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Why We Travel: Ancient Roots of Millennial Desires

by Gilad Goren Dec 12, 2017

When the new year sets in, those of us lucky enough to have escaped over break will have the jarring task of acclimating back to the rigors of daily life. Whether 9 to 5, shiftwork, freelance or funemployed, return from one journey begets the genesis of plans for the next. And so begins the process of combing through endless reviews and travel deals, and the alluring chain of daydreams about the next escape.

But what is it that causes so many of us to spend our precious time and resources crafting the next adventure away from home? What is the root of this seemingly insatiable desire for exploration? And what does it reveal about us, as a millennial generation slowly coming to its own as the largest and potentially most powerful demographic for the world’s largest industry?

A bit about nomadism

Human society traces its roots back to the primitive hunter-gather. As The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunter and Gatherers puts it: “Hunting and gathering was humanity’s first and most successful adaptation, occupying at least 90 percent of human history. Until 12,000 years ago, all humans lived this way.” Beyond a constant focus on existential survival, there was very little else to distract and complicate.

Hunter-gatherer societies were mobile, agile, and egalitarian. Women enjoyed parity with their male counterparts, and leaders emerged only for specific and temporary needs. Egalitarianism ruled because mobility requires minimization of material possessions. You only own what you can carry with you. This lack of accumulated material wealth meant that the surplus of resources needed to support non-worker members of the clans, such as priests or the aristocracy, was simply impossible. Material inequality could not exist.

Anthropologists have come to challenge the Hobbesian view of the primitive person’s life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In fact, nomads had to face less hours of work (only 6.5 hours a day), ate as well if not better than their sedentary equivalents, and found satisfaction easily due to lack of dependence on material wealth for validation. Economic relationships consisted of a thick web of sharing and resource exchange, a gifting economy.

The above is not intended to idealize pre-neolithic time. It may, however, provide a bit of perspective regarding the desire for a more just society, a call often derided by the establishment as naïve and attributed to the young and wide-eyed — currently a slot filled by the generation Y. It proves that humans are not hard-wired for zero-sum competition, that the economic “survival of the fittest” is not our “factory setting.”

Now, most of us do not, nor will ever, espouse a true nomadic lifestyle. But as with our ancestral counterparts, whose nomadic lifestyle was a routine of temporary spouts of migration in search of sustenance, with an ordained desire to return home, we desire escape for mental or spiritual manna. We seek exotic oases where like-minded individuals congregate for anecdote-production and raw human connection.

The ascent of humanity

Nomadic communities, mobile, egalitarian, and free, represented the sole model of living from the dawn of man until the Neolithic revolution. 12,000 years ago, the first signs of agricultural practices made their mark in regions such as the Middle East, South America, and East Asia. Adoption of technologies such a plant domestication, husbandry and related techniques lay the groundwork for an alternative form of living, sedentary in nature and complex in form.

As hunter-gatherers gave up the spears for hoes, newly minted farmers now had to build permanent structures to house family, livestock, and grain. Reaping what you sow meant long seasons of surviving by the sweat of your brow, and the guileless paradise of the nomadic life became a thing of legends and myths. Meanwhile, improving harvests yielded the caloric abundance necessary for larger familial and tribal units, and the surplus to afford all the facets of culture and society we have come to accept as given.

Farmers toiling away their days tied to the earth make easy targets for bandits and predators, resulting in the creation of armed defense forces. A method of communication with the supernatural was needed to ensure a prosperous future, leading to the establishment of a priestly class. Increased complexity and growth of disparate familial units now connected by proximity called for effective centralization of resources, begetting the ruling class with all its trappings of social dominance and splendor.

Those who were swallowed up by sedentary empires were forcibly injected into the system of perpetual inequality delineated above.

Artisans and craftsmen traded their works with the domineering classes for protection and favors, with the farming classes for food, and with other craftsmen to attain material wealth. A merchant class, the consummate middleman through whose tireless work technology, philosophy, and all other wonders of the human mind were transmitted globally, wove nascent settlements into interlinked societies. Through coercion, trade, and strategic alliances, simple societies moved onwards to fiefdoms, kingdoms, and even empires.

The nomad emerged as the slave of the plants and animals he sought to dominate; a victim of progress. This proverbial ball and chain was made all the more real by the advent of codified systems of laws and regulation meant to formalize class structure. Whether through the apparent edicts of the gods above as delivered by their representatives on earth, or the law put forth by the ruling class and reinforced by their monopoly on violence, the individual’s role was made calcified, preordained by birth.

