This summer, I went on a low-cost holiday to Vietnam. It was enlightening. I learnt about unsafe air travel, various kinds of credit-card fraud, and water-borne viruses that work at both ends. Above all, though, I came to understand a little better the 20-something university students who, with lots of time and no money, travel on the south-east Asian budget-holiday circuit.
Tens of thousands of Australians venture across the Indian Ocean to the southern oriental shores each year. In 2009-10, 11 per cent of 20 to 34-year-olds holidaying overseas visited Indonesia and 10 per cent visited Thailand.
They typically travel with an airline that has an incident record similar to the Iraqi air force's. There is a certain spiritualism that accompanies the trip – and not just because of the risk of a crash.
It's easy to "lose oneself" when wearing the velvet handcuffs of government-funded study and paternalistic credit-card thresholds imposed by one's parents. And the monotony of a lowly graduate job can take the spark out of life. South-east Asia has a mystical aura about it; there's just something hip about hanging out with Buddhist monks in the Cambodian highlands.
But having a social conscience is one of Generation Y's more admirable traits. Many of the thousands who go to south-east Asia take part in some charity work during their trip.
I joined friends building houses in villages in Vietnam's central highlands. Universities around the country run similar initiatives (to Africa and South America, too). The Queensland University of Technology has a large exchange program with the Vietnam Nurses Association to improve nursing care and education in Vietnam.
The Australian Catholic University regularly sends students on service projects to Asia. I met several young people who had, on their own initiative, volunteered in orphanages in Ho Chi Minh City.
The increasingly common phenomenon of "charity tourism" – travellers who will spend half an hour at an orphanage taking selfies with crippled kids before heading back to five-star accommodation at the Mandarin hotel – is repugnant. But the core sentiment, I think, is good. Despite the accusations of slacktivism and social-posturing, data shows Millennials are more likely to volunteer for community service than their parents.
Alas, most of my friends come back from their south-east Asian experience without having found the "self" they were looking for. There is something about oppressive humidity and constant swarms of mosquitoes that prolongs, rather than abates, malaise and aimlessness.
Nevertheless, at least they had adventures. Such as the adrenalin rush of being chased out of a crowded market by shop owners irate over your thriftiness. Or that exhilaratingly close shave on a moped with a disgruntled yak crossing a busy road. And it's never quite clear if the fan spinning above your head in the hotel room is properly connected to the roof.
It's easy to put generations in narrow sociological boxes. But there is something unique about Generation Y's malaise.
Although we are the wealthiest and best-educated generation in history, we are less content with the ordinary experiences that brought fun and a sense of meaning into the lives of our forebears.
Wandering the lands of our Asian neighbours strikes me as a self-prescribed treatment. It might just be the way to give a bit of gusto to an otherwise monotonous existence as a student or young professional.
And at the very least you'll get adventure. And perhaps a nice Tiger beer singlet.
Xavier Symons is a PhD candidate and researcher with the Centre for Moral Philosophy and Applied Ethics and Australian Catholic University. firstname.lastname@example.org