The rise of the grown-up gap year

Ever thought taking a career break will be off-putting to potential employers? A ‘grown-up gap year’ is now much more acceptable than it’s ever been — we reveal the reasons behind this growing trend.

By Julia Buckley
Published 30 Sept 2019, 07:00 BST
According to experts, a grown-up gap year has been a steadily upward trend since the 2008 ...
According to experts, a grown-up gap year has been a steadily upward trend since the 2008 recession
Photograph by Getty Images

Tim Potter wasn’t worried about ramifications for his career when he embarked on an eight-month trip around the world. 

“I was perhaps overly optimistic,” he says. “I’d been in the sector for 10 years and knew quite a lot of people. I thought I’d be able to get a job when I got back — whether it would be my dream job would be another question, but I was OK with taking that risk.”

It was 2012, and Potter, who was in public relations, had just finished working on the London Olympics alongside his partner. A career break to go travelling — or a ‘grown-up gap year’ — seemed like a natural progression for them both. 

The couple spent four months travelling around Asia: month-long stints in Nepal and the Philippines then on to India, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Next, they flew to Mexico via Canada, worked their way down Central America, and spent a month in both Colombia and Brazil — they were planning to have some 2016 Olympics-related meetings there, he says, but it didn’t work out.

Not that the lack of work affected his prospects. Within three weeks of his return, he was in another job (he’d interviewed for it in a phone booth in Colombia). Today, he’s MD of marketing agency Hunt & Gather, and wouldn’t swap his year off for the world. 

But is Potter’s experience common or did he get lucky? Some people assume taking a career break will automatically be off-putting to potential employers, but according to Emily Bain, MD of secretarial and PA recruitment agency Bain and Gray, it can actually be quite the opposite.

“As a recruiter, I see it as a positive,” she says. “Our job is to educate our clients so they’re on the same page.”

Bain goes on to say that taking a grown-up gap year is more common than you’d think — in fact, it’s been a steadily upward trend since the 2008 recession. “People couldn’t get work so they just took off,” she says. 

Donna Jeavons, sales and marketing director for Contiki, which specialises in travel for those aged 18 to 35, agrees the crash heralded a cultural change. “Since that recession, it’s been much more acceptable to take time out,” she says. 

Jeavons thinks there’s been a shift around career breaks in more ways than one. “Half of my friends have settled down, the other half are still single — and they’re the ones taking the opportunity to go travelling,” she says. 

Tim Fryer, UK manager at STA Travel, says grown-up gap years can only have a positive effect on your career. “Taking a break gives travellers time to refocus on work as well as the space to reflect on what exactly it is they want to do,” he explains. 

A third of people who travel with Raleigh International, which matches volunteers with placements, are between 30-49, and 62% of those are female. Almost half describe themselves as taking a career break, or taking time out to consider their options. “They’re often at a turning point in their careers or lives, and we form part of that journey,” says Raleigh International’s Lucy Burrows-Smith. “One of the biggest driving factors we see is people actively wanting to remove themselves from a corporate environment to immerse themselves somewhere they’ll be able to make a greater positive impact.”


The long-term implications

The desire to go travelling is by no means all work-related, though. For many, recovering from illness, the loss of a loved one or something like divorce can be the trigger. And some simply have an ambition to see a certain place — or places — by a certain age. 

“As I was approaching the last year of my 20s, I thought to myself, ‘Do I want to spend this year sitting behind a desk, or do I want to have a big adventure?’” says Emily-Ann Elliott. “I’d been saving for years to go travelling some day, so I made a list of 30 things I’d always wanted to do around the world, and called it my ‘30 Before 30’ trip.”

She quit her job as a reporter on a local newspaper and took nine months off for a solo round-the-world trip. The trip, she says, gave her the “time and space to think about my career”. She went back to her career, but set up a blog on her return, The Grown-Up Gap Year, to help others in her position plan their travels. 

“Taking a gap year when you’re older means that you have different things to consider, from how to save for a trip like this to what to do with property you rent or own, and whether you should quit your job or ask for a sabbatical.” On her blog, she discusses these issues in depth, as well as how to readjust on your return. “Nowadays lots of companies see travelling as a positive thing,” she says.

Two employers we spoke to agree. Inspired by her own recent 10-month travels, Lise Thorne has just introduced a policy for the 65 employees at her IT consultancy, allowing them to take one month’s unpaid leave a year, on top of their annual leave. “I’d have had a different opinion five years ago, but now I think we all grow from travel,” she says. 

Meanwhile, investment banker Toby Norfolk-Thompson recently rehired a member of staff who’d returned from a grown-up gap year. “I was very positive about it, because she chose to return to a role she really wanted instead of carrying on travelling. She was generally much better at coping with stress than before, too,” he says. 

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Emily Bain admits that some employers’ instinct is to turn their noses up at someone who’s had a break. “If there’s a gap on a CV, people can make assumptions,” she says. “The old school approach has always been for that picture perfect CV. But our culture has changed and companies have to accept it.” 

However, she says, the onus is on the traveller to sell their experience as something that will benefit future employers. For her clients, that’s where she comes in — as a recruiter, she becomes a lobbyist, writing detailed profiles to send to the employers. But those of us without a recruiter on hand can do what she does. “You have to explain the whole picture,” she says. “Making your CV gap accountable actually brings your profile to life.” So, don’t hide it — make a big deal of it.

