After the two of us spent a long night discussing our generation’s unique outlook on life, I woke up to find that my friend, 26-year-old Ben McManus, had posed a question to the world (via social media, of course):
Ben’s angsty query is worth investigating because, if nothing else, the current generation of millennials — the popular term for today’s young people — makes for a damn good case study. We’ve come of age amidst global financial turmoil which seems to have led us to the conclusion that the best way forward is to stuff our (paltry) cash savings under our mattresses, give Wall Street the finger, and invest in our passion projects. We’re insisting on flexibility and work-life balance, which employers hate us for, and we are– according to 65% of the country— the entitled spawn of helicopter parents.
So who the hell are millennials? When exactly did the Wolf of Wall Street mentality get largely rejected? And how the hell did that mentality get replaced with a new Kerouacian alternative where the cool kids live in vans?
WHO WE ARE (AS PEOPLE AND AS TRAVELERS)
Before diving into why millennials are the way we are, it’s worth explaining who “we” are exactly. To some, millennials are accepting, ethically motivated, and dedicated to their crafts. To others, millennials are self-aggrandizing bullshitters who feel superior because they know more about artisan bread than everyone else.
Let’s splash around some facts:
We go to college more than our predecessors. Between 2009 and 2013, 22.3% of people aged 18-34 had received a bachelor’s degree or higher. Depending on your outlook on the value of a college education, that makes us the most educated generation in American history.
Yet we’re making less money. Having adjusted for inflation, this same demographic brings in $2,000 less than 18-34 year olds in 1980 and almost $4,000 less than 18-34 year olds in the early 2000’s.
No really, we’re broke. We’re up to our thick-rimmed-glasses in debt. Being the most educated generation comes at a cost: on average, the amount of individual student debt is about $35,051 by the time we graduate. Older generations can attempt to sympathize, but in comparison to what tuition costs were in 1964, we’re paying 101.7% more than they did.
Even though we’re living in a world that (financially speaking) strikes fear into the hearts of every fresh faced college grad (Debt! No Jobs!), we’re still eager as hell to see more of this ever-shrinking world and we’re traveling internationally more than ever. This past summer, millennials traveled almost as much as the 45-65-year-old Baby Boomers who (obviously) have waaaaaay more money than us. Social media and technology have succeeded in bringing the world to our fingertips — so we know what’s waiting for us at the edges of the map and we long to see those edges. Now.
Not only are we traveling more, we’re traveling differently. We prefer the title of “traveler” to “tourist”, and as travelers, we’re planning less, content to roam. But if you peel away the hashtag movements (#wanderlust, #vanlife) are millennials actually all that different from that of American twenty-somethings of generations past? Don’t all young people love wandering?
THE CHILDREN OF WEALTH CREATORS
Seasoned vagabond, photographer, and writer Matt McDonald (@63MPH) believes that our generation travels in part because we were raised to follow our dreams. “I think [debt, unemployment, recession] are factors that influence our wandering behavior. However, we were the first generation raised to truly go do anything. Our grandparents survived World War II then raised our parents. Our parents–Baby Boomers–created a shitload of wealth in the world. We’re benefiting — and suffering from — the wealth generation.”
We were told time and time again by these wealth-creating parents that we could be anything we wanted, now– even though some of the wealth has evaporated– we’re putting that maxim to the test. The success of freelancers, startups, and mobile entrepreneurs have expanded our definition of what a job can look like and we have so many new models to live by that it’s dizzying.
McDonald continues, “One thing [Baby Boomer wealth] did was give us more life options. Having options combined with a rebellion against our world of wealth has inspired some of us to explore a simpler, more authentic existence.”
This quest for authentic existence also means that we’d rather participate in a local experience than sit off in a towering resort. The sharing economy has made Airbnb the preferred alternative to hotels: “With its massive 18-34-year-old following, the company has usurped the InterContinental Hotels Group and Hilton Worldwide as the world’s largest hotel chain — without owning a single hotel.” Instead of gazing out at a new city from our hotel window, we’d rather experience it first hand through a spare room and a cab split five ways.
SAME THIRST FOR ADVENTURE, NEW TOOLS
While it’s debatable whether our love for the road is generationally unique, our ability to document our wanderings has changed drastically. We’re the first generation with the power to showcase our lives and lifestyles instantly, and we all seem to be able to scrape together enough content to make that story engaging. Social media may be Americas pastime of choice, but contrary to popular belief we’re not just living vicariously through our Instagram feeds. We realize that all those pretty pictures are best used as a form of inspiration.
“Honestly, I don’t think that much has changed. Humanity is what it is: animalistic, wild, charismatic,” says Asher Moss (@Basementfox), a musician and filmmaker. “I think it’s just gotten easier to move and to show yourself moving. With technology in full effect, we see everything everyone is doing.”
Magdalena Wosinska (@TheMagdalenaExperience), an L.A. based photographer, adds, “It seems now that everyone is into this wanderlust-adventure-thing. But I don’t think it’s just now. The people who want to travel have always made the effort to travel.”
Wosinska believe that it’s only the tools that are new. “The fucking iPhone was invented, and now everyone can be a photographer, which is awesome. People who used to have a hard time being creative can easily be creative now, and filters can make any image look more appealing. People are more motivated to capture the moments around them and their lifestyles.”