As societies grew further in complexity and compartmentalization, uniform units of currency, represented first in shells and clay tablets and eventually in precious metals, were made necessary for the regulation and effective domination by the few, the minters. The king guaranteed the value of the coin, again both through his monopoly on violence and the indentured servitude of his subjects, held in place through economic debt, dogmatic fealty, and fear. Power is addictive, and so consolidation of power led to a hunger for further expansion.

Nomadic tribes who refused to voluntarily give up their way of life were coerced to do so by brute force. Lands and resources were annexed and made private holdings of the ruling class. Nomads who were able to escape had to make due on increasingly barren and less-desirable territories. Meanwhile, those who were swallowed up by sedentary empires were forcibly injected into the system of perpetual inequality delineated above.

Naturally, history is never as linear as it seems, and nomads would play a significant role in the continuous flux of society in time. Names such as Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun are synonymous with the disruptive force of migration and culture clash. Yet a broad overview of the last 12,000 years reflects the steady decline of nomadism and the values it held in the face of a stratified, sedentary mode of living.

Adversarial, zero-sum competition became the law of the land.

The millennial traveler

By some accounts, travel is to be regarded as the world’s largest industry. It will account for almost 10% of global GDP by 2020, provides employment for one in eleven globally, and is considered the leading export for 83% of the world’s developing world. It is as ancient as humanity’s first steps and as wide as our desire for exploration can take us.

Within the next five to ten years, generation Y will represent the most high-value demographic in travel. It currently accounts for about $180 billion a year in expenditures and is expected to trend upwards as the millennials intend on taking longer and more frequent trips abroad.

As a result, this particular demographic has come to enjoy the industry spotlight, with industry groups and consultancy groups attempting to provide insight into the millennial traveler mindset, shaping a rising tied of generation Y focused campaigns from travel’s leading brands aimed at garnering millennial attention and loyalty.

Distilling the insights of recognized entities such as MMGY Global, Boston Consulting Group, and Skift, the millennial traveler can be can be summarized as thus:

  • They favor experience over material products. They seek self-fulfillment in their travels, desiring to be travelers rather than tourists.
  • They will rely first on peer reviews and word of mouth, preferring using their physical and social networks for insight. They are willing to spend the extra hours on research to secure the best trips, for the best price.
  • They prefer to travel in groups of like-minded individuals, and seek out experiences where they can connect with more of their kin.
  • They are generally more open to explore newer, off-the-beaten-path destinations, and travel abroad as much as possible.
  • Travel is another realm of “lifestyle”. Thus, choice in travel reflects the Millennial’s sense of identity.

In today’s world, where wealth and happiness are measured as the accumulation of material goods constantly marketed, travel provides an escape to a world we wish we knew. The attributes of the millennial traveler listed above correlate directly to the values espoused by our nomadic ancestors. They explored new territory with their kin, who served as their companions and councilors. Owning only what they could carry, wealth and happiness could not be attributed to earthly possessions. Travel, the very base of their lifestyle, formed every facet of the nomad’s identity.

The millennial generation sees experience as the new luxury. Anecdotes are recounted at parties and around the water-cooler in the same way the Epics were relayed time and time again around the campfires of the ancient past. The value of experience has only recently been rediscovered, yet it carries the same value it held before material goods made their debut. Your stories are badges of courage, strength, and virility. The gold watch you wear points to none of that.

We will always travel. It is ingrained in our DNA.

The dramatic rise in globally strewn festivals, events, and retreats represent a modern rendition of the oases, fabled sites where survival was made possible both physically and culturally. Beyond the provision of water and food, oases were places of meeting, exchange, and amelioration. Kinship was made and strengthened through the sharing of stories, gifts, and, of course, bodily fluids. The gatherings evolved from events needed for survival, to occasions of celebration eagerly awaited.

The festivals of today, while emerging from a different set of contextual needs, embody the same desire for connection and exchange. Attendees will travel across continents to take part in a Burning Man, a Kalu Yala or a Coachella. The events are a platform for transformation of all kinds, creating a temporary “mobility”, a society defined by shared values and rather than identities of birth. Upon return to the “default world”, attendees savor their transformative experiences through retelling of anecdotes and fantasizing about their next escape.

Millennials, at least most of us, will not be renouncing the trappings of western society in favor of the hunter-gatherer life. But a rising self-awareness and consciousness of desire to connect with those formative values lost in the ascent of Western hegemony forms our patterns as traveler,, and indeed our overall generational identity as well.

In providing some delineation for the roots of our desires to travel and the historical perspective connecting them in the very dawn of mankind, I hope we will have the courage to take the much-needed next step: to return those ancient/modern values to the helm. We will always travel. It is ingrained in our DNA. But just as the ancient nomads eventually returned bearing new knowledge and experience, we are tasked with planting at home the lessons and memories collected abroad, and nurturing the community and society in which we wish to live.

This article originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with permission.

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