The ‘gap year’ is a most common trend among high school and university graduates, who seek to gain life and travel experience before starting uni or entering the workforce. But a growing trend would see the rise of the adult gap year — a long-term trip or holiday that serves as a career break to be taken at any time in one’s adult life.
Whether it’s a company-approved sabbatical or a reason to quit your job, break your lease, and embark on an adventure before laying down roots once again, the adult gap year is a movement fast gaining speed, and it’s expected to pick up massively in a post-pandemic world.
Following a forced break from travel due to border restrictions, it would make sense that a lot of us would want to take an adult gap year, but the trend was popular even before the pandemic, and according to the experts, the reason why is similar to that of a teenager or young adult.
“The same basic reasons motivate a later-in-life gapper as motivate a younger one,” Ethan Knight, executive director of the Gap Year Association, a nonprofit based in Portland, told Forbes. “Burnout, a desire to know more about oneself and a desire to know more about the outside world and its peoples.”
For one recent gapper, Alexandra McCarthy, it was a feeling of being stuck with what she wanted to do next that sparked her decision to take an adult gap year.
“After high school finished, I was keen to jump straight into uni as I was still in the studying groove. When my uni degree finished up, I found myself an internship in my desired industry fairly quickly and didn’t want to give that up to go travelling for an extended period of time.
“I did a few four-week long trips during holidays but kept pushing my gap year back. Then, at the end of 2018, when I was 26, I was feeling a little ‘stuck’ as to what I was doing in life, so decided to start planning my belated gap year.”
Once McCarthy had decided how and where she wanted to spend her gap year, she saved for about eight months. While she understandably had fears around leaving quitting her job, she courageously went through with it, and it paid off in more ways than one.
“Deciding to leave my job, which I loved, was extremely scary! I was worried that taking time out of the industry would damage my career and push me back in my overall career trajectory,” she says.
“Up until the moment I left, I felt anxeity about my decision as so much felt up in the air. Would I get a job when I came back to Australia? Thankfully I did, and honestly, employers have only had positive things to say about my travels.”
She travelled for just under six months and ventured all around Europe. “I had been to Europe twice before but had only visited a few countries so I was keen to see more of the continent. I spent the time jumping around to various countries by myself and also spent substantial time in London and Milan, staying with friends who were living there,” she tells us.
And the beauty of the gap year, as opposed to a planned short-term holiday, was that she was able to find a real sense of freedom. In fact, not having any concrete plans is the aspect she found most liberating.
“I was able to change my plans at the last minute and fly to another country if I wanted to (which now, in a COVID world, feels so wild). While I had loose plans, they were easily changeable and I could basically go where I wanted depending on my mood or what was happening.”
While the motivation to take a gap year is similar for teens and adults, the intention and outcomes are different for adult gappers. According to Ladders, a US careers resource, an adult gap year is less about finding yourself, and more about tuning into who you are.
“It is not rest or relaxation. Instead, it’s renewal and restoration. It’s not a tranquil vacation but rather an invitation to vitality. It’s not an aimless walk in the woods, but an intentional hike toward a better future. Unlike the teen version, it’s not about figuring out where to go and who to be; it’s about evaluating exactly who you are at this point in your life.”
Perhaps a gap year feels easier when you’re a young adult. When you live with your parents, aren’t as invested in a career, are single, and have no children of your own, of course it feels easier to up and leave. But while it can be challenging to take the plunge as an adult, it’s by no means impossible. And as McCarthy explains, incredibly rewarding.
“It was a scary thing for me to do, especially as I did it solo, but ultimately it led to lots of positive change and growth in my life. Travelling by yourself for an extended period of time can be overwhelming — and when things go wrong, you’re forced to rely solely on yourself which can get tiring — but it forced me to be way more social and push myself out of my introvert ways.”
She continues: “I learnt that I’m much more capable than I thought I was. Having to navigate the ups and downs of solo travel taught me a lot about myself and how much I can handle. It also made me feel brave, which as someone who is naturally introverted, was nice!”
As for whether McCarthy would recommend an adult gap year to others? We think you know the answer. “I definitely would!”