Gap years. Depending on where you come from, they’re perceived with anything from mild skepticism, to enthusiastic encouragement, to outright disdain.
The concept originated in the UK, dating back centuries when students from elite British families would complete their education with a “grand tour” of Europe, visiting museums and taking part in other cultural activities to broaden their perspective of the world. In the 1960s, British tour companies started marketing the gap year as a cultural phenomenon, and today it is considered somewhat of a rite of passage in many European countries. Similarly, New Zealand’s “OE” - overseas experience – involves extended work or travel abroad and has become so culturally ingrained that it is often listed as an important item on one’s resume.
In 2000, Harvard’s admissions officers co-authored an article titled “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation,” in which they suggest admitted students consider the gap year as a way to prepare themselves for the mounting pressures of college education. The article estimated that between 5% of admitted students at the time decided to take a year off before attending Harvard. Today the numbers are rising, and the risk of burnout is even higher for young people who typically enter the job market crippled in debt, unsure about what they want to do with their life, and generally unhappy with their circumstances.
Gap years are gaining more and more of a positive reception as parents, students, future employers and even college administrators recognize the value of young people taking time out to mature, learn in news ways, and figure out their interests free from the bounds of school life. But although the sentiment is slowly changing, there remain a number of factors that still deter people from taking gap years
As the job market and structure of tertiary education continue to change, it’s important to understand these issues if we are ever going to create a system in which young people feel supported to take initiative of their education and careers from an early age.
In the US, the American work ethic promotes a career-oriented approach to life: study hard, work part time (because how else do you become the next Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson?), head to college (although of course, if you’re a genius, you might want to follow in the footsteps of Zuckerberg et. al.) graduate, get a well-paying job, and spend the rest of your life paying the bills and working your way up the career ladder. Sounds... exciting?
While the tales from Silicon Valley are beginning to disrupt our more rigid approach to education and work, most Americans still see gap years as a distraction, and associate them with questions such as “Why did you decide to do that?” and “How will this help your career?”
So, there’s the fear of losing focus and exiting the rat race (which, quite frankly, doesn’t sound too bad if you ask me). But then there are also more nuanced cultural factors. I grew up in a biracial South African family, and I can tell you now that for most of my friends, gap years are a non-option. If you come from a middle-class family for whom a university education has been historically entrenched as the key to success, the thought of “taking time off” is laughable, almost insulting, and completely contradictory to what your parents and their parents worked for their entire lives. And so the majority of first- and second-generation students eligible for college would never dream of risking their futures for a “year of fun”.
Over the years, the gap year has become a mash-up of mixed associations including “distraction”, “fun for the rich kids”, and “an excuse for lost souls”. But it’s time to change that. Speak to anyone who has taken a gap year, and you’ll quickly realize why taking the plunge might just be the best decision you will ever make for yourself, regardless of your background.
If we’re going to redefine the gap year, we’ll need a huge mental shift in how we think about education, work, and life in general. Here are two things that I never forget to remind myself:
Life is a classroom
Whether you attend an Ivy League or community college, travel, or work from home, as long as you’re doing something, you’re learning. And as long as you’re learning, you’re growing. Sure, those Korean classes might not pay the bills, and perhaps a coding boot camp seems crazy now, but all these activities are the equivalent of a long-term investment in your own future. My honest advice? Stop worrying about good grades or graduating with a fancy piece of paper. The world is changing so fast, and it’s already clear that most employers place less weight on what you’ve studied, and more on who you are. Gap years give you an opportunity to figure out what you want and to take initiative for your own future.
“Success” comes in different packages
No, we won’t all be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Some of us really should stay in college and stick it out to the end. Others might start a hustle on the side and realize they have a flair for a completely different area of interest. Ours is a generation that has grown up with uncertainty. The world is constantly changing around us, and we need to learn to adapt to it. This requires being comfortable with taking risks early on.
Gap years certainly aren’t for everyone, but they are becoming more and more of an attractive and viable option. If this is something that you are seriously considering, do your research, weigh up your options and most importantly, make a decision that is right for you – not the expectations of those around you. Part of the value of the experience is opening yourself to opportunities, even if they make you uncomfortable at first. If not now, then when?