Why Kids These Days Don’t Know a Damn Thing About Travel

Last summer I wrote an article for the Viator Travel Blog about Why We Travel. I don’t want to rehash my previous post, but the context is important. So let me restate my main argument:

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Kids these days, they don’t know a damn thing about travel.

Hmmm, in retrospect that may be just a little inflammatory, indicting an entire generation. Yet my argument was that today’s teens and ”˜tweens have been utterly corrupted by what passes for ”˜travel content’ on the internet, in magazines, and most crucially, on television. It’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the system. Of Big Media. Of crappy travel television programming that prioritizes the bottom line over decent travel content.

Needless to say, my thesis did not go down very well with young travelers. I was called a snob. I was called self-righteous. I was called old, out of touch, somebody who probably walked through five feet of snow back in the day. My own sister (age 18 at the time) accused me of being totally insensitive to her and her friends. Apparently I hurt a lot of feelings.

I said then (and still say now) that the truth sometimes hurts.

Since then, I’ve continued thinking about and debating this topic. My views have not changed. However I do agree that the situation is not as bad as I originally thought. There is room for optimism, maybe, just a little.

But first, the reasons to be glum.

Travelers on the Concourse, O'Hare Airport
© Idle Type

The Glass Half Empty: Why We (Don’t) Travel

My generation came of age using Lonely Planet. We were all about discovering ourselves, and the world, through travel. Today’s generation seems more interested in extreme experiences. And in social networking that connects groups of like-minded people in real time, all the time.

Yet witness the latest crop of reality ”˜travel’ shows. I’m talking about Last One Standing, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, Bizarre Foods, The Best Places to Find Cash and Treasure, Man vs. Wild, I Shouldn’t Be Alive, Going Tribal, Everest: Beyond the Limit, Survivorman, and one that really gets me annoyed, the television travesty known as Edge of Existence.

What’s the common thread in these shows? Extreme view points packaged in the tired ”˜reality TV’ format. In each of these shows there is a narrow focus on the presenters rather than the cultures and people they encounter. Silly me, I thought travel was all about discovering one’s self, and the world, through having new experiences and meeting new people. It’s not the extreme experience that counts, it’s the new experience that counts. It’s the face-to-face connections you make with new people and new cultures. It is not about going somewhere new and forgetting to step beyond the well-worn tourist path. It is not about checking email incessantly at the local internet café and playing Scrabulous with friends back home.

“But Scott,” you say, “maybe you’re just too old and boring to stay on top of these new trends in travel.” OK, sure, I admit that is a possibility. But before I admit defeat, let me point out a few sobering facts about today’s 18 — 24 years olds (at least American 18 — 24 years olds, it’s hard to find similar data for European, Aussie, Canadian and others):

  • 63% cannot find Iraq on a map.
  • 88% cannot find Afghanistan on a map.
  • 70% have never traveled outside the USA.
  • Only 22% own a passport.

These numbers don’t mean too much on their own. Yet they look worrying next to 2006 data showing a decline in volunteer & study abroad programs; a drop in studying foreign languages in the first 2 years of college; and an increase in young Americans who say “it is not important” to pay close attention to foreign news and events.

So what’s the big deal?

On one hand, there is nothing new here. Nobody would claim Americans are especially worldly, so it’s not surprising that fewer the 3 in 10 under age 24 have ever traveled outside the USA.

But here’s the thing. Over the past 8 years the reputation of the USA has taken a major beating (Bush, Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, you get the picture). At the same time, the U.S. has made it much harder for foreign travelers to visit thanks to a slew of new passport controls and visa restrictions.

Now the U.S. economy appears headed into a recession. The US dollar is worth fewer pounds, euros, baht and rupees. Traveling abroad is more expensive. Terrorism and anti-American violence is on the rise. When you stop and think about it, there are a lot of reasons why Americans (and young Americans in particular) are not traveling as much as they did even 10 years ago.

And the mainstream media is capitalizing on this new insularity and new worldview conservatism. New TV programming panders to the well-heeled kids who can still afford a weekend shopping spree in London or Paris. And panders to the kids who’ve never been abroad, don’t know what it’s like, and can’t afford to discover it for themselves.