Bain reckons that although gap years are acceptable, whatever you do (or don’t do) on them, learning some kind of skill is important — though it doesn’t have to be academic. “I had a client who learned a special kind of weaving in India, and that to me is really interesting. It became a real talking point.”

The most obvious skill to take from travel, of course, is a language. Matt Horsburgh of language-learning app Babbel reckons it’s crucial — not just to give you something to come back with, but also to have a better time while away. “Travelling at 35 is different to travelling at 21,” he says. “Back then, I never felt any pressure to learn a language — people didn’t seem to mind me speaking English. But now, I want to make more of an effort. Maybe I’m just more culturally sensitive, but locals are much friendlier if you can speak to them in their own language, and it opens you up to more opportunities.” 

He remembers turning up in a remote hilltop town in Spain, where his Spanish language skills won him and his group an invitation to a local fiesta. “We spent the evening with the B&B owner eating and drinking. It was an amazing experience that only came about because I was able to communicate with the locals.”

Learning a language will help you on your return, too — and it’s not just about cynical CV points. “Even if you don’t need languages for your career, learning one builds your confidence, skills, and takes time and motivation,” says Horsburgh — who landed his current job during a travel stint, living in Germany and working in a bar to learn the language. “A potential employer sees that as a benefit — they recognise the drive. Being exposed to other cultures helps too — even down to different countries’ ways of greeting people. That’s important in the workplace.”


How to volunteer responsibly

Giving something back is an important part of travel, and many people on a career break do a stint volunteering as part of their travels. Just be realistic, says Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel. “You’re not going to change the world, but for those you do help, you can make a world of difference.” Francis says it’s imperative to research the organisation you’re volunteering with to be sure that there’s a real need for your skills. “If you have genuine skills you can offer a community, then do, but before taking any employment, consider if the job is one that could be filled by a local,” he says. 

Companies like Raleigh International can set you up with a placement that plays to your strengths. It’s also worth seeing if there are schemes tied specifically to your profession — like AFID (Accounting for International Development), which sends up to 180 British accountants to work with charities abroad each year (interestingly, they have a 50:50 gender split). “By using their professional skills in a different context, they reenergise,” says volunteer manager Dave Busby. “Often they come back and decide they want to go in another direction more permanently — they look for work in the charity sector. Or they’re happy to go back to the commercial world — they’ve scratched that itch and have a different perspective on how valuable their skills are. They come back with softer skills too — they’ve worked in a different culture, with limited resources, and have worked with non-finance people. Having that perspective is good for an employer.”

Some volunteers never come back, of course. Others have an epiphany and make life-changing decisions. A sabbatical in Costa Rica and Nicaragua prompted Damian and Joanne Withers to ditch their careers in architecture and photography and start a hosted self-catering business, St Mark’s Stays, in Cumbria. Janice Miller spent 20 years working for multinational companies before a volunteering trip to Peru led her to found Kidasha, a children’s charity in Nepal. Then there are the more personal revelations: writer Katie Butler’s year in Australia and Southeast Asia by bike saw her shed 35kg and ultimately become an endurance cyclist. 

It’s not all about work, though; a career break like this is about doing something for yourself. A grown-up gap year eliminates responsibility, says Lianne Young, who went from being a gym manager to a sex and relationships counsellor following a round-the-world trip. “Having less means obtaining more, both physically and mentally — we offload mental, physical and material pressures,” she says. “Backpacking makes you realise we don’t actually need so much in our lives. Your confidence grows as you travel and you see life from a new perspective. It’s the best therapy.”

So will you regret it? Not according to 55-year-old supply chain consultant Chris Barrett, who took a grown-up gap year 28 years ago. Before leaving, he wasn’t sure whether it would harm his career; now he says he wouldn’t hire anyone without some travelling under their belt. “My only regret is that it leaves you with an appetite to do more — I can’t watch travel programmes because I get intensely jealous,” he says. “I’m fairly confident it didn’t do me any harm in my career. If any organisation was unwilling to consider me, they’re not the kind I’d want to work in.”


Your gap year travel tick list

Don’t assume you have to resign — many companies may be open to you taking a sabbatical. Check your workplace’s policy with the HR department and you might be pleasantly surprised. Even if not, book a meeting with your boss and explain your plans, how you’d see your work being covered while you’re away, and what you could bring to the table upon your return. 

Travel insurance is a must, and it’s worth plumping for the most comprehensive cover available. Check your policy carefully, as many have exclusions for activities as anodyne as riding a bike.

Save not just enough money for the break itself, but to cover you for up to six months on your return, in case it’s tricky finding a job. A fund to get through three months post-return is a must — both financially and mentally.

Plans can change while you’re on the road, so it’s worth looking into flexible flights, or round-the-world tickets. Many long-haul flights are nonrefundable, but can be changed for a fee. Of course, you can also lock in the main flights, and take the train in between. Prices for last-minute train travel tend to be rather more reasonable, too.

Think you might be nervous? Ease yourself in with a longer stay in your first destination, or consider booking a group tour for a couple of weeks to start off. Many people, especially first-time solo travellers, find this helps them acclimatise, gain confidence and meet potential travel mates.

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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