“Once those images are out there,” Magdalena continues, “Other people can learn and get inspired. You can easily be inspired by things you see on the Internet and Instagram for free — you don’t necessarily have to do endless research anymore. You can choose your sources of inspiration. That’s a generational thing.”
The abundance of travel porn leaves a big impression. It would be foolish to think it hasn’t led, in some small part, to more adventures. We have the technology and the tools to become armchair explorers. Google Earth can show you what the streets of Thailand look like. You can virtually walk down the sidewalk of any major city in South America or see a bird’s-eye view of any small town in Africa. See enough of the world virtually, witness enough adventure highlight reels, and you’re going to be tempted to get out there and experience things for yourself. Eventually you’re going to desire the smells and the flavors that technology can’t deliver (yet).
Matt McDonald credits technology with sparking the millennials’ sense of wonder, but doesn’t see it as an end unto itself. “With the boom of social media and sharing of information worldwide, we are more likely to daydream, and then physically act on those daydreams. When looking at someone else’s adventure on a screen becomes too much, you just gotta go!”
Wosinska adds, “The more we know the world exists the more we wanna explore it. I wanna touch, taste, smell, eat, understand the culture, meet the people. Go to a new land. See a new landscape. See different seasons there.”
AMERICAN DREAM REVISED
As Wosinska indicates, millennials aren’t wholly unique by any means. We still cling on to some facets of the conventional American dream, but whatever remains certainly has a different look. The white picket fence has had to morph to fit the context of our time. Remember that during our coming-of-age years the subprime loan bubble popped and those visions of domesticity now seem less ideal. The security that being a homeowner once symbolized has been shaken. We’re having fewer kids now, and the idea of raising those kids in a tiny house, or on the road seems not only feasible, but socially acceptable.
“All I know is that my parents had the all-American dream and I didn’t want it,” explains Asher Moss. “I had an epiphany while living in Nashville, Tennessee, a few years ago. I was working a regular job and — this is stupidly simple — I woke up one day and realized I could live any life I wanted to. I could do or be anything I wanted to. So I created an imaginary life and I moved into it.”
For Moss, the process of redefining his American Dream was ingeniously straightforward, but for many of us, that’s easier said than done. Oftentimes there are hurdles to jump before you can chase these visions of pure freedom — safe harbors to leave, day jobs to quit, loans to pay (or negotiate extended terms on). But generally, the idea of giving up normalcy to live the exact life we want still seems to feel doable to millennials, even when statistics relentlessly argue against it.
IT HAS TO BE ABOUT MORE THAN JUST THE ‘LIKES’
Sharing your travels is great, but what’s the endgame? As interested as we are in documentation, being mindful and having purpose beyond getting more followers is paramount. No one (millennial or not) is owed anything by the world and going somewhere just to say “I did it” is practice without passion. Your stories from Thailand may be solid cocktail party ammo or amount to 100+ likes, but don’t let your feed be the only thing that benefits from going abroad.
“If you aren’t learning, why would you bother going?” Josh Iokua Mori says. A well-traveled , Oprah approved Hawaiian activist and owner of the Pakahi Academy and Makana Training Center in Kaua’i, Mori encourages the kids he tutors to leave Hawaii in order to grow, and then he encourages them to return.
“It is an amazing thing to see what the world smells like, looks like, sounds like, etc,” Mori continues. “It’s so empowering for a young person to go and learn from the people who have been there the longest. Learning parts of someone else’s story, in their language, and acquiring skills that make their culture unique to this planet while reflecting on one’s home community can only serve to advance our youth.”
Mori is also wary of cultural imperialism. “Not everyone will do great things with what they see,” he says. “People need to be aware that some parts of some places are not for their traveling curiosity and that a picture or video or postcard doesn’t prove you experienced a place– it just proves that you traveled there.”
The millennial planning a trip (just like anyone planning a trip) would be wise to emphasize cultural respect. As Mori is quick to point out, “The presence of outsiders flaunting their world-views can pollute the native reality. Whether or not you experienced that culture in its organic form and whether or not that helped you better understand your place in the world — I think is how you know you’ve been somewhere.”
So, how did this new American dream that Ben McManus asks about come to be?
Here are a few guesses from a guy with experience dropping out of society to live in a van: We realized that the status quo wasn’t working, that those who were “too big to fail“ ultimately did. We accepted our hand and over the course of our 18-34 years we’ve grown comfortable with the realization that nothing is promised. In response, we opened our laptops, played on our phones, and — either through these advancements or in spite of them — developed a sense of wonder.
That sense of wonder evolved, and with ever expanding technologies we found others out there like us. That ultimately paved the way for a worldview that Baby Boomers are having a hard time understanding.
One generation moves on, another takes its place. Things often come full circle and maybe the white picket fence will make sense to us by the time cultural pundits are ready to deride the next set of young people. For now, we’re a generation fueled by passion and we’ve been encouraged — by each other — to find and hone our true callings. We support one another in new ways and leave breadcrumbs for others to follow.
We move in a way that isn’t unlike our parents but it also stands alone in its interconnectedness. Our rebellion isn’t to fight the system, it’s to leave the system entirely.
It’s a movement of movement. And it’s happening now.