The in-between years: mind the GAP

An exposing article on why young people take a gap year

The in-between years: mind the GAP

The concept of a ‘gap year’ is quite well known. Historically, the concept began in 1970’s UK for students to better or more constructively use the 7-8 month ‘gap’ between the end of high/secondary school and the start of university or college classes. The intention was to contribute to the development of the student through extended international experiences.

Since the 70’s, the definition of the gap year has widened: do an Internet search on ‘gap year’, and a ton of various websites pop up for you to ‘find yourself’ on. The gap year is now seen as a way to:

  • Develop maturity and independence

  • Challenge yourself

  • Gain a deeper understanding of the world

  • Better prepare yourself for ‘adult working life’ ahead

  • Earn money

  • Have fun after years of hard work

  • Deepen practical, professional, and personal awareness

  • Address academic burnout

  • Improve your CV/resume

  • Gain relevant work experience in a particular field.

But is this really the whole truth?

Today the concept of a gap year has spread even further, as people of all ages and lifestyle groups take ‘time-off’ or ‘time-out’ to prepare themselves for transitions ahead or to recuperate from events gone by – pre, during and post-university, ‘stag’ and ‘hen’ gaps, post-wedding gaps, pre-and-post baby gaps, career-breaks, pre-retirement and so on.

The actual activity of the gap year also comes in many guises – backpacking, career experiments, travelling, ticking something off your bucket list, taking time out, a sabbatical, cross-cultural understanding, volunteering – but no matter what your reason for taking a gap year might be, they all converge to the same desired outcome.

Simply put, and perhaps controversially, a gap year as we have made it today is time out from living life with purpose . . . and this is why.

Working has a purpose well beyond the monetary benefits. We all crave a reason to get out of bed; to feel and be responsible and to feel valued and cherished by others. Without this we are left floundering, aimless and uncommitted, meandering through life. Similar to a drug addict searching for their next hit, we can use our spare time – just what a gap year offers – to search for the next high life can give us in its many forms of adventures and pursuits.

We spend a vast proportion of our life at work, not just in paid jobs but in contributing to all of society through volunteer roles at schools, hospitals, community clubs, working bees, working in our own homes and gardens, raising children, caring for elderly family, neighbours, etc. When you look at work from this angle, ‘work’ can easily be interchanged with the word ‘service’ and pretty much forms the entire foundation of our lives.

When we get the way we work right, that is, when we understand the impact of the quality we bring to work and develop that, the other areas of our lives – relationships, diet, exercise as a few examples, seem to fall into place too. Work, or more accurately service, therefore provides us with the foundation we need to grow and flourish. What if therein lies the distinction between truly living and merely existing?

Half way through the final year of my four-year university degree I decided I would save up and embark on a travelling adventure after the completion of my studies, and possibly find a job or start a career overseas. I hadn’t particularly enjoyed studying my degree, but I felt it to be important that I stuck with it, not knowing what else to do.

Whenever I told someone about my travelling plans they seemed super-excited and often envious, marvelling how wonderful it will be to just ‘go away’ – a big celebration marking the culmination of what had been 17 years of schooling that many believe young people deserve. I was to ‘find myself’ and ‘grow’ into adulthood, when I would then have to be the ‘responsible adult’ i.e. earning my own income, paying my own bills, making and living the consequences of all my decisions. Now was the time to run amok, my last hurrah of irresponsibility and I could get away with it because ‘I deserved it’ and ‘I’m only young once’. Truth was, I was scared of the word responsible so travelling seemed the best option after university.

I thoroughly researched where I would go and worked long hours saving the $10,000 to fund myself. It was easy to sway myself that I really wanted to see the Big 5 in Africa, to walk the streets of the Monopoly Board in London and have the chance to use my Japanese language skills teaching English in Japan. But in all honesty, deep down I knew I was putting off committing to life.

I remember the day I flew out. I was terrified. I was leaving everyone and the only life I knew to fly off into my awesome experience. I felt lost and lonely but it felt too late now to not follow through with my plans. At this late stage, and rather oddly, it felt like I would be letting people down if I didn’t go, as it seemed people were counting on me going off and having a fabulous time.

One long 17-hour flight and a few days later, on day one of a 3-month safari tour of Africa, I found myself sitting on the truck feeling nauseous and crying silent tears. I wished I wasn’t here. This trip was pointless and a waste of time and money. I knew I had run away when I should have been at home working towards my next steps, not killing time delaying the future.

Still, it was too late now and I had paid for my trip so I put any thoughts of careers out of my mind to deal with later. That later came 7 months down the track when I returned home to meet exactly what I had left behind.

I had spent every penny I had and more, even borrowing off my parents. I moved back in with them too, and with no job, no car – sold mid-trip to finance Europe – and no motivation, fell into a miserable existence, a self-diagnosed mild depression. I watched TV day and night, usually till after midnight then slept in, avoiding seeing my parents. We communicated via notes on the kitchen table. For five months I did not know what to do, or where to even begin.

