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The gift of the gap

The gift of the gap

Many of the Gen Y’s heading off for their gap year will be seeking both adventure and self-discovery, exploring odd jobs, cheap thrills and passion-fueled ‘apprenticeships’ that can uncover career paths unthought of.


Wanderlust. Literally and figuratively, ‘the lust to wander’, is a mysterious word with its roots in the German style of apprenticeships. Taken today, wanderlust reflects beach parties in Thailand, spiritual journeys to reclusive Indian ashrams - eating, drinking and breathing the spicy, exotic delights of foreign places. Its a far cry from the Middle-Age gap year equivalent, which began, on average, at age 9, took 7-10 years to complete, and involved a whole lot more furnace-blazing, back-breaking labour and a whole lot less sun tanning and frisbee.

Taken together, wandern (to hike) and Lust (desire), means ‘to enjoy hiking’, although it commonly describes the enjoyment of strolling or wandering. It is a fitting description for the worldly adventures of twenty-somethings searching the cheap, travel-friendly continents for meaning, purpose and of course - a few happy snaps to fill those Facebook albums. But more than this, a whole lot of clued-up, forward-thinking Gen Y’s are using their gap years to explore alternative career paths, taking time to reflect on their studies, and plan their mesmerizing futures.

Straddling the gap

A good gap year is a productive gap year. Four years of study can still leave you without a job, but taking a gap year will let you test a variety of different career paths, explore left-field jobs and take calculated, independent risks.

The path of study is linear, whereas life is not. From kindergarten to primary school to high school to university and perhaps postgraduate study too, life rarely begets such a perfectly straight path. There are twists and turns, side-steps, stumbles and leaps of faith - and to spend a year roaming the world and making decisions on a whim can help young men and women broaden their thinking, and with some luck, prepare them for the non-linear living ahead.


From a more practical perspective, taking time away from study to explore your options can save you from expensive tuition fees, exasperating assignments and the emotional energy of pursuing a degree that does not feel right for you. A growing approach is to get the first year of study ‘under your belt’, take a year off to travel solo or with friends, returning with a clear mind for a downhill run in the second and third years.

For the career-minded, laser-focused individuals most reluctant to delay their career advancement, spending a productive year away can indeed boost your employment prospects, and better prepare you for future placement and growth. According to Richard Oliver of the Year Out Group, "employers want to see you stick at something for a minimum of three months, maybe working on a conservation project in Thailand for six months or teaching English for a couple of terms in China.” 

Volunteering or working abroad develops those rare intangibles - the transferable ‘soft skills’ that hiring managers dribble over - proven examples of teamwork, communication, project management, independence and initiative.

Aha, science! Gapping boosts identity formation

And it makes you smarter too. Recent research shows that taking time off to travel at a young age both boosts identity formation and helps your brain to think more laterally.

The decade between 18-28 is the most important stage of identity formation as it relates to your career decisions. According to Jenny English, a senior counsellor at Deakin University, and co-author of Into Adulthood: a parents guide to life with an 18-25 year old, taking time out to travel helps to boost the identity formation of young people in this age group. In her experience, 18-year-olds are being asked to do the impossible: choose a career. 


“This age is about identity formation. It would be psychologically impossible for an 18-year-old to have their identity formed... it takes the next 7 to 8 to 10 years to develop a sense of who they are so they can make a decision at 18 about where they go and what they want to do, but it’s only based on rudimentary psychological foundations.” Taking time off to travel frees 18-28-year olds from the pressure and constraint of misinformed decision-making that could inadvertently veer them down an unsuitable path.

‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness’, said American humorist and philosopher Mark Twain. A gap year creates more informed and sympathetic citizens. It even develops problem-solving skills.  Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was A Neuroscientist, explains travel’s usefulness to our brains: ‘The reason such travels are mentally useful involves a quirk of cognition, in which problems that feel “close”... when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful - it allows us to focus on the facts at hand - it also inhibits our imagination.” Stuck in a rut about your future? Doctors ought to be prescribing gap years in generous doses. Adding more evidence, Lawrence C. Katz, author of Keep Your Brain Alive, says that novel ways of thinking and viewing the world can improve the functioning of inactive sections of the brain. Experiencing new tastes and smells, working different jobs and traveling to new places are among the top things he suggests to rewire your brain.

