On the Road: the spirit of travel from the Beats to the Millennials

Sunday 29 October, 12:0013:00, Cinema 2Debating the Past

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This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s iconic novel, On the Road, a testament to the emerging Beat Generation. The book was described by the Village Voice reviewer as ‘a rallying cry for the elusive spirit of rebellion of these times’. The sense of cutting loose and taking off that permeated Kerouac’s account influenced a newly mobile generation of young people who looked to the counter culture for inspiration on their own travels.

Subsequently, the hippie trail emerged. Such journeys were the preserve of relatively small numbers of often well-heeled youth, often in a position to reject materialism and cut ties with their jobs. Nevertheless, in their desire for communal living, harmony with nature, experimentation and recreation drug use, they epitomised an experimental vibe at the heart of the alternative travel culture.

Six decades on, the spirit of travel seems to have changed markedly. Today, youth travel for a Millennials generation is heavily marketed as ethical gap years, adventure travel and volunteer tourism. While the Beats dropped out of the mainstream in favour of a ticket to nowhere in particular, for today’s youth, what happens at the destination seems more important. Encouraged to sign up to a CV-enhancing experience, a marker of global citizenship, the kick seems less in the travel itself and more in contributing to the communities they visit – for example, by helping to build a school or a clinic in a developing country. Whereas Kerouac wrote ‘I saw my life as a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted’, today’s travellers appear more constrained – counselled to check their privilege and to be aware of the cultural and environmental damage they might cause.

Far-ranging travel is undertaken by many more people than ever contemplated travelling abroad in Kerouac’s day. But how should we assess changes in the spirit of travel? Has a sense of experimentation, adventure and self-reliance been lost in favour of heavily planned, socially minded ‘experiences’? Was the quest for self-expression epitomised by the Beats’ desire to ‘drop out’ too inward looking? Is travel a good thing in its own right, regardless of the aims and methods?