It seems to me that the gap-year is growing up. No longer is it purely the domain of excited 18 year olds drinking beer whilst finding themselves on a Thai beach, now, almost everyone is at it, even taking their kids with them on a family gap year. Why?
It has been long understood that kids benefit from a break from education and exams even if they (myself included) do return home convinced they are far more mature and world-wise than everyone else. I know from personal experience that a gap year between school and university is a ‘good thing’. I have also read reports that state that people who take a year out get better grades and go on to make better informed decisions about what study and future career direction.
However, I also know that for the average 17/18 year old, those are often simply words to convince the parents to let them go. Really, they want a break, they want to stop and breathe and just enjoy life without the stress of exams looming. English school children are some of the most tested in the world, and, according to a survey carried out by The Children’s Society in 2015, some of the unhappiest in the world, no wonder they need a break.
But why are older people embracing the gap year?
We can read article after article about confused and anxious 20 -30 somethings taking time out to ‘find themselves’ and reassess because they’re stressed out by coming of age in a time of economic and political uncertainty, or when a relationship breaks down. It’s hardly surprising they’re stressed and unhappy given that so many leave university with few options but to take an unpaid internship whilst still living with their parents. And if parents can’t support them financially or don’t live in London, well, these guys just have to find work somewhere even if it doesn’t pay well or help kick start their chosen career. Small wonder so many of them are jacking it in to go travelling. And, of course, kudos to those who are finding a way to make a living from their travels.
And now the latest trend is for a ‘family gap year’ where parents quit their jobs, take their kids out of school and head off in to the unknown, hoping to slow down and spend time together whilst having an amazing adventure.
Why? It’s true that we are probably the last age bracket to have not been screwed by the economic crash, we weren’t expected to work for free, and many of us did manage to claw our way on to the housing ladder…but life still isn’t rosy.
And it isn’t even as if the gap year is solely in the domain of people under 50. The newly retired travel so much there are companies set up purely to cater for their needs. I particularly enjoyed this blog from Gumnuts Abroad about older people taking a break from ‘real life’.
What does this say about our society that people of every age bracket are in need of an escape?
My own experience of living in central London as a family of two small kids and two adults in two busy jobs screams that life just shouldn’t be this way. Why have we created a society that doesn’t put family life at the heart of everything? (and in case you’re an individual who doesn’t have kids, I also include your family life here too, I promise). We live in a society that doesn’t provide affordable childcare, in which the majority of ‘female’ careers don’t pay as well as ‘male’ careers and where it’s nigh on impossible to find a job that allows a parent to work around caring responsibilities. My family found itself in a vicious cycle: we put the children in nursery because we both worked but my salary basically only covered the cost of childcare. I would rush off every morning to a highly stressful job, hoping that I wouldn’t get a call from nursery telling me I needed to pick up a sick child. So I worked to pay for the childcare that allowed me to work. Bonkers, right?
For us, everything reached a head in early 2016 when the kids and I saw an altercation between a few teenagers result in a near fatal stabbing. Prior to this awful incident (of course, far worse for the kid and his family but shocking for us, non-the-less) we’d been mumbling to each other about needing a break and this was the catalyst we needed to make a change.
But why was a family gap year our answer? Why such a drastic solution? Couldn’t we have found a simper option than travelling with kids? What about moving out of London? Or retraining? Or downsizing? Well, yes, technically we could have done any of those things but they’d actually have had a negative impact on our lives. Moving out of London would have meant longer commute times and even less time with our children. We both work in fields that really need us to be in the capital. As we all know, the UK has become far too reliant on one giant metropolis. It isn’t great but it’s what it is. Were we German we could have just chosen another big German city and tried it on for size but that doesn’t work here. Retraining? Expensive and you have to be pretty damn sure you know what you want to do before you take that route. Downsizing? Yeah, probably a good solution but not a fun one!
Work isn’t the be all and end all.
And maybe that’s the crux of it: we still both firmly believe in fun. We want life to be fun and refuse to give up on that belief. For us work is there to provide for the fun, neither of us has bought in to the idea that work is the be all and end all. We also want our kids to know that life can be a continuous adventure. If you’re not happy, make a change, seize the opportunity and don’t let the daily grind grind you down.
We feel that it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll get the same retirement experience as my parents: final salary pensions, early retirement and lots of high end travelling. So we decided to throw caution to the wind and take our ‘retirement’ now, as a family gap year. ‘Future us’ can figure out how to make old age work but ‘now us’ wants to enjoy life and have amazing experiences with our kids.
So, after six months chilling out together in Mexico, we’re currently back in London. Are things different? I guess I kind of think everything’s different and nothing’s different. Everything is different because the kids are older and they know so much more. They know London isn’t everything. We dumped them in a Spanish speaking school and expected them to thrive. Thankfully, they lived up to this expectation. Their confidence has grown and now, there’s very little we could ask them to do here that would be harder than attending school in a language you don’t yet speak. Just last week a teacher at our son’s school commented to me that he talks to adults as an equal. And it has been noted by nursery that our daughter just throws herself in to everything happily. I’m sure that these are a direct result of having had such a formative experience whilst so young.
Life is still incredibly hectic but one decision we have taken is that only one parent is going to work for the time being. We can’t see any other way to maintain our slower lifestyle. We all love that I take the kids to school and pick them up in the evening. Yes, we’re taking a cut financially, and I’m sure I’m not doing my career prospects any favours, but, it’s a choice we happy with. Instead of a rushed meal with parents too exhausted to talk to each other, let alone the kids, we have some semblance of chat around the supper table every night (‘sit down, just try it, I said sit down, don’t spit’ all counts as conversation, right?).
In fact, we enjoyed ourselves so much whilst away that we’re currently working on a plan to get ourselves out of London and back to Mexico asap. To follow our adventures, check out my Moving to Mexico blog.
My main learning about myself whilst away was that I’m not particularly ambitious in the traditional sense. Having 20 odd years of excellent but fairly traditional education under my belt made me feel that I needed to constantly achieve at work, but I don’t actually want to live on a career train. I want to enjoy life, I want to smell the roses (literally, I love stopping to smell the roses) and I want my kids to be able to do the same.
Oooh, look at that, did I find myself whilst away?
To find yet more good reasons to take a family gap year, check out my latest article: 8.5 Reasons To Take A Family Gap Year.