So at a time when it’s getting harder enough for Americans to experience the world (and equally hard for the world to experience Americans), our media outlets serve up a non-stop menu of travel fantasy, extreme travel, near-death travel, travel as freak show, but little else. I worry that, thanks to the explosion of mediocre reality-television shows, travel in our pop culture is becoming a mere synonym for testing your limits. For putting yourself into extreme situations. For getting sun stroke. For eating bugs.

And these are not reasons why we should travel.

Travel Inspiration Card
© [Satbir]

The Glass Half Full: Why We Travel

Let me ask you this: If you wanted to learn more about the Greek islands, say, or the literary history of Paris’ cafes, or maybe get tips on trekking through the rainforest of Brazil, where would you go on television to find it?


Instead you’d go to Google, or YouTube, or Flickr or to a host of online sites offering a chaotic mix of world views, travel tales, first-hand trip accounts and more. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this.

Just the opposite, in fact: the web will eventually transform this generation of travelers into a force of good. I think we’re still a few years away from achieving this vision, but you can see the rough outlines taking shape today.

The upside to 24/7 connectivity — to Facebook and MySpace friends, to phones that support email and Instant Message no matter where you live or travel, in dozens of countries — is that today’s teenagers and ”˜tweens have access to millions of unique, real, uncorrupted voices. And this is a huge advantage when planning a travel experience. If you want to connect with a peer in Mumbai or Sydney, Istanbul or Mexico City, it’s incredibly easy to do so. If you want to plan an entire trip couch surfing with strangers in foreign countries, it’s incredibly easy to do so.

The challenge, of course, is simply doing it.

And learning the difference between travel planning and travel doing. I’ve met too many teenagers who talk about taking a trip, but then don’t or can’t. I’ve watched too many shows on cable and broadcast TV aimed at convincing kids that foreign shopping sprees and travel are the same thing.

I’m not sure how to fix the problem, but I will say this. If everybody in the 15 — 24 age bracket followed even one piece of my humble advice, I do think the world would be a better place. If you have an opportunity to travel abroad, take it. If you have an opportunity to study abroad, take it. Turn off the television, throw away the guidebook, turn off your phone, don’t check email, don’t get near a computer. Put on a backpack, and just go. Anywhere. It doesn’t really matter. Just go.

Because that is why we travel.

  1. I suspect I’m more in Scott’s age bracket so I definitely agree with many of the points he makes here. This is, to me anyway, symptomatic of a bigger issue affecting Generations Y & Z – these kids are exposed to far too much of the cyberworld before they’ve even had much of a chance to learn to survive and thrive in the real world. They’re too plugged in!

    Gen Y & Z people have a TV & DVD player (and often times, a videogame console) in every room of the house and in each car. These kids can’t hack a 2-hour plane ride without jacking into their PSPs or DVD players.

    We are, as a society, actually creating disorders like ADD & ADHD via the behaviors we instill in our children & young adults.

    My wife & I sat next to an American ex-pat on a recent flight from Atlanta to Moscow. We struck up a series of lengthy chats and became fast friends. Not long after we landed, our new friend looked us up and insisted that she show us the town. You can’t get experiences like these if you’re too busy chatting online with your buds back home to even look at the person seated next to you.

    So, sure, I’m sitting here checking email & blogs from my rented apartment in Moscow in the wee morning hours, so I’m not advocating that we need to turn everyone into Luddites, but people do need to understand & appreciate the value of unplugging.

  2. I don’t disagree that there are some young people who don’t travel for the reasons you’ve given, but there are many other reasons.

