Taking a gap year is no longer just for school leavers or recent graduates. A ‘adult’ gap year can help you find what you want in life, at any time of your life

I did my first gap year when I was 19, just after sixth form. I got my second in my late 20s after a messy and over-the-top breakup. My third? My husband and I are planning to cruise around the Mediterranean to celebrate a big birthday. But I’m not a permanent student or living off a trust fund; I am part of the ever-growing trend for ‘adult’ gap years.

Although there are no official figures on how many of us are now passing the adult gap years, a quick Google reveals the explosion of travel companies targeting older ‘gappers’. Social media is also filled with photos and updates from older generations taking a year off. Some of us have reached a natural juncture in our lives, such as turning 30, 40 or 50, while others are discovering that there is more to life than the standard nine-to-five.

If you’ve ever thought about taking the break of a lifetime but are put off by the thought of traveling alone, surrounded by lovely A-level students, then an adult gap year could be just what you need.

Why take a gap year for adults?

There are many different reasons for taking a gap year. “You might get itchy feet or start to wonder if there’s something else there,” says Gemma Nixon, a life coach from Durham, who also has a three-year gap. “You can get married and decide to take a longer honeymoon before having kids, or plan to take the kids on a trip while they’re still young.”

Your desire for a gap year may also surprise you. Gemma says: “You may develop a sense that you’re not 100% satisfied in your life, but you’re not sure why.”

For me, my first gap year felt like a natural point at which I could take time to backpack in Southeast Asia, but my second was more about helping me figure out where I wanted to go next in life. “A gap year doesn’t have to ‘book’ parts of your life, but it can offer new dimensions,” says Gemma.

This burning desire to take a different path is inspiring more of us to take a break after the pandemic. “As people move back into shops and offices, they realize that their old lives are no longer enough,” says Gemma. “Many have enjoyed spending so much time with their family and want to enjoy more experiences together, or have decided there is more to life and now is the time to enjoy it.”

Others may have planned for years to take an adult gap year. This could be after retirement, getting clarity after an illness, or to celebrate a milestone such as an important birthday or children leaving home.

What to do during an adult gap year

A gap year isn’t just limited to full moon holidays in Thailand, or fruit picking in Australia – although if that sounds appealing, go for it! You can use the opportunity to explore a new career, or to devote more time to a creative hobby. Gemma says: “You might want to do a year-long cookery course in Italy, or pursue a passion for wildlife photography in Costa Rica.”

But what if you don’t know what to do?

“Taking time off gives you the space to think,” says Gemma. “When you don’t have to deal with travel, getting the kids ready for school, or worrying about work, you can ask yourself some important questions.”

These could be “What do I really like to do?”, “Is this where I want to be in my career?”, “Am I happy where I am?” If this feels overwhelming, working with a therapist or life coach can help you start asking the right questions.

Taking a gap year doesn’t mean you have to leave too; There is no rule that prohibits you from staying at home. If a relative falls ill, for example, you can use the year off to spend quality time with them. If a good friend has given birth, or is going through a divorce, you can be there for them without the usual time pressures. Or you might want your gap year to feel like a long bank holiday: lazy lounging, DIYing and inviting friends and family over for lunch.

You don’t even have to stick to an adult year. I try to get one every 10 years, so I never feel ‘stuck’ – emotionally or literally – in one place. As my life has changed, so have the things I want from a gap year. This can be to rescue, to restore, or just to explore. Figuring out why you want a gap year can help you plan how to spend it.

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Planning your gap year

“Think very carefully about what you want to do, rather than what you think you should do,” advises Gemma. So don’t sign up for something like a three-month bike ride unless you’re a big fan of exercise, or feel compelled to travel abroad if you’re a homebody at heart.

On the other hand, volunteering overseas can offer some amazing opportunities that you may never experience again. The key is to find out what motivates you to take time off and what you hope to gain from a gap year; it’s less about the specifics of where you’re going and more about what you need to feed your soul at that particular time.

Once you know where to go and what to do, the next step is paying for it – and this is where being an older gapper really helps. Gemma says: “If you own your home, you can get a mortgage break or rent out your property. The work may also be more understandable; they will appreciate your years of experience and may offer you a sabbatical or unpaid leave rather than having to quit your job.”

If your employer is a national or international company, talk to them about getting a transfer and then take a few months off to figure out your new location. And if you’re taking a gap year after retirement, you probably don’t have to worry about finding work while you’re away or when you return.

Despite all your planning, inevitably things may not go as expected. You may decide you hate traveling after three months, or terrible weather prevents you from taking the route you planned. “There’s nothing wrong with saying it didn’t work, but can you turn that experience to your advantage?” Gemma asks. “Okay, you didn’t like cooking in Italy, so can you ditch the course and go travel around the country?”

It’s also worth asking yourself: ‘Is this a bad day or a bad trip?’ If it’s just a bad day, give yourself a pep talk and focus on the experience. When I was in Tahiti, there were days when it rained. I felt completely miserable until I remembered: I was in Tahiti! Instead of dodging the downpours I went snorkeling – I was wet anyway and it turned out to be one of the best days.

Whatever you choose to do, commit to making that choice. Gemma says: “There’s never a right time or a wrong time to take a gap year, but if you do, you have to jump in with both feet.”

And who knows? It could be the first step towards a new career, or a whole new you.


Learn more by visiting the life coach directory or speak to a qualified coach.

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