Inside the numbers: traveling

Posted: May 27, 2003 12:00 AM

As summer approaches, there is good news and bad in our latest InsiderAdvantage poll. With terrorism in the back of our minds and a terrible economy in the front of it, only 17 percent of American adults say they plan to travel less this summer than in the past. Twenty-four percent say they will travel more. The rest say nothing has changed this vacation season from past ones.

That's the good news. But the poll portends some bad news, too. It indicates what might be a deep-seated problem in the United States today, although harder to fathom than terrorist killers or empty wallets. The only age group that has more ambitious travel plans than ever is the 18-29 age group. That demographic showed a 44 percent jump in vacation plans over last year. That's hardly great news for the travel and hospitality industry, which desperately need bigger spenders on the road than the under-30s will provide.

Beyond that, the wide disparity in travel plans among the younger and older says something about the just-out-of-college generation. Without impugning the work ethic of the many exceptions to the rule, I think it's safe to say that anyone with experience with the younger end of the workforce knows where this essay is headed.

How many employers and experienced workers in America have, like me, been taken aback by the unrealistic expectations

of the young and the restless as they set out to make their fortunes? They all seem to expect a salary based on their personal needs, not on their company's professional ones. They want not only luxuries but also plenty of time to enjoy them. They think holidays begin a day before they're scheduled and end a day later than the weekend that follows them. And that these off days should be followed by a gracious number of half days out and late days in, and plenty of non-work-related fun in between. Sound familiar?

I know, I know: Old people like me are all the same in our bitter grousing. (I'm 43, which looks old enough to the young and feels old enough to me.) And of course there are loads of hardworking young doctors, lawyers, businesspeople and others who contribute to their own individual and our collective economic well-being.

But there seems to be many more who don't. Too many more. The blame for their absurd sense of entitlement without personal sacrifice can most fairly be put on the shoulders of the generations that immediately precede them. This nation has changed its way of thinking about work and relaxation. What used to be a day's holiday has morphed into a long weekend that starts on Thursday and ends the next Tuesday. It's usually concluded with the explanation of: "We couldn't get a flight out. Sorry." Vacation days, once limited to two weeks a year, are now tacked on like so much "extra credit" in grammar school. Business planning becomes problematic. (As if it could get any more so.)

The trend isn't confined to working stiffs, either. Recent television programs about the rich and famous in Palm Beach and the Hamptons can only lead to a similar, sour conclusion: These capitalist aristocrats may think they work, but many of them wouldn't even recognize a hard day if they saw one. Between official holidays, travels abroad and six months at one of these two centers of relaxation, there's just precious little time to dirty one's fingers by indulging in the "W" word -- work.

The problem is that our emerging young workforce has seen these same TV shows. It's likely they believe everyone is by divine right owed an apartment like the ones on MTV, a BMW convertible and plenty of cash to unload on a whim. And why not? Their parents had it good, they say. Why shouldn't they?

Yes, most generations think they had it harder than the one that follows them. (Often, they're right.) Certainly as I bang out this column during the long Memorial Day weekend, I can fairly be accused of just plain old envy and bitterness. But in the polling business, I've found that hard numbers often combine with anecdotal experiences to form a rapidly focusing picture -- a new trend. That's why I find it unsurprising that young adults plan to travel more than ever this year, in spite of the hard times. They look to be following the road of less productivity in America; a road first mapped by their preceding elders, and now being paved by their offspring.

But let's be optimistic. It's good to see young people venturing forth to see the world they live in. After all, youth is a fleeting thing. Let's just hope that when they finally return from their travels, they still have a job to pay for it.