Gappers and ‘zoomers’ - it’s never too late to gap


Watch out full-moon party travelers - that older couple waving glow sticks on the beach - they could be your parents. Just don’t let them join in the limbo.

One of the fastest-growing travel segments is the unofficial ‘Zoomers’ - the traveling population of cashed-up, retired, time-rich Boomers. And they are proving that its never too late to take a year off. Earlier this year, for a WorkLifeGroup career transition storytelling contest we held, one adventurous entry told the story of  Mike and Jo Hannan, a middle-aged Brisbane couple who set out to journey from London to Seoul on a motorbike. “We were heading for an overseas adventure but unlike most other middle-aged passengers, we had no return tickets and only a vague idea where we were going”, begins Mike, whose journey was as much about an adventure with his wife as a calling for mid-life career change. “It reflected a dramatic change of lifestyle, the continuance of a long search for self and the beginning of a new career at a time when others were thinking about retirement.” You can read Mike and Jo’s full story here.

An example even closer to home is my mum, who hasn’t traveled overseas (besides a splended holiday from Adelaide to Bali) since her Honeymoon. Rather adventurously, she booked her solo ticket to Europe to re-connect with a childhood spend between Rotterdam and Manchester. She’s a married, working women who figures, ‘Why not?’ Mum is a Zoomer - and part of the increasingly adventurous fifty-plus cohort - and its not just for the affluently-retired, but rather the product of cheap internet flights, the shocking rediscovery of free time, and a lack of reasons not to.

Conclusion: Bridging the gap

The gap year offers wondrous opportunities for adventurous youngsters and oldies alike. There are some things to keep in mind that will help you make the most of your gap year:


A successful gap year is a well-structured gap year. Planning should be done 12 months in advance, allowing time to plan a flexibly vague itinerary. Visas, flights, working visas, accommodation, immunizations, prescriptions, insurance and other niggly details need to be thought of in advance for a smooth trip.


And save, and save some more. It deserves that much repetition. Unless you are expecting a big windfall from parents or relatives, the majority of gappers must work to feed their travel addiction. Typically, you will need to work all hours to save for a year or more. Or, if you’re like me - you must work to pay off your credit cards first - and then begin saving enough to get you to your first overseas working destination. Money is a traveller’s best friend - it greases your travelling wheels. Depending on where you want to go i.e. Indonesia or Ghana versus Norway or Southern France - your savings needs will vary. For a budget backpacker, for one year, you should aim for US$12-15,000 to get you by, if you are intending to work for three to six months, too.


Keep in touch.

But watch out for international roaming, those mobile carriers are out to get you. We’ve all heard the horror stories: thousands of dollars evaporating after a few deep calls to home about your life-altering experiences and your pet dog Miffy back home. I remember getting whacked for A$600 by my mobile carrier, which traced to a little under two weeks in Thailand. Fight back by switching off roaming altogether, and download Skype or Fring to your mobile, iPhone or laptop. Dig or ask around for a free wifi spot - cafe’s, restaurants, libraries, airports - and you can make calls for free or very cheap over the internet. It’s the wave of the future.

Map your gap.

Having a physical map with you to scribble and doodle over is a final little recommendation. It is exciting to track your geographical progress, and make little notes or squiggles about what you want to do and where. Most importantly, you’ll have this map to look back on one day.

Looking to take a gap year off? The WorkLifeGroup toolkit can help you create a career plan that could include working abroad in a role that will set you up for your return home.

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EARLY CAREER: Gen Y, Graduates and Early Careerists

Guy has worked as a business journalist, urban planner, slow food chef, denim salesperson and digital media manager, and shares original insights on diverse Gen Y career experiences.

Guy holds a B. Urban Planning & Development (Hons), has worked in 5 different industries and knows what its like to face the challenge of graduate transition. New career choices, personal branding and balancing passions with money are all part of the mix.

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