on all the essentials of mobile living. He issued extensive tutorials on everything from weatherproofing a van to frugality. He organized occasional meet-ups at his campsites and set the wheels in motion for an entire community that began using YouTube for its most intimate communication.
He workshopped a patchwork philosophy full of meditations on “freedom” and “fulfillment,” a modern remix of Emersonian self reliance, Timothy Leary sans intoxicants, and a hazy reclamation of an American Dream hollowed out by creditors and landlords. He divulged the challenges of living without a toilet (a bucket can suffice!) and running water (hand-pump showers can be bought on Amazon!).
The concept of transient, mobile living wasn’t without precedent: In recent years, #vanlife, a product placement-driven gimmick most native to Instagram, leveraged dreamy, coastal vistas and collectible VW Vanagons full of yoga-, surfing-, and succulent-inclined hipsters to sell everything from clothes to candles. But while marketers frenzied over the internet usage patterns of millennials and hyperconnected teens, Wells catered to Boomers, many of whom had lost jobs, retirement funds, and life savings that didn’t come back when the recession was pronounced over. A digital guru was born.
While many of the semi-retired proselytes heeded his advice and put in grueling hours in Amazon warehouses or harvesting sugar beets—a tip from his multi-part “Jobs for Nomads” series—Wells kept his focus digital. He loaded up his video descriptions with Amazon links of products he used, where he’d registered as an official affiliate, generating a kickback for him ever with every purchase.
And his prolific production racked up views. His most popular clip (“Living in a car on $800 a month”), has more than 2.6 million views. His followers number nearly 250,000. He’s not exactly a YouTube heavyweight like Casey Neistat (10 million followers), but his fans are fervid and loyal watchers.
Wells is coy about how much he pulls in—ad revenue totals are notoriously fickle month to month—but according to SocialBlade, a website that estimates the earnings of popular YouTube channels, his earnings could be as high as $75,000 a year from YouTube alone. With ad revenue from his website, his Patreon, and his Amazon affiliation, along with his proprietary merch—t-shirts, stickers, and a book he wrote in 2014—the grand total may be even higher than that. Out of the rubble of the great recession rose a small empire of digital content.
Back at the RTR, a park ranger opened the morning’s lesson by ballparking attendance between 3,500 and 4,000, a colossal increase from the previous year’s 800. The next morning, that number had been rounded to 5,000. “You can’t get freedom like this in St. Louis!” one newbie told me ahead of just his second night living in a Dodge Grand Caravan.
Each morning, and most afternoons, Wells presided over an informational seminar. The content of these sessions was readily available on his page, but the enthusiasm was boundless for his unrehearsed witticisms and legendary charms. After each lengthy showcase, often in excess of two hours on everything from installing solar panels to identifying favorable parking lots for stealth camping (Cracker Barrel, good, Walmart, less so), people lined up, sometimes for more than an hour, just for a chance to shake his hand.
On occasion, they came to him, he told me, in tears of gratitude. Wells had scheduled three formal meet and greets, booked for two hours each—the first for last names starting A though I, the second for J through R, and the final for S through Z, but it became clear even that wouldn’t satiate the group. Everywhere I went, attendees filled me in with details of his biography, often unsolicited. CheapRVLiving bumper stickers, given out freely at the main camp, were pasted proudly on bumpers and windows. A cardboard monument was built in the style of Wells’s van, with a Sharpied drawing of him, looking like a wild-haired Jerry Garcia, and his dog, in the windshield. On the side it read “THANK YOU BOB WELLS!!!”; throughout the week, names and well-wishes were scribbled on it. On multiple occasions I heard whispers comparing him glowingly to Moses.
When Wells wasn’t sermonizing, he was shooting video, a sacrament no one dared interrupt. Numerous attendees confessed to me their hope that Wells might come make a video about their setup, a popular standby on the CheapRVLiving YouTube channel ; another introduced himself with the qualification that his video on Wells’ channel had nearly a million views. Whenever Wells arrived in our neck of camp, his one-woman video staff in tow, a reverent quietude settled over the area.
If Wells’ followers are dedicated, they’re also literalists when it comes to his teachings, more apostles than parishioners. Though many named his as their vandwelling inspiration, none attributed their vlogging to him exclusively. And while his doctrine is extensive, his suggestions seemingly endless, I could find no example of him recommending YouTube as an economic panacea. Yet, many of the attendees were engaged in total emulation, delving not only into the lifestyle but also taking up his example and trying their hand at vlogging as well. They did as he said, and as he did.
Throughout the week, I tagged along with multiple YouTubers as they stacked clips for later publication. Mick and Kelly Nichols, a 50-something couple from North Carolina going by the moniker Nonstop Nomads filmed a van build, the refurbishing of a passenger vehicle with domestic essentials like storage and a bedframe, a particularly popular video subgenre.
They, along with their neighbors, pitched in to renovate a cluttered Nissan driven by one of their own subscribers, who had followed their videos all the way from her native Louisiana to their current campsite. Ron Blevins, or RonInAVan, scored a meet up with a late-30s YouTuber named Nomadic Fanatic, and a chance encounter with fellow YouTuber PB&J To Go, though the interaction didn’t yield much in the way of useable footage. Guy and Ann Junkins, still finding their footing, compiled a slideshow of stills of interesting rigs, which they set to music and uploaded.
