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Why mocking the millennial Van Life trend isn’t fair: Teitel

Faced with paying $2,200 for a basement apartment, who can blame young people for being drawn to the open road?

Toronto couple Eamon Fitzgerald and Rebecca Moroney have adopted the "Van Life" in their converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van.

Torstar News Service Order this photo

Toronto couple Eamon Fitzgerald and Rebecca Moroney have adopted the "Van Life" in their converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van.

The condemnation of millennials is as confusing as it is constant. One moment we are scolded because we ask for too much (too much money, too much time off work, too much space in a house we aren’t paying the mortgage on). And the next moment we are scolded because we ask for too little.

As a prime example, one need only look to the New York Post, which published a column recently called “Meet the pretentious millennials who romanticize living in vans.” The piece is a scathing takedown of the #VanLife phenomenon, a social media-fuelled trend inspiring bohemian twentysomethings to quit their jobs and embark on permanent road trips. These young nomads sell their valuables, purchase big vans (usually something Instagram friendly like a vintage Volkswagen), and travel the continent photographing their adventures while working odd jobs or freelancing remotely to pay for gas and food. Eventually, if their photos of life on the road are jealousy-inducing enough, they attract a large and loyal social media following and land a book deal or two. (If their vans aren’t outfitted with bathrooms, they pop into gas stations and restaurants to use the toilet or presumably, they pop a squat outdoors.)

In other words, these are young people who are not, as the cliché goes, living in their parents’ basements and raiding their refrigerators. On the contrary, they are entirely self-sufficient and as low maintenance as low maintenance comes (you cannot label someone “entitled” who is satisfied living without indoor plumbing). Not only do they pay their own way, but their shrewd ability to brand themselves helps to sustain their lifestyle.

Currently, more than two million posts on Instagram include the hashtag “Van Life” and this month an early pioneer of the lifestyle named Foster Huntington released a book on the subject called — you guessed it — Van Life: Your Home on the Road.

But not everyone is thrilled about the apparent popularity of this nomadic trend, least of all that New York Post columnist, Johnny Oleksinski, who writes that the van crowd are a bunch of “privileged hippies for whom life is just a never-ending Coachella. They’re Peter Pans who lounge in hammocks, sip pour-over coffee and shamelessly flaunt their Baha-style hotness, all the while acting as though they’ve rejected the real world’s shallow commercialism and vanity.”

Oleksinski isn’t wrong. Scroll your way through the “Van Life” catalogue on Instagram and you may lose your lunch gorging on good vibes and far-out wisdom. For evidence, here’s an excerpt from an Instagram post I stumbled upon by a young “Van Life” couple who appear to enjoy nothing more than parking their vehicle beside a body of water and going for a dip.

“Guess it’s fair to say that we’re fanatical activists of the power of swimming. And that’s exactly why we created the hashtag #alwaysgoswimming 5 years back . . . to inspire a generation of adults to join us in becoming children once more.”

There’s something wildly disingenuous about preaching the merits of getting back to nature in a social media post that will be read by hundreds of thousands of strangers. Van life is less an ode to solitude than it is resounding proof that so few in this age have actually experienced it.

But the lifestyle is also wildly practical when you examine its polar opposite — having a fixed address in a big North American city. Apartment rentals and living expenses in major cities, often the starting points for many van lifers, are increasingly unaffordable.

Yes, some social media influencers who choose the road trip life are independently wealthy and could just as easily afford a penthouse in Yorkville as they could a souped-up Volkswagen Vanagon. But most aren’t. Take for example, the young Toronto couple profiled in this newspaper recently, who decided to forego signing a lease on a $2,200 basement apartment near Trinity Bellwoods Park in order to commit themselves full time to Van Life.

They bought a cargo van and have since driven and camped across the entire country.

There are many for whom no amount of adventure and beautiful scenery is worth forfeiting indoor plumbing (I count myself among them) but no matter what your tolerance for roughing it, it’s hard to deny that $2,200 for a basement apartment in Toronto isn’t insane. Perhaps it wouldn’t be, if two grand could, without fail, land you a decently sized place in the downtown core. But this is no longer the case — especially where one-bedroom condominiums are concerned. (I was sitting in a friend’s condo recently and it was so cramped I may as well as well have been sitting in a Dodge Caravan.)

It’s for this reason I’ve come to believe that while making fun of millennials who choose “Van Life” is extremely tempting, it’s also unfair. Most of these people exist in a culture of precarious work where few jobs become careers; where friends are working contract to contract in big cities with little to no benefits. So they hit the road — and why the hell wouldn’t they? It’s far easier to deride a group of annoyingly optimistic young people who defy convention than it is to admit the truth: that they may, in fact, be on to something.

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