How Millennials Are Finding Purpose (and a Better Life) in Guatemala

By Jenn Miller on September 14th, 2016
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Millennials are getting a bad rap. Who are they? Young adults between the ages of 18 and 34, according to Pew Researchers. They’re accused widely of being entitled, lazy, shiftless and making no account of themselves. One study even shows Millennials self-reporting as a self-absorbed and lazy generation. And then there is the fact that 35% of them are still living with their parents. That’s a big pill for those of us who lived with multiple roommates, in a first apartment with a bullet hole in the front window that we duct-taped over and carried on, barely making ends meet, to swallow. What’s wrong with kids these days?

Of course, our adolescence didn’t play out across the backdrop of the Great Recession. Most of us could still, realistically, expect to get a job when we graduated from university. A perk not enjoyed by the Millennial crowd.

“Most of us could still, realistically, expect to get a job when we graduated from university. A perk not enjoyed by the Millennial crowd.”
So, what’s a young person to do? Stuck in the middle of an economic and social quagmire, with a job market that is less than booming for recent graduates, faced with the prospect of living in a childhood bedroom for an extra decade? This generation might be guilty of a lot of things, but settling for the status quo isn’t one of them. Digital natives, their lives flow fluidly between the analog and the digital in ways that those of us less than a decade beyond them often envy, if we’re being honest. They’re on the cutting edge of everything, or they could be, from politics to the religious revolution, to what it means to create community.

There’s no one answer to the woes of the Millennial generation, but there is one solution that is as time-honored as Mark Twain’s classic, The Innocents Abroad: travel.

Guatemala is a place near and dear to my heart. I spend rather a lot of time there. Winters, six months at a time. A month this spring, holding back rainy season with the force of my sunshiny attitude alone. I’m not above a two-week trip, but that would just be enough to make me homesick when I had to leave. Driving through is always an adventure; you should try it sometime. One of the things that has percolated into my consciousness over a years-long love affair with the country is the number of Millennials who are living there. The question is why?

Thinking about a gap year in Guatemala?

The Gap Year Crowd


There’s the Gap Year crowd, blowing through with a checklist in hand, comparing notes over beers in my friend’s hostel of an evening. They’re fresh-faced. Their backpacks are clean. They’re wide-eyed and gushy about all of the wonderful places they’ve been and what they’ve seen. Many of them, for the first time, are realizing that there’s life beyond school, options beyond an office work environment, and ways of living other than the one they encountered growing up behind the white picket fences of middle America.

Most of the Gap Year crowd are going back to where they came from. The guy with a tattoo of Texas over his heart was headed back for his master’s in biology. The education major was applying for jobs in Korea using our wifi. The DIDG player was planning on pre-med.

“For Millennials, growing up as the first generation of digital natives, jacked into the matrix since before they could walk, encountering the analog world, in places without ubiquitous connection, is an awakening.”
For Millennials, growing up as the first generation of digital natives, jacked into the matrix since before they could walk, encountering the analog world, in places without ubiquitous connection, is an awakening. It’s the discovery of another kind of community building and a tactile learning experience. These young people come to Guatemala to breathe in the color and exhale experience. They come seeking ceremonies, cacao, nahual, drum circles and kirtan; hell, sometimes just a rousing round of karaoke therapy among strangers who are friends. They come seeking truths that weren’t found in their textbooks and connection of a deeper sort.

The Longer-Term Travelers

And then there are the longer-term travelers, the ones out “finding themselves” for a bit. Studying as they go, volunteering a bit, living on the cheap while they figure out where the road is leading. These tend to be the middle Millennials, late twenties to thirtyish. Maybe they worked a while in the real world and became disillusioned. Maybe their advanced degree landed them nothing more than a barista job and they began to wonder, “Is this all there is?” These are young people with ambition and energy who want lives that will truly matter. They’re the ones who took a look at the treadmill of the office world and couldn’t quite make themselves fall in line.
“They’re the ones who took a look at the treadmill of the office world and couldn’t quite make themselves fall in line.”
The ways they support themselves are fascinatingly diverse. They trade hours for lodging in hostels and hotels. They play music. They teach lessons. They work online. They save furiously to earn their freedom and then they turn up in the highlands of Guatemala, bringing all of the bright energy of youth and their creativity to bear on building something beautiful, serving in ways that matter to them, and making it last as long as they can.

