Tucked away deep within the Andes mountain range in Peru, fifty miles from the city of Cusco and almost 8,000 feet above sea level, lies the ancient Inca settlement of Machu Picchu. The site was well-known to historians and geographers, but was not heavily visited by Western tourists until the past decade, highlighted by a tourist count of over 1 million in 2011, the centennial anniversary of its discovery by Hiram Bingham.
The biggest growth in the tourism economy from 2002 to 2012 was from young travelers, and as of 2012, over 20% of the 1.088 trillion dollars spent on tourism was from this same demographic. This figure is more impressive when one considers that a great deal of these travelers earn far less than mature individuals would; many of them are in fact still students who are unemployed. During spring break and the post-graduation spring and summer months, social media is abuzz with countless pictures of the excursions of young travelers. The precise purpose of these trips vary, but the ultimate reason for travel is to escape modern civilization in the search of something new. Many travelers depart on lengthy vacations as a self-proclaimed voyage of self-discovery. In fact, a comprehensive study by the World Youth Student and Educational Travel Confederation (WYSE) surveyed 34,000 students and found that the average trip duration was 58 days, while the average cost was 3,000 Euros. Both of these figures were deemed “substantial increases” from the previous study’s results.
From an economic standpoint, it seems perplexing why there has actually been an increase in youth travel despite the fact that the average student debt in Canada is pegged at $26,300 according to BMO Group, and at $33,000 in the US according to an analysis of government data, which are both the highest these figures have ever been, even when adjusted for inflation. However, according to the WYSE, a growing number of travelers used their vacations to find work, study, or learn a new language. This desire for growth and purpose aligns with the results of a survey of Millennials by Deloitte, which determined that 60% of Millennials desire a sense of purpose with their work. Historically, travel has given Westerners a sense of purpose and perspective about the world by exposing them to different cultures and allowing them to rethink their current situation in the world, so due the mountain of debt and crisis of unemployment many youth face today, many have taken to foreign soils to seek a sense of purpose. But is it really there?
The pinnacle of infatuation with foreign culture and its integration into our own lives occurred during the 1960s, when remnants of the Beat movement were adopted by hippies as part of their culture. Eastern spirituality, medicine, and even musical influences were co-opted into Western society as an alternative to the repressive, square mainstream. Buddhist and Hindu ideas and terminology were heavily featured in the work of Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. This style of writing embraced travel as nourishment for the spirit and a necessary prescription to remove the repressive castes of Western society and embrace true self-discovery and spiritualism. Much of this countercultural touristic revolt was borne out of the critique of mass society of the 1950s. Many youth did not want to become trapped in a sea of conformity, but instead desired the freedom-granting flight of individualism.
The situation is no different today; in fact, it has increased in its potency due to a number of social innovations and changes. More youth than ever are attending university, which has encouraged more youth than ever to become free-thinking young adults who are exposed to a variety of opinions from their professors along the way.
Most universities create an atmosphere of exploration in all aspects of the self as students grow from youth into young adults. This increase in student uptake has no doubt led to an increase in the rejection of mainstream society as more youth seek purpose and fulfillment from employment and life in general. This pattern has also led to a rise in the number of new entrepreneurs due to a desire for individualism and widespread shunning of the corporate world by young adults.
The exaggerated fear of conformity and widespread embrace of individualism has led to “mainstream shaming” among many Millennials. For example, the term “basic” has recently been adopted as a derogatory slang term to describe those who are average, conformist, or stereotypical. This could include wearing popular items of clothing, having a certain taste in music, or it could even describe the general stereotypical behaviour of a group. For example, the stereotype of the “basic white girl” includes trips to Starbucks, wearing Ugg Boots, and an overly spiritual outlook on life that includes hobbies like yoga.
This cultural shaming of those who conform is a form of status posturing that is consistent in egalitarian societies. Additionally, those who are aware that their lifestyle reflects these violations of good taste shield themselves from criticism by acknowledging their faults in an ironic fashion. Essentially, many people who are deemed “basic” openly acknowledge the lifestyle and the social “sins” they are committing, but continue to indulge in them because of their ironic acceptance of their lifestyle.
To be individual is to be hip, to be conformist is to be square. Those who aspire for higher status posture themselves according to how cool their lifestyle is and how good their tastes are. By casting off the supposed suffocating shackles of mainstream society and escaping to foreign soils, young travelers aspire to gain a great sense of self-worth and fulfillment. However, the notion that one has to “escape” mainstream society and the conformist lifestyle in order to achieve fulfillment or enlightenment is a societal illusion created by countercultural viewpoint of mainstream society.
In recent years, cash has been replaced by social currency as the most important form of capital in the eyes of the cool youth. It doesn’t matter how much your salary is; only how happy you are, and this notion is supported by psychological research on happiness. I support this notion of chasing happiness over personal affluence, but unfortunately, many of the popular methods of acquiring social currency and happiness are, ironically, also quite expensive. Travel is one of the popular methods, as is eating organic or local foods, living in industrial loft-style apartments complete with designer furniture and accessories, or even living in a minimalist-style home. Although these methods may seem attractive when dressed in layers of happiness and a spiritual mantra, what is always hidden is the increased cost of these lifestyle choices.
