Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Gaps Years for Everyone - Part 1

Gap years are not just for students.  Now before mature professionals and active boomers begin to scoff at this idea, call me crazy and have flashbacks to the Bill Cosby comedy series “Kids Say the Darndest Things”, hear me out.  You obviously have some preconceived false notions of what a gap year is and who can participate.  Therefore, I am going to try to break it down and explain away some of the stereotypes you may already have before the studio audience starts laughing at me.

What Is a Gap Year?
A gap year can be defined as any change in the regular pattern of your working life spanning from a couple of months to a year or longer, as long as it is greater in length than a regular holiday.  A gap year can last six weeks or longer and gives the participant a chance to be freed from professional obligations.  In academia, a gap year is also known as a sabbatical where teachers refresh their knowledge, conduct original research or join an exchange program.

Going abroad is not even essential to a gap year as the term simply means taking a leave of absence from your typical routine to pursue another goal, dream, interests or family orientated activities.  You therefore could theoretically use your gap year to do volunteer work in Ethiopia to save the starving children or you could take a road trip to see just how many Tim Horton’s you can hit up between here and Nunavut.  The choice is up to you and your options (please don’t take the road trip) are wide open.

Who Can Take a Gap Year?
When it comes to taking a gap year, age does not matter.  Seriously.  Gaps years are typically associated with college or university students but anyone from a 19 year old college freshman to your 70 year old grandmother can take a gap year.  You can go by yourself or you can take your family if that is a feasible (or rather desirable) option.

Basically, if you drive 2 hours through rush hour traffic each day to put up with a supervisor that belittles your efforts, shoves you in a small cubical, docks your pay when you take an extra 30 seconds for lunch, forces you to work overtime on the weekend causing you to miss little Timmy’s little league game and you need a break longer than the 5 vacations days you had to sell your soul to get, you qualify ... as do all other professionals that don’t find their work lives quite as depressing and just think it would be neat to try something different.

Triggers & Motives
There are many reasons why people decide to take a year off ranging from the desire to seek personal development to the fact that they just need a change in pace.

Burnout – You are bored, really bored and probably feel exhausted more often than not despite the 10 hours of sleep you got plus that nap you took sometime during the day in your office chair.  This feeling of burnout is rooted in how you feel about your current job/lifestyle/routine. 

Excess & Affluence – Maybe you actually love your job and look forward to getting up each morning to spend the day with your co-workers but something inside you is feeling inspired to make change on a larger scale than being the only one in the entire office that can convince the copier to actually copy things instead of eating them for breakfast.  You are satisfied with work but you also imagine how you could contribute towards the greater good in the midst of a crisis with the excess of resources you have at your disposal. 

Sensory Overload – You work in a large, thriving metropolitan centre; picture New York and Sex in the City, but unlike Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda (don’t judge me, I actually had to Google their character names), you desire to seek a simpler, less burdened period of time away from the “fast track”.  To spend even one month away from the smog, the billboards, the media and the pressure would be a relief.

Depression &Trauma – Many people that feel depressed and worn down by their jobs decide to take a gap year which is along the same lines of feeling burned out though depression can be a bit more intense and should definitely be addressed. Similarly those that have experienced a recent traumatic event (i.e., natural disaster, death of a family member) can find themselves reassessing what is important in life and decide to take a gap year in order to fulfill some life-long goal or to gain some much needed perspective.

The Danger Age – Research suggests that at the age of 30, many people are looking to find more purpose in their lives beyond their nine to five jobs or perhaps even just feel like they need to take the chance while they still have it prior to parenthood if that is somewhere they feel their lives will eventually take them.  (Personally I prefer the idea of being an aunt to being a mother because at the end of the day I get to give the kids back, but that is a completely different topic).  Now whether that age is actually 30 is debatable but in essence it is the point of your life when you begin to feel like you are running out of time to be young, adventuresome, and maybe a tad privileged.    

Property Ladder Pressures – If you own a house chances are that is where your money is tied up and taking an unpaid leave of absence from work is not possible.  Full time earners often feel pressured to buy property rather than continuing to rent a.k.a the black hole of doom that sucks away all your hard earned money with nothing in return, and therefore feel that this is their last chance to do something exciting before becoming a responsible homeowner with a ... wait for it ... *gasp* mortgage.

Freedom from Responsibilities – The last child goes off to university or finally moves out and suddenly people feel a lot more freedom to travel and be more ambitious in their adventures.  You no longer are responsible for making sure Junior has clean clothes and six meals a day.  You get to start thinking about yourself again for once and it can be extremely liberating.  At this point, you are probably feeling a bit more financially secure as your kids are grown up and paying their own bills meaning extra funds for your retirement savings or that new ATV speedboat hammock for the cottage.

Turning Fifty – When nearing 50, people begin to panic that they are reaching retirement age and desire to try something that will shake off the metaphorical dust and prolong the fact that they are getting “old”.  For those that fall into this category, you are not “old”, you just have a few more grey hairs than you did a couple years ago and are still perfectly capable of being active and exciting.

Retirement – With so much extra time, many retirees prefer to stay active as long as they can and choose to accomplish this through a wide range of experiences including gap year programs.  Remember when I said that even your 70 year old grandmother could participate?  Well I wasn’t lying.  She can and she’s probably been retired already for 20 some odd years.  If she can do it, so can you because chances are it will be much more satisfying than a mundane vacation somewhere down south in Florida where surrounded by uninspired retirees on the beach, you are going to feel older than you actually are.

What are some of the reasons why you might want to or have chosen to take a gap year?  Do your reasons line up with any of the options posted above?


  1. This may be a very useful notion in my life coaching practice; many middle-aged folks I work with are looking to break out of their regular routines, yet running away to join the circus or hitchhiking around the globe no longer sounds all that appealing.

    Great idea to encourage gap years for everyone!

  2. Jan, as fun as joining the circus might sound, you are right. It isn't really a viable option. People often don't really need to completely change everything about their entire lifestyle, they just need to take a break and take a step back for a couple weeks. So often people, myself included, just get bogged down with a daily routine that can be demotivating just because they don't feel like they are getting anywhere or making a difference.

    And even if people can't afford to take an entire year, there are plenty of other options out there that will fit. People don't always need a full year. Maybe they just need 3 months, or 3 weeks. Because as impractical as joining the circus sounds, if you are hooked on the idea, this place offers folks a chance to learn how to train elephants for 3 weeks.