These are our friends Luke and Em, who spent an entire winter working with malnourished children, developing an arts program and using their birthday parties to fund an educational initiative. This is Orly, who painted us into the landscape of our favorite lake, making her living merging humanity and the natural world in her art as she travels. These are young people who are living up to the Millennial reputation for insisting on

These are young people who are living up to the Millennial reputation for insisting on work-life balance and on work that is satisfying to the soul as well as the pocketbook. Does this make them lazy? Is opting out of the traditional route, and living barefoot in a highland village on ten bucks a day instead a red flag for lack of ambition? No. I’d argue the choice has more to do with idealism, and a passion for making a difference, and using their talents (creative and otherwise) to their best end, and nothing at all to do with laziness.

My friend Andrew Raphael began in this group; here’s what he has to say about that:

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“I moved to Guatemala 5 years ago to find myself, as cliched as that may be. After several years as a teacher in the NYC Dept of Education, and working on a graduate degree at night, I knew I needed a major change in my way of life. I felt like I wasn’t meant to spend so much of the waking hours of my life on the subway, stuck in windowless rooms, hustling from one place to another.

I felt like I wasn’t meant to spend so much of the waking hours of my life on the subway, stuck in windowless rooms, hustling from one place to another.

For better and for worse, after moving to Guatemala I was left without clear demands on my time and I began to uncover parts of myself over the next few years. My diet changed, as did my perception of what my time was worth, and how I wanted to spend it. I lived without wifi and other common amenities and yet gained a much stronger sense of belonging in moving to a rural village from Brooklyn, New York.

Most remarkably, I’ve learned that I still hustle from place to place even without anyone to oblige me. I see now that service to my community is a deeply rooted value, and I think my family is proud of that.

Most remarkably, I’ve learned that I still hustle from place to place even without anyone to oblige me. I see now that service to my community is a deeply rooted value, and I think my family is proud of that. I believe, like Jackie Robinson said, that the significance of my life can be measured in the effect it has on the lives of the people around me.

No one forced me to take up the fight against malnutrition in my new home (a place in which I’d lived for over a year before I decided to get involved in Konojel) and I know now that my work represents who I am as much as anything else about me. Living in Guatemala showed me who I was and helped me get to know the person that I want to be. I feel that my life can have a more significant impact on the at-risk and disadvantaged people around me in Guatemala than it did in New York City”

The Youthful Expats

Andrew arrived as one sort of traveler and slowly grew into something more, this isn’t unusual; let me introduce you to another group of Millennials in Guatemala. These folks are in it for the long haul. They’ve moved into communities as expats where they are building businesses that employ local people, running NGOs that get at the root causes of poverty, and building a life for themselves in a place that is more home to them than where they were born.

The developing world offers so many opportunities to Millennials that just aren’t available to them at home, not the least of which is independent adulthood and the opportunity to be a community builder instead of treading water at a McDonald’s style job. This generation of young adults has the misfortune of having been raised in a broken system that no longer serves the real world as it actually exists, and they’re graduating into adulthood only to look around and discover that things are not as they were promised they would be.

This generation of young adults has the misfortune of having been raised in a broken system … and they’re graduating into adulthood only to look around and discover that things are not as they were promised they would be.”
That’s frustrating enough and then they’re told they’re lazy, shiftless, good for nothing, media addicts who can’t be trusted to get off of their mom’s couch or do their own laundry. That’s a demoralizing message for someone with a bachelor’s degree in economics to swallow.

