plonkee money an english-er's thoughts on personal finance

November 3, 2008

gap years are good

Filed under: education and career — Tags: , — plonkee @ 4:41 pm

Some things are very culture specific.

I’ve never met an educated Brit who hadn’t been abroad. Never.

More than half of all Americans don’t own a passport.

I view overseas travel as an important part of life. Really, when it comes down to it, I don’t think there’s a very good substitute and that someone who hasn’t travelled at all has lived a sheltered or narrow life (so far).

I didn’t do one myself, but I now see a gap year as a really, really brilliant idea. There are essentially two main variations. In the first you work at a slightly tedious low-paid job for several months to save money which pays for an extended (say 3 month) trip around the world. In the second, you work for slightly less time at the tedious job and supplement your savings with working abroad. Typically this trip involved more than 6 months travel.

Even 10 years ago, when I could have taken one, they were already ubiquitous enough that there was a gap year circuit for Brits. Fly from London to Bangkok, go overland to Singapore, then fly to either Melbourne or Sydney, overland to Cairns. At this point take an optional aside to New Zealand. Finish up by flying to Los Angeles, travelling overland to New York, and then fly back to London. Working abroad would take place in either Australia or New Zealand, and the main alternative would be travelling across India rather than South East Asia.

If the concept is entrenched in the UK and I think Ireland, it is positively compulsory amongst Antipodeans. Based on my own encounters, for Aussies and Kiwis the overseas experience often seems to include a stint working in London, extensive travel around Europe and North America, plus I think South East Asia and/or India. I’m not sure whether the circuit is as well-defined as it is for Brits – most of the Australians and New Zealanders I’ve met seem to be pretty well travelled and get to a wide variety of places.

On the other hand, whilst I’ve met a few Canadians who are on the road for a long period, Americans seem to shun the gap year concept. The same arguments that I remember from reading the paper in the UK 15 years ago about the damage gap years could do to your career prospects seem to be still in vogue amongst US writers.

Apparently, although almost everyone who takes a gap year between school and university in the UK returns to complete their degree, in the US students are much more likely not to bother. And this would be a terrible thing? Quite frankly, if you’re going to be aimless, far better to do it whilst earning money than spending it on expensive tuition.

Although, in other countries the experience of travelling abroad for an extended period of time teaches young adults valuable life skills and broaden their horizons, the only thing it would do to Americans is destroy their ability to concentrate in classes. The people that I started university with who had been on gap years didn’t feel like a year older than me, they seemed more like 5 years older – and much more ready to start studying again after their time off than those of us who hadn’t been off the education treadmill.

If I had the opportunity, I would encourage everyone under the age of 25 to take a year out, make plans, and travel for an extended period. Working abroad for a few months is even better. I feel like living proof that once you start a career, you’re much less inclined to give it all up for a while to travel (but you still should if you feel you have the opportunity).

Although two or three week vacations are really good – they are how I intend to finish off seeing the world – extended 2+ month trips are a completely different beast and can really test and develop you in a way that few other experiences do.

If you know anyone in high school or college, suggest they take a gap year.

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