After I arrived in England there was a lull in my rate of long conversations with strangers. I had a wonderful time living the British University lifestyle at Cambridge, but in that insular world it seemed like the chances of falling into conversation with people on the street were less likely. As a testament to the insularity of the “elite” University universe, I ran into not one, but two of my high school ski teammates by complete chance while wandering the streets. These were great small world moments, but also uncomfortable reminders of my own privilege and how internationally it stretches.
Once I found myself alone in Paris, this insular world vanished immediately. On my first two nights, I was terrified by the prospect of spending the summer alone, but I quickly realized that, when staying in hostels, it’s nearly impossible not to make friends. In fact, by the time I left Paris, I began to avoid eye contact in the hostel so I would have time to actually visit all the museums and such that this job asks of me. But in between fear of loneliness, and avoidance of prolonged interaction, I met some of the most interesting people I had in years at the bar, in my bunk room or just walking out the door to explore. Here is just one story, with more hostel tales to follow:
After my first night alone, I strutted into the hostel bar determined to make friends. Never having tried to pick up friends in a bar before, I just posted up at a table until I heard a few guys talking about surfing a river wave in Munich. Not one to miss a strange outdoor activity, I made my move and asked for some details (I don’t know how to surf at all). Nor did any of them, but I quickly discovered that you don’t need an excuse to awkwardly interject yourself into a conversation at a hostel—everyone’s hoping you will anyway.
And when he lost the girlfriend, he decided to lose the rest of it too
I ended up hanging out with that group for the next few days and got to know a Swedish man named Patrick fairly well, among other great new friends. As Patrick described it to me, he had his own postcard-perfect life before beginning his travels. He had the electrical engineering job he had been studying for since he was young, the girlfriend he’d been chasing for years, and a dearly beloved dog. But, he was bored. And when he lost the girlfriend, he decided to lose the rest of it too, even quitting the job he’d been climbing the career ladders for years to get. The dog is now tattooed on his arm; I’m not sure what happened to its physical manifestation.
His description of his work seemed to echo a common story among our generation: it was demanding, well-paying, hard to obtain, but left no room whatsoever for individual creativity and self-expression. So his new plan was to travel around Europe with his camera and try to take pictures until he could finagle some sort of career as a photographer. If that didn’t work out, he said, he could work for three months and then travel for three months or as long as he wanted.
This story comes up over and over again among young people: boring work that yields material prosperity isn’t enough. That was enough for their parents, but with a reasonable quality of life available anyway, sacrificing all their human creativity in order to support themselves no longer seems necessary. If that means less stability, so be it.
The old and self-congratulatory generation often attacks millennials for being lazy, unambitious, good-for-nothings etcetera, etcetera. There’s a lot of well-trodden responses to that argument that don’t need repeating. But taking Patrick’s example as a test case, I read another dimension as to why this assessment is wrong, beyond the obvious lack of opportunities. There is a resistance to work, without a doubt. But it’s not a resistance to labor at large, but a particular kind of work: the standardized, hierarchical, almost mechanical sort of labor that has passed from industrial manufacturing to all other sectors of the economy. That sort of labor crushes human creativity, but previous generations embraced it as a route to material success. Younger generations rightfully reject that mechanization, but not in favor of not working at all. Patrick would obsessively curate the photos he took on his travels, without any concrete expectation of receiving a reward for his labors. Creative, nonroutine work is in high demand, and people want to do it whether or not they expect compensation. With a reasonable standard of living achieved through mass production, the question is now how to achieve that same standard of living through an economy of jobs that don’t make people lose their minds. This is a tough question to solve, but, unless we can all be photographers, it is one that needs solving for the sanity of a generation.
Will often finds himself confused and disoriented in dangerous situations and usually, joyfully stumbles his way out. His one cool story describes the time his Subaru broke down in the Utah desert and he was forced to spend three days camping out in a junkyard until a distant friend gave him a free 1995 GMC Safari van. Nothing has gone wrong in Switzerland and Paris just yet, but he has all his muscles braced for an escape effort. Outside of frolicking around the merry world, Will likes skiing, mountain biking, and reading. He studies Social Studies and would like you to know that is a very important and meaningful subject.