Why should gap years be the exclusive preserve of the young?

TravellingAround this time of year, thousands of young people will be planning their gap year. Will it be helping to build a school in India? Or working in an orphanage in Africa? Or maybe dispensing drinks in a bar in Thailand?

The desire to suspend entry into the world of work, and all the grown-up anxieties that follow, is perfectly understandable, and the chance to assert a little independence, escaping the parental shackles, is highly commendable. Universities, too, welcome gap year applicants, believing that the experience gained makes a more rounded human being.

When I was of university age, the concept of a gap year hadn’t taken root. The impetus, from secondary school onwards, was to get us into a career as soon as possible. Earning money took significant precedence over broadening our minds. I went to a polytechnic, so that a year after I had completed my A-Levels, I was in a job and paying taxes. I have been in full-time employment pretty well continuously ever since.

I’ve enjoyed the good fortune of a fulfilling career, but just recently I’ve had a creeping feeling that I’ve missed out on something in my life. I now know what it is: a gap year! Youngsters grow up today believing that a year off is an inalienable right, but why should it be the exclusive preserve of the young? I deserve a sabbatical, too. I’ve worked non-stop for three decades or so, and have never lived abroad, or properly experienced a different way of life. I want to travel for the sake of travelling, rather than for the purpose of arriving somewhere.

I know I am not alone in feeling this. There has been a considerable rise in recent years of “grey gappers”, those over the age of 50 with the resources to travel, with few constraints to tie them down, and a yen for exploration. This is the first generation, after all, for whom foreign travel became the norm, so it’s probably only to be expected that our wanderlust gets stronger as we inspect our one-way tickets to mortality.

One of the most uplifting and inspirational stories this week was that of the middle-aged Welsh couple who took early retirement, bought a small boat and sailed off to Spain for seven-day holiday. Sixteen years later, Clive and Jane Green are back home, having sailed around the world, taking in 56 different countries on an epic 58,000 mile voyage. Talking exactly like a teenager, Mrs Green, now 60, said, “it’s been an amazing experience”, and the story of how their spirit of adventure and their sense of resourcefulness propelled them to the ends of the earth is an example to all of us who are the wrong side of 50.

My horizons may be somewhat narrower, but I have a nascent desire for discovery. And I cast envious glances at the students now organising all manner of exotic expeditions. If youth is wasted on the young, then maybe travelling is, too. No matter. All this will have to wait. I have work to do. But in the meantime, I’m going to take a gap fortnight. See you in September.




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