    I’m 19, and I’ve simply never had the chance to travel before – I’ve been too poor, and my parents never encouraged it. Hell, anything more than a half-hour drive is too far without a very good reason, according to my mother. (I have been to Wyoming and Florida, and that’s about it.)
    And most of my friends have the same experience – the travel we’re most familiar with is presented as dauntingly complicated and prohibitively expensive. I don’t have a spare $100 for a passport, let alone international plane tickets; you can’t even fly into Canada without a passport, and soon you won’t be able to walk there, either. Even domestic travel tends to be costly – a bus or train ticket is often well over $100 or $200 round-trip, plus food, lodging, and whatever you’re going to do while you’re there. When we’re trying to focus on getting through school without going into massive debt, or paying our bills on minimum wage, travel is seen as a luxury.
    Every adult I’ve met – those out of the under-24 range – has discouraged us from traveling, too. It’s too dangerous, it costs too much (when you should be saving for college), you’re going to get mugged and raped and blown up. When I tell people I’m going to Chicago (and I’m only in Ohio!) for a weekend with my two closest friends, they’re horrified, not happy (the most positive reaction I’ve had was confused – “But why?”).
    I don’t know anyone my age who doesn’t want to travel. It isn’t that we all just want to sit at home and play videogames all day. We have obligations a lot of people forget – whether school, an inflexible job, or ill parents. No, it’s not like having to plan trips around an office job and children, but I’ve met so many older people who are under the impression we can take off for weeks at a time with little notice.
    Really, I’m a little surprised anyone in my age group has traveled at all. A friend of mine has done some traveling for school (Peru, and Spain this summer), and while it’s inspiring and makes me want to get out of here and see the world, the realities of it – passport problems, the insane cost of the plane tickets, luggage mangling, and how much more expensive it would have been if she weren’t going through a school program – are discouraging.
    This past year I’ve been doing research on how I can travel, given the circumstances: being very, very broke; being under 21; not having any support from relatives or older adults; limited access to a vehicle (my mother needs the car for work, and there’s no way I can afford one of my own); having no vacation time at work. I’m setting up a site for my research, to connect other young poor explorers and share information. There are options, but few of us are aware of them. I don’t think turning off the computer and disconnecting yourself from technology is the single best solution, but I am one of those dumb wired kids who loves me some internets… and without the internet, I wouldn’t be traveling at all. Technology is not the enemy – the problems come with how you use it.

    (The state of geography education is unforgivable, though, and I don’t take “Well, my school didn’t teach me!” as an excuse from peers. I taught myself where everything is, and at least some basics about each country and its culture. There are fewer than 200 countries. If you can memorize that many goddamn cheat codes for your X-Box, you can remember where Haiti is.)

  3. As an Aussie I guess my perspective is different. From what Scott has said I would deduct that there are a lot more young Aussies between 18-24 travelling than the stats for America. Almost all of the people I know have been overseas, which is a bit frustrating for someone like me.

    As a 19 year old I’ve kindled the desire to travel overseas for seven years, but coming from a lower middle-income background and a small town (employment was difficult), I couldn’t get the money. Apart from an independent trip to the other side of the country when I was 16, I haven’t travelled outside of the mid-east coast.

    I went straight onto University, thought about doing a semester overseas, but decided not to because the subjects never seemed as good (I have a thirst for knowledge). And now, at 19 and 1/2, I am finally planning a trip to Turkey at the end of the year.

    In Australia University ends in November, so I’ll be leaving after my final semester, and in some ways I feel that may limit my career chances. But I have wanted to travel for so long (I’ve been saving the little scholarship money I get in what I called my Travel Account since my first trip by myself), and I think the benefits outweigh the risks. You have to take risks – that’s life. And the idea of an employer wanting to hire a 19 year old who hasn’t even been out of the country would seem to limit my career options anyway.

    So before people start talking about which “generation” is ignorant of travel, please consider the social implications for young people. There is a faster pace in lifestyle these days (at least in Australia that’s the case), and with such advances in communication technologies like the internet, competition for jobs is tough on young people. Who could blame anyone for wanting financial security?

    I don’t think the issue is that young people don’t know a thing about travel, I think it’s that they possibly don’t know the value of travel to other aspects of life, and how it may end up a benefit in the long run.

  4. There is much in this world with which to be concerned. Why someone thinks that his theories on why young people don’t travel would be of much importance is beyond me. And why one would think they need to travel abroad is even more beyond me. American youth: See the USA when you have the time, a little money, and the desire.

  5. Hey dick-cheese, Survivorman is not a travel show. It’s a survival education program. Designed to give people useful and life-saving information in case they find themselves in an unavoidable/accidental situation in nature. The only reality thing about it is the fact that Les puts himself in real life threatening situations that could happen to anyone, and he does it alone to show that you do have a chance at survival. Do some research before you start running your mouth.

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