Experiences Over Material Things

As a frequent traveller, I spend most of my money on travelling, and I’ve received so much hate for it. The hate mostly comes from older Singaporeans (thanks, Grandma). They call Singaporean Millennials spoilt, lazy and spendthrift, and can’t understand why Millennials “need” to travel.

But brushing off Millennials as impractical because we want to spend on experiences (avocado toast, anyone?) overly simplifies the motivation behind our consumption patterns.

Travel data platform ADARA revealed that 79% of Singaporean Millennials prioritise travel above any other expense. The preference to spend on travelling and experiences, rather than material objects such as cars, is a direct response to how today’s young Singaporeans define success.

Taste influences consumption practices

First of all, we need to understand the concept of taste.

Taste is an individual’s patterns of choice and preference. It draws distinctions between things via styles, manner, and consumer goods. Consequently, consumption practices are defined by tastes and are used by the different socioeconomic classes to distinguish themselves from each other.

So if one’s taste is a personal preference, why do some people have “good or bad taste”?

Turns out, good taste is determined and controlled by upper-class consumption. Their tastes and consumption practices are what others try to emulate.

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Shift toward inconspicuous consumption

So what happens when the upper classes and the working classes start to have the same things? The symbolic value of toting luxury items decreases as they are no longer exclusive.

Having flashy expensive things signal has become linked to the need to prove oneself, with the owner of said item probably originating from a more humble upbringing.

Displaying conspicuous material consumption, once the ideal status symbol, now serves as a marker of bad taste. This is why having a watch blinged out with a gazillion diamonds screams trashy, not classy.

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In response, the upper classes have evolved to favour inconspicuous consumption as luxury goods can no longer be effectively used to distinguish the different socioeconomic classes.

This type of consumption involves spending on “non-visible, highly expensive goods and services”. Inconspicuous consumption emphasises subtlety in luxury. In wealthy Singapore, this is how “old money” distinguish themselves from “new money”.

Inconspicuous consumption is now the favoured mode of wealth signalling. The easiest way to engage in it is through having experiences, and the most common experience? Travelling.

Factors pushing Millennials to travel

So why are Millennials so into travelling?

I often find three recurring factors that affect Millennials’ travelling patternsㅡvalues, class aspirations and the use of social media.

Most young Singaporeans have grown up without experiencing a physical lack. Even the poorest 20% of the population have a respectable median household income of $3,907.

Having had our basic necessities always covered, Millennials do not view the accumulation of material goods as an indicator of success, unlike our parents.

Rather, Singaporean Millennials like myself seek a life which involves “creating, sharing and capturing memories through experiences.” As such, Millennials view experiences as more valuable than buying nice things. We aspire to be engaged, to share, to be better.

Collectively, we form the aspirational class.

The aspirational class

To be part of the aspirational class, it’s more important to have (upper-)middle-class concerns, such as eco-sustainability. It is more important to be willing to spend on experiences than to be rich. These endeavours are only possible when the basic needs of food, water and shelter are assured.

In addition, Singapore is a highly competitive society. From a young age, the mantra of “progress and improvement” has been drilled into us. It’s not enough to be good, we must be the best. This mindset is what pushes Singaporeans to continually improve their lifestyles and financial circumstances.

One of the easiest ways to signal belonging to the new markers of wealth is through travelling. Travelling not only parallels the spending habits of the upper classes but also fulfills Millennial ideals of what a meaningful life is.

Living through the lens

Going travelling is one thing, but did you really travel if you didn’t post it on Instagram?

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In a world where life experiences are broadcasted across social media, it pushes Millennials to show up, share and engage with each other. Sharing one’s travel destinations on social media is proof of experience.

This is why every time I travel, I make sure to post a photo of whichever city I’m in. I’m not shy to admit that I do this because I’ve slight FOMO (fear of missing out). The social validation from the “likes” I receive is also a boost to my ego and helps me feel connected to my friends.

Privilege

Of course, I recognise that constantly travelling and being part of the aspirational class can appear to be shallow. More than once, I’ve found myself broke at the end of the month because of some trip I’ve regrettably taken.

But labelling young Singaporeans as irresponsible just from their travelling habits is an oversimplified way of understanding their consumption practices.

Most Singaporean Millennials like myself have middle-class backgrounds and have been raised to expect a certain level of living and comfort. Part of the lifestyle includes travelling as a norm, rather than a luxury.

I remember taking yearly family trips when I was a child. While boarding a plane is still exciting, it’s not a novelty. By travelling frequently, I’m merely duplicating the sort of lifestyle my parents have given me and going beyond what they’ve provided.

Besides, I don’t feel guilty spending on travelling because of my parents’ stable financial situation. If need be, I know they can forward me an advanced loan so that I won’t starve to death.

Me living on bread because I can’t afford anything else in Paris.

Pursuing a better life: on the terms of a Millennial

Ultimately, Millennials are merely doing what their parents did: trying to achieve a better life for themselves. Advancing the socioeconomic ladder now involves travelling and having experiences, radically different from the material indicators our parents held in regard.

The next time you see a Millennial jet-setting anywhere, don’t be so quick to dismiss them. We’re just doing what we were raised to do.