YouTube sets a 10,000 view baseline for a channel to be eligible for monetization, and they won’t cut you a check until you’ve banked $100 in ad spots. At the RTR, this cutoff point was common knowledge (midway through the gathering, word got out that YouTube had upped the standards further, requiring 4,000 hours of watch time and at least 1,000 followers, to the chagrin of many). When I asked about the actual revenues people were receiving, the numbers were grim. After two years, Nonstop Nomads was nearing $40 in total. RonInAVan hadn’t made a dime, though he fared slightly better by linking to Amazon, netting between $30 and $40 over three three-month periods. “Not even beer money, though,” he lamented.
According to Al Christensen, owner of an eponymous YouTube page and a blog called Rolling Steel Tent, many of his cohort have “turned to social media, blogs, and videos to help make ends meet,” especially when their Social Security couldn’t be stretched far enough. When I asked how many people he thought were making real money this way, his estimate was bleak. “Maybe a half dozen. Maybe.”
For some, the exercise is a digital diary for family members or friends back at home unable or unwilling to hazard a life on the road. They’re sober about their prospects of striking it rich. But no one I met had left their page unmonetized.
I caught Wells before a highly anticipated afternoon seminar on securing cheap dental and optical care (not covered by Medicare) just across the border in Los Algodones, Mexico, and we made plans to sit down for an interview that evening. He proved elusive. The next day his videographer explained to me that they were out late shooting and lost track of time.
The same thing happened during our rain check. It wasn’t until the festival’s last day that we finally convened. By his own estimation, Wells is an introvert. At the previous year’s Rendezvous, the demands of celebrity—teaching the seminars, meeting the enthusiasts, filming the videos—drove him to the edge. He even made an ill-advised video chronicling his mental duress. This year, as a salve, he had made his camp far on the anonymous desert outskirts.
Wells, now 63, is a year older than his father when he died. He doesn’t want to follow his dad’s example. “He worked a job he hated with people he didn’t much like and finally retired at 60,” Wells somberly recalls. “He was dead by 62.”
But Wells’s gospel isn’t merely a makeshift life hack for early retirement in an America now inhospitable to the institution.
After the recession, he told me, people were forced to ask themselves hard questions. Ten years on, those questions haven’t gone away. “How am I going to live in the future?” He asked rhetorically. “I don’t have a pension anymore, I don’t have a 401K, I don’t have an IRA, I lost it. I’m not going to get one back. How am I going to live not just the next year, but the next 10 years, next 20 years, when I’m 80? When the economy crashes again, and that almost seems inevitable, then what?”
For him, that answer was easy: vehicle living. “I am offering people a solution. Not just to survive, but to enjoy their lives. And it seems that this is a viable alternative.” They’re familiar talking points for Wells, and he espouses them readily.
He went on to divulge plans for expansion. Like any good tech maven, he’d been thinking about scale. Anticipating another surge in attendance (10,000, he claims, for the coming gathering), next year’s rendezvous would be moved to a larger venue. He wants to create an app as a resource for van dwellers to link up and give advice. There was even talk of a mentorship program, to help get the newbies up to speed. In October, he announced the creation of a nonprofit organization, Homes on Wheels Alliance, HOWA, a registered 501(c)3, accepting applications for an executive assistant.
But he was realistic about his role in one of the most intractable American issues. “Some people might say, ‘this is not a real solution,” he said. “But for a shameful percentage of our society, people are not surviving.”
And when I asked about the YouTube blueprint he’d created, his outlook softened. “People think YouTube is going to pay them. The truth is, it probably won’t.” When I asked him how it felt to be compared to Moses, he demurred. “Moses? Well, I don’t know about that. I guess the beard, maybe…I feel more like the Pied Piper.”
Later that evening, a final campfire was lit in the main camp. The crowd had thinned considerably since the weekend’s climax, but numerous die-hards remained.
On the RTR’s final evening, its attendees burn a wood or cardboard reproduction of a van and belt out a few verses of a Willie Nelson rewrite, “In My Van Again,” to the tune of “On the Road Again.” It’s one of the event’s time-honored traditions, a consecration. And, despite a visit from a harried BLM ranger earlier in the day—who had received a faulty tip that there would be a real van torched in sacrifice—the event took place as scheduled.
In the desert darkness it was hard to make out faces, but a scan of the crowd evinced one notable absence.
“Where is Bob?!” Someone yelled. “We want Bob!” The chorus approached a chant. “Let’s hear from Bob!” Someone else contributed.
The calls went unanswered. Bob had bowed out, perhaps getting a head start on traffic, or finally giving into to his well-documented introversion. If it was closing words the group was looking for, they’d be hitting the road disappointed.
Nevertheless, the singalong began. “In our vans again,” they crooned. “We just can’t wait to get in our vans again.” The fire crackled, and soon died out, and eventually everyone headed back to their vans for the night.
Alexander Sammon is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in the New Republic, Mother Jones, and Vice.
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