Traveling, as evidenced by the report referenced above, is certainly not cheap, and will continue to become more expensive as the price of jet fuel continues to climb, as well as the increased costs of living experienced in foreign countries as they develop more. Organic foods, while they may appear holistically better on the surface, are in fact no better nutritionally for you than conventional versions of the same foods, but the name organic carries a premium price point. Local food is a better option only if you choose to support small businesses, because much of the produce at large supermarkets is purchased from local or domestic farms that just happen to operate a large scale.
Minimalist living spaces that are visually attractive are treated with a great deal of affection in the media, but if the prices and actual construction details were also included in these descriptions, people’s opinions may not be so favourable. Minimalist dwellings are much more expensive than a typical suburban home despite their smaller square footage, and this is due to the level of customization and complexity of the actual construction process.
Essentially, a labour-intensive design and build process combined with expensive (read: custom) materials makes for a pricey home, even if it is the size of a garage in your average suburban home. Unfortunately, these facts are often overlooked because an increasing amount of people are unaware of what goes into the construction of a house due to the diminishing amount of common knowledge of trades.
With that in mind, it becomes evident that the whole mantra of chasing happiness over material wealth and possessions has become quite hypocritical. It seems that happiness, while not directly related to a higher salary or a more expensive car, still seems to ultimately be a product of social status and wealth according to the bulk of articles aimed at Millennials. If happiness isn’t a product of monetary wealth, then why is there so much emphasis placed on relatively expensive pursuits in the discussion on happiness? It is because, in our current society, the value of individualism has skyrocketed, and the cost of almost all experiences or products associated with it has followed the same trajectory.
Let’s consider an everyday example: the purchase of your morning coffee. In Canada, the two largest coffee shop chains are Tim Horton’s and Starbucks. Tim Horton’s targets the every day customer and builds value on the efficiency of service and relatively low price they provide. People who regularly go to Tim Horton’s more often than not have simple orders, and the simplicity of the menu reflects this. Starbucks, on the other hand, caters towards the more individual-minded consumer. Their menu is much more diverse, exotic, and, most importantly, more expensive. A specialty beverage at Starbucks can reach almost $6 (CDN), while the most expensive specialty beverage at a Tim’s would barely surpass a peasantry amount of $4. The cost to make a specialty beverage is only a few cents more per drink than a standard one, but because of the sense of individualism gained through the purchase of a specialty drink, these retailers can get away with charging a premium price.
The same metric can be applied to the surge in youth travelers. At its core, traveling does present a unique set of challenges: going to unfamiliar territory, expanding your comfort zone with a new culture, physical demands, planning an itinerary, dealing with inevitable setbacks; the list goes on. It is this combination of challenges and opportunities that most youth travelers attribute to “finding themselves”. What is overlooked in this scenario is that these opportunities are just as prevalent in domestic locations as they are in foreign ones. One could experience virtually the same set of challenges on a canoe trip through Algonquin Park as they would backpacking in Southeast Asia, yet we hardly attribute a week-long excursion through the Eastern Ontario wilderness as a life-changing experience because Algonquin Park isn’t wrapped in same foreign mystique that a trek through a Cambodian rainforest is.
If the WYSE report is any indication, the youth tourism market will continue to increase as long as youth in the Western world continue to seek purpose and validation on foreign soils. With the increasing burden of student debt, a relatively poor job market, and an increasing level of status anxiety from social media, youth will continue to flee mainstream society. I argue that this need to escape is misplaced, as the happiness that awaits a traveler on foreign soils can also be found domestically. The fact is, when people are put in a new environment, they’re very good at finding happiness with whatever is available.
This is why when you hear the stories of people who volunteered abroad in a third world country, you will always hear how the experience changed their life, put their life in perspective, and made them realize that we just need get rid of our meaningless possessions and live simpler in order to be happy. This is not true at all. North American society is fundamentally different from the average third world country’s, so there is no reason to think that by altering our way of life to mirror theirs we will magically become happier. Helping people abroad will leave you with a good feeling because you helped somebody less fortunate than you (and even this notion has been thoroughly refuted), but that same feeling could have just as easily been realized at a local soup kitchen.
Vacations and travel certainly have their merit and value: they enrich our understanding of the world and are excellent educational experiences, but the notion that travel is the end to a means of self-discovery is an expensive fallacy. Travel obviously has it merits, but the degree to which we attribute personal transformations as a result of travel is often misplaced and is simply a product of our own maturation, which would have occurred whether we traveled or not.
I will conclude with this paragraph from the book The Rebel Sell that does an excellent job of putting everything in perspective:
“Perhaps then it is time that we learned to make peace with the masses. There are more than six billion human beings on this planet, each of whom has hopes, dreams, plans and projects very much like our own, and each of whom wants food, housing, education, dental care, a family, a job and probably a car – maybe a bicycle. Isn’t a certain loss of individuality inevitable in a world of this type? How many of the features of so-called mass society are a simple product of population pressure – the fact that we need to share the planet with so many other people – and how many are the product of genuine inefficiencies or inequalities in the organization of our social institutions? Isn’t individualism becoming more and more a luxury? If we are going to figure out how to live in harmony in an increasingly populous world, the insistence on individuality at any cost is not a helpful point of departure. We need to start figuring out which compromises are inevitable and which can be avoided.”