For more explanation of this month’s theme, “millennials in thirty things,” check out this post.
Almost 150 percent more millennials study abroad in college than the previous generation. In a 2013 poll of millennials, sixty percent said that learning a foreign language was either very or somewhat important. The statistics abound: we are more likely to want to travel abroad, more likely to actually travel abroad, more likely to study abroad, to learn a foreign language, to engage with other cultures… the list goes on. My generation is unquestionably more internationally inclined. I am curious about why.
Personally speaking, I cannot remember a time when I didn’t want to travel abroad. I was always driven by the idea of the adventure and seeing new and unique places—after all, Carmen Sandiego wasn’t going to find herself—and sought out all opportunities I could find. As far as I can tell, it stems primarily from my natural curiosity and love of learning, but I suspect there must be more to it than that. It’s highly unlikely that everyone my age is as curious as me, and yet we all are travelling more. So what are the common denominators?
One of these denominators is certainly accessibility. The real cost per mile of airline tickets has fallen more than 100 percent since 1980, opening up an industry formerly reserved for the jet set—pun very much intended—to a wider array of passengers. Budget airlines have also lowered the barrier for long-distance gallivanting: I once flew from Alicante, Spain to London round-trip for 30 euros. Combine much lower prices with the proliferation of self-service travel options, from Expedia to Kayak to Cheapoair, and the ability of the bourgeoisie to travel has skyrocketed.
It can’t all be price-based, though. Budget airlines may be popular, but to date there are none available which get you across an ocean, and the American budget airline market is much more expensive than Europe’s Ryanair and EasyJet. This wanderlust is at some level a conscious decision, and I think to a certain degree it reflects a changing relationship with other cultures. It’s not that we’re necessarily less patriotic—indeed, many studies show millennials trust our government more than past generations. But millennials are by far the most diverse demographic group in American history; only 58 percent are non-Hispanic white, the lowest percentage ever. It may be that, thanks to this increased diversity and comfort with disparate cultures at home, we are more willing to leave our comfort zone and engage with different cultures abroad.
There is also a changing perception among Americans of what a successful life should look like. One version—the Jack Donaghy version—holds that we should work hard, do well in school, graduate with a reputable college degree, find a stable, well-paying job, settle down and begin climbing the career ladder. That perspective has lost some ground in recent years to the millennial view. We tend to place a much higher emphasis on whether the job is right for us—according to the Atlantic, a 2012 survey found that we are much more likely to care about fulfillment in the workplace than past generations. Positive work environments and shared values are of increased importance as well. This enhanced focus on self-fulfillment also manifests itself through travel. Life is short; do what you want when you can.
There are no doubt critics to this approach, and indeed it does have its disadvantages. Working in Washington, I can confirm first-hand that I am a step behind many of my peers relative to my age. Most millennials in D.C. came directly after college or have a graduate degree or both, two things which I could have done and didn’t in the past two years. Travelling young definitely has an opportunity cost. For me, however, that cost pales in comparison to the benefits. Travelling, and particularly living, abroad taught me how to adjust to new type of life and forced me to observe another part of the world through a completely different lens. It helped me determine what’s important to me, made me more compassionate and gave me a perspective that’s impossible to get any other way. I learned how to take risks, how to make friends, and how to appreciate the incredible diversity that this world has to offer. If those experiences mean I have to wait a few more years to become Secretary of State, so be it.
After working in Washington, D.C., for two years, Andrew Orlebeke (’10) is in graduate school in Seattle, Washington, studying public policy. In addition to public service, he has a passion for traveling and an abiding love of sports.