Seven months ago, when I quit my job, sold my car, gave up the lease on my apartment and took a one-way flight to the other side of the world I knew I wasn’t choosing the safe option. I had a good job. A beautiful apartment. A happy, familiar life.
But for me it was the only option. In a series of clichés, I knew that I would regret it if I didn’t; that this was a dream I had to pursue; that there is a big wide world out there and that I wanted to be in it.
I also knew it was possible. In a way that people in different times and places haven’t been able to, I could do more than just dream about it – I could do it.
As I’ve travelled around the UK and Europe I’ve heard a common refrain when people ask about my plans. “You Australians,” they say when I inform them that no, I’m not going home after this country, no, not even after the next country. “You Australians are always going off travelling for a year or two. How do you do it?”
I was born in 1986, which plants me well into the millennial generation. I grew up being told I could pursue the paths that interested me. In my childhood home, we were allowed to do most things, the only requirement being that we “did our best”. Unlike my mum, who wasn’t allowed to do tech drawing or woodwork at school because girls only did cooking and sewing, I had relative freedom to imagine any kind of future for myself.
When I was thirteen I saw a poster at school for an exchange program to America and suddenly I had visions of a new, foreign place – and me in it. The thrill of adventure took hold of my imagination. While I never did go on exchange to America that frisson of excitement has never really gone away. For years I have been able to bring it on simply by staring at Russia on a map and thinking about how absolutely vast it is. What the heck is even in there? I’d wonder.
So back to that year or two abroad. The primary requirement for a life of travel is, of course, money – enough money to cover your basic needs and get you from A to B. So when people say, how are you able to travel for a year without working? I have to acknowledge that I am privileged. That for a number of reasons I’ve been able to hold a steady job with an average salary and stay debt free for long enough to save up a nice little travel fund.
But there are also a few factors that I think are unique to Gen Y. I’m spending little, choosing budget accommodation and cheap coach tickets where possible. I have friends dotted around the place, allowing me to travel slowly, staying in places a little longer to soak up the local life and stretch the pennies.
It turns out these are key to the millennial style of travel. A Travel Weekly article in February of this year listed the ways in which my generation travels differently to previous ones, and as I read them a little ‘ding’ of recognition went off in my head.
Seeking authentic, immersive experiences – check. Easy access to travel information – check. Cheaper airfares – check. Last-minute deals online – check. Fewer border hassles – check. Staying with friends and family – check.
Much of these are about money, but the thing is, I don’t think the bargain-hunting is out of necessity. The average disposable income in Australia is nearly $6,000 higher than the OECD average, and major travel costs are cheaper than they used to be, especially for the independent traveller. But even though the average disposable income in Australia has grown significantly over the past thirty years, from $29,000 to $53,000, for people in their twenties incomes have not risen a whole lot; it’s the older generations who are both earning more and accumulating more wealth than they used to.
So yes, we have a little more cash to flash than our parents did at the same age, but not hugely. If it’s not simply the fact of having money that catapults my generation around the world, what is it? And why do Australians in particular feel the need to pack our bags and live in Berlin, or spend six months riding a bike across south-east Asia? We’ve long had a reputation for cruising around the world – we’re the country of the long-service leave, the “she’ll be right” attitude, and it takes so long to get anywhere that when you arrive you might as well stay. But short of diving into an analysis of the national character, the question remains: Why did our parents not do the same in such numbers?
I think it comes back to the messages we’ve been fed our whole lives. When choosing a career path I often heard the catchphrase ‘do what you love, love what you do’. And when I imagined living abroad someday, I didn’t doubt for a second that I could.
So in the end it didn’t feel terribly brave to me. Yes, I felt the lack of security as my bank balance started to go backwards instead of forwards. But otherwise, I simply felt free to choose. We millennials have always been allowed to explore our own interests, to envisage a future of our own design. I’ve always been allowed to pursue my curiosity, and this curiosity has brought me to the doorstep of that vast country I’ve often stared at on the map: I’m about to land in Russia and see the country from Moscow to Vladivostok for myself.
Millenial travel habits: (http://www.travelweekly.com/Arnie-Weissmann/Todays-and-tomorrows-millennials)
‘The Wealth of Generations’, Grattan Institute, December 2014 (http://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/820-wealth-of-generations3.pdf)
Comparing disposable income: http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/topics/income/
Australian cost of living: http://www.smh.com.au/business/the-economy/australia-the-most-expensive-country-in-the-g20-20140511-3846v