In the summer of 2012, at age 24, I left home to travel the world. In just over a year, I backpacked through South America, South Asia, Western Europe, and the western United States. I hiked the Inca Trail, skied the Alps, hitchhiked through Patagonia, and trekked through the Himalayas. I worked at hostels, stayed at a Buddhist monastery, and gardened at an English women’s retreat center in exchange for meals and a place to sleep. And while I learned many things on the trip, what was most surprising was how many people my age were traveling just like me.
In the United States, the Boston Consulting Group reports, the millennial generation, defined as those between the ages of 16 and 34, is more interested than older generations in traveling abroad as much as possible—by a 23-percentage-point margin. The United Nations estimates that 20 percent of all international tourists, or nearly 200 million travelers, are young people, and that this demographic generates more than $180 billion in annual tourism revenue, an increase of nearly 30 percent since 2007. The UN attributes that growth both to rising incomes in emerging markets and a commitment by youth in advanced economies to “continue traveling despite economic uncertainty.” We are now the fastest-growing age segment in terms of the money we spend on travel, according to American Express Business Insights.
This kind of travel did not come naturally to me. I grew up middle class in Florida in a family where “traveling” generally meant driving two hours to the nicest nearby beach. I got a passport when I was 16 so I could visit my extended family in Ecuador, and by the time I entered college, that family reunion was still the only time I had ever been overseas. Until I discovered the backpacking scene, I always considered travel to be something reserved for the wealthy, or at least for people with far more experience abroad than I had.
But with easy access to social media and budget-travel tools like Airbnb, Couchsurfing, Skyscanner, and Lonely Planet message boards, I soon realized that long-term travel wasn’t nearly as expensive or difficult as I had imagined. I funded my 15-month trip on a little more than $16,000 (that’s luxurious: many backpackers I met spent half as much in the same amount of time). I saved more than half the money from a part-time job in high school, and the rest came from two years of work after college. And while there’s little data on the economic backgrounds of backpackers, the people I met during my trip—waiters, teachers, seasonal workers, flight attendants, carpenters—gave me the sense that people of diverse means had done the same.
In the case of American millennials, many of us also feel like there’s little reason to wait until our golden years to see the world. Our generation has arguably been hit hardest by the recession, and grown skeptical of the best-laid retirement plans. According to the Center for Retirement Research, less than a third of private-sector workers in the U.S. had defined-benefit coverage for retirement in 2010, down from 44 percent in 1995 and 88 percent in 1983. Since 1985, the number of companies offering pensions has fallen from 112,000 to 23,000. The Pew Research Center has reported that only 6 percent of millennials expect to receive the kinds of Social Security benefits that today’s retirees enjoy. Half don’t believe there will be money remaining in the Social Security system by the time they retire, and an additional 39 percent think these benefits will be significantly reduced. Under these circumstances, it makes sense that we’d travel now, instead of saving travel for a future that is in no way guaranteed.