The turning point eventually came when I received two very different, but in hindsight, useful reactions from my parents. From my father, compassion and understanding that I was doing it tough and needed support. And from my mother, a letter saying what a disappointment I was and to just go get a job. My reaction was to run away to a friend’s house cursing, and yet I did recognize that this was a turning point. On the way there I bought a newspaper with a classifieds section (where jobs were advertised back then!).

I recognized that I wasn’t in a good space and I needed something purposeful to grab on to. I had reached my rock bottom where sleeping in and eating junk food was slowly but surely killing me. I pulled myself together and began applying for jobs. The first afternoon of scanning the newspaper, I found about half a dozen advertisements for jobs I thought I might like and started writing letters (no internet back then either!). I was scared and empowered at the same time. I chose to stop watching late night TV, naturally waking up earlier. The jobs I applied for weren’t necessarily all ‘forever’ jobs with great salaries, but at the time that didn’t matter. I knew all I needed was to have direction and structure in my life; this is what getting a job meant to me, not just a paycheck.

The job I took first was in customer service for a gas company and I was over the moon with joy. It meant I had to catch a bus and train into town, but I felt so liberated and independent just walking to the bus stop. I actually got several of the jobs I had applied for and ended up leaving the gas company six weeks later for a more suitable job on an aviation project, more in line with my passion. This next job led to another role 3 years later taking me to my current career in air traffic control.

I can look back rather fondly at this unsettled period after the gap year, certainly not because I enjoyed feeling depressed, uncommitted or lacking in purpose, but because I can see a time in my life where I got myself into a situation that was very unpleasant – both for me and for my parents whose house I was living in – but then learnt that if I wanted something to change, I had to be the one who did it.

I didn’t ‘find myself’ or ‘grow up’ on my gap year and nor did I feel ‘rewarded’ for my 17 years of work at school, as was the expected outcome; I just delayed the inevitable.

We all want and need purpose in life, and too often under-value and do not appreciate the contribution to our being that being in service provides. We are not meant to live hedonistically, sailing from one indulgent experience to the next. Trust this woman who has tried, tested and can testify that it does not work. Of course life can be and should be full, rich, enjoyable, meaningful, considered, responsible, enriching and religious.

What I needed to ‘find myself’ was the very thing that I was running from in the first place – responsibility. We may all have our own unique ‘running point’, but it is often and ironically the case that the ‘running point’ is entirely the thing that one needs to commit to and find purpose in for the antidote to the incessant unsettlement, not a gap year.

We need to consider that an un-purposeful gap year – or anything else that distracts us from finding where we are most needed – is representative of a lack of willingness to commit to life. Our society perpetuates this lack of responsibility the more acceptable we make taking the gap year, influencing, rather like a virus, other lifestyle groups (such as the pre-baby/post-wedding gaps) to do the same.

Talking with other ‘gap-ers’, so often the tale shared is one of having had a great time, however, press a little deeper and the honesty comes through, ex-‘gap-ers’ declaring they’ve never felt so alone, so out of place and so not full of fun when traveling.

Society, media channels, travel websites, career advisors, guidance counsellors, friends and family are leaving young people stranded, their inner compass derailed. We are fed ideals and beliefs of how to live and what’s best to do when we finish school – “You’re not complete unless you’ve seen the world” – and so we end up looking outside ourselves for direction.

When a cycle is nearing an end, for example the teenage years, it can be a time for a wake up call as we notice ‘unwelcome’ consequences of past choices that we are living with. When our choices come from ideals or beliefs (often promoted by society), and not from truth or an honouring of yourself, the lived consequences are usually undesirable. At this point it is so easy to turn, run and hide under the gap year guise. The alternative is to utilise the end of one cycle and the beginning of another as a time to refresh and reflect, thereby putting evolution first and foremost in your life.

Using a gap year to ‘find oneself’ after studying is one of the biggest illusions young people have. It’s not the travelling and enjoying it per se that is the illusion, but rather the idea that you need to be ‘footloose and fancy free’ to find out who you are and what you want your life to be.

We can spend time travelling abroad at any age but are we better to look at what exactly is the point of our travel? What is our purpose in our endeavours? We already are EVERYTHING and no mountain view or ocean sunrise can enrich that. In fact, it is ‘we’ who enrich the view and the landscape with our very presence.

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CareerWork life balanceReturning to workBurnout

  • By Suzanne Anderssen, B.Com, Dip Av

    Keeping my sense of fun alive while living a purposeful life is key to my own well-being. Spending time with farm animals, my job in aviation, long walks at sunrise, reading the purple books, and spinach and blueberry smoothies seem to help too.