07 February 2008

talkin' 'bout my generation

"Some call this cohort Generation Y, others Generation Next. Both names are prosaic and don't do justice to this group's emerging record. The generation that made negativism fashionable was the Beat Generation 50 years ago. This new group is helping to reverse things. The Upbeat Generation works for me."

- Henry Aubin in the Montreal Gazette

Part of my thesis research looks at the increasing trend of "voluntourism" (a type of tourism that mixes volunteer work with sightseeing), and the generation that has both fed and gravitated towards the voluntourism industry, my generation.

People born between 1981 and 1999 are considered part of this generation ("Y," "Next," or even "Millenial"). Some of its main characteristics include ambition, a passion for social justice, and a desire to make a difference. According to Lisa Johnson, author of Mind your Xs and Ys: Satisfying the 10 Cravings of a New Generation, these traits have been fostered in the era of self-esteem-based parenting, and community-minded messages in school curricula. Basically, Johnson says, Generation Y has been taught that giving one’s time and abilities is more valuable than simply donating money.

BUT, and this is the main "but" in my thesis, voluntourism is not just about giving time and abilities. It is, largely, about money. A person has to have money in order to affort to be a voluntourist. To go abroad to some of the poorest countries in the world can cost thousands of dollars. Most international volunteering organizations such as Youth Challenge International require volunteers to do their own fundraising, the success of which is often dependent on the wealth and generosity of the would-be volunteer's contacts.

Although volunteering may be about free work, it is certainly not free to volunteer. Voluntourism, what journalist Laura Fitzpatrick has called "Vacationing like Brangelina," seems to be a privilege of the priviledged.

It still involves a choice, however, between heading down to Cancun for an all-inclusive week of booze and buffets, or spending more money (sometimes 5 times the amount) to volunteer in some capacity.

Who makes this kind of choice? Is it the tourist who, after glimpsing the poverty just outside the gates of her five-star resort, decides to take a less decadent trip as a form of atonement for the guilt of the wealthy? Is it the jaded traveller who has seen it all and searches for something more "authentic?" Or, is it simply a person who feels it is her duty to use his relative priviledge for an altrustic purpose?

Does our generation genuinely want to help, or do we just want pictures to make us look worldly on Facebook?

As much as talk about how our generation exemplifies The Age of Ambition kind of excites me, I wouldn't dare to say we are all revolutionaries.

Which is why the term "social entrepreneur," grates on my nerves. The idea of social entrepreneurs is wonderful: "those who see a problem in society and roll up their sleeves to address it in new ways," as Nicholas D. Kristof puts it.When Bono looked at the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa and created the (RED) campaign, he became a social entrepreneur.

When people find a way to turn a social problem into a new business venture, they become social entrepreneurs.

This is great in theory, and often very successful in practice. Unite for Sight, for example, provides eye care and glasses for poor countries around the world. Social entrepreneurship wonderful when it accomplishes something, but awful when it is just a buzzword. It is at its best when people can find a way to make altruism into a functional business; it is a sham when people claim social entrepreneur status for social capital.

What I am most curious about over the next few decades, is what our generation will do with our altruistic impulses and all our effervescent ambition.


Emmett Macfarlane said...

Fascinating. Where do people born in 1980 fit in? I'm not a Generation X'er, am I?

Being at a place like Queen's opened me up to this phenomenon a bit (there are a LOT of privileged kids here). The cynic in me suggests a lot of the motivation on the part of many of people in that generation to go abroad and 'volunteer' is less altruism, and more an interest in padding their resumes so they can end up with some cushy job in the foreign affairs department... That doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of exceptions to that rule, of course, but raw ambition seems to be a motivator (although your crack about FB pictures might be apt as well!)

Matt @ said...

I tend to view voluntourism rather cynically, even though I'm a member of the Gen Y generation that's so in love with it. While I'm definitely in favour of programs like Doctors without Borders and the (who isn't?) like that are all about sending qualified, well-trained people to third-world countries in order to actually make a difference, I find it hard to see what real value a second-year English student brings to, say, AIDS-ravaged Africa. Sure, they could build a house or do administrative tasks, but wouldn't it better, somehow, to have a local doing those jobs? Can voluntourism really ever lead to sustainable change anywhere in the world?

I think Generation Y absolutely has a very strong and very honest social conscience, but we tend to be floundering a little, looking for a place where we can make a visible difference. I would imagine those who organize Voluntourism trips actually make a good deal of cash off of us for just that reason.

Really interesting post, by the way. I'm going to follow it up with more thoughts on my own blog later.

Matt Elliott

Dave said...

Ashoka's Changemakers recently announced their next competition, teaming up with National Geographic, which will be about Geotourism, might be an interesting competition to watch to see trends in the field/the best practices out there.

I also have a friend who is starting a troubled youth--voluntourism social venture similar to these wilderness therapy programs such as Anasazi which I think is an interesting mix.

John L said...

Matt, benevolent travel is often far more about how it changes the traveler than how the traveler changes the destination.