Which is why they show up around my dinner table in Guatemala, where the light returns to their eyes and they begin to see opportunity and a place in the world for themselves. They begin to see that their tech savvy has applications that will make them some money, maybe not big money at first, but enough money to live in their own house, like a grown up, and work at something they find meaningful. (Housing for a single person can easily be found for $200 USD per month or less in many places in Guatemala.)

They find that there is work to be done. Opportunity for businesses to flourish with little overhead. They discover that they can fill the gaps in their education and become bilingual, which never quite happened, even with that minor in Spanish, or become experts in permaculture, or coffee cultivation, or the hospitality industry through mentorship and hands-on training. They discover that, while it may not make any money, solving the malnutrition problem for just one village, in a sustainable way, is within the realm of their capability, and if two guys can change the lives of dozens of children, why wouldn’t they? It’s a life well spent.

“…if two guys can change the lives of dozens of children, why wouldn’t they? It’s a life well spent.”
The Millennials in Guatemala are producing products that serve the communities they live in, expat and local. They’re teaching. They’re learning. They’re building businesses. They’re raising families. In short, they’re defying all of the Pew statistics that indicate that their generation may be floundering in the first world.

I’ll give the last word to my friend Sarah, who puts it very well. She and her husband are at the top of the Millennial age group and are among the folks who found their footing in travel and are digging deep in the developing world. For them, it’s all about work-life balance and being in control of the important variables in their lives, including the financial ones:

Sarah & Bryan Wedding“We first came to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala in 2010. We had both been travelers for years and were on another adventure. We immediately loved San Marcos with its tranquil vibe, friendly community of travelers and small walking paths with no traffic. We stayed for about six months (instead of our intended one!) and ended up managing a hotel.

Shortly after we left Guatemala we unexpectedly conceived our first child. We had been together for two years, but with Bryan being from New York, me from England, and us not being married, there was no easy answer as to what to do next. Immigration takes so long that we would not be able to be settled in either country before the baby was born, and the expense, coupled with the fact that you have to stay for years in order to complete the process, neither of us was sure we wanted to even get into it.

We also debated whether we wanted to give up our dream lifestyles of traveling, living in beautiful places with fantastic climates and meeting new and interesting people on a daily basis, in exchange for paying insane rent and working 40 hours a week just to survive! In the end, we decided to research places in the world to have the baby where we would be able to stay without visa drama, in order to make our plans calmly and figure out our next steps. Once we got here the owner of the hotel we had managed started asking us if we wanted to buy, and after much back and forth we decided to take the leap and go for it!

“We get to create our own business… we make our own hours, we can have our children with us at work whenever we want them there, and we can afford decent housing and not stretch ourselves too thin.”
We bought Hostal del Lago nearly six years ago, and although it’s had its challenges we’re really happy with our decision. We get to create our own business with far fewer restrictions or upfront investment than we would in either of our countries, we make our own hours, we can have our children with us at work whenever we want them there, and we can afford decent housing and not stretch ourselves too thin. Our daughter goes to a Waldorf school that resonates with all of our belief systems and which we could never afford in the states, we are outside in a beautiful climate almost every waking hour, and our children are becoming effortlessly trilingual (English, Spanish, and Mayan Kaqchikel).

We can afford childcare in order to take breaks for ourselves and develop our own work, and we host a constant stream of interesting people taking world trips and doing amazing things, meaning that even though our own traveling is on pause for a while, we still feel that flow of fresh energy moving through our lives, which we both find enriching beyond measure.

Bryan can do what he loves, putting on live music events and shows, and I can teach yoga and do massage, and we end up with far more expendable income than we ever had trying to do these things in our own countries. Plus, we work for ourselves, which for free spirited people like we are, is invaluable! Of course we sometimes miss our families, have extreme weather, bugs in the house, dealing with power cuts/water cuts/culture clashes etc, but all in all the work/life balance is just better here, for us, at this point in our lives.”

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Photo Credits: Shutterstock.com, loca4motion/ all others courtesy of the author, cannot be used without permission.