It’s a Rite of Passage For Many, but Is the Gap Year Coming to an End?

·9-min read

Hostels, wild parties, bustling cities, and beachside bonfires - that's the gap year we've known and loved since the 1960s. But it's hanging on by a thread. Year after year, young adults have excitedly jetted off to Asia, South America, and Australasia in a bid to explore the world and 'find themselves' before embarking on further education or a career.

Yet the tide seems to be turning on this rite of passage. Raleigh International, a charity responsible for placing more than 55,000 young people in development programmes overseas since 1978, closed down in May this year. The charity said it could no longer afford to operate, blaming the pandemic and reduced funding.

This isn't too surprising considering only three percent of students took a gap year in 2018 compared to 11 percent between 2005 to 2010. So what has changed?

Gap Year and the Pandemic

It will come as no surprise that the pandemic has had a detrimental effect on the gap year. As travel came to a halt, so did the dreams of taking a year out to blow off steam. Concerns over finances, the welfare of families, and career prospects were highlighted as the leading causes for Gen Z and Millennials feeling stressed and anxious, according to Deloitte. And so taking an extended period of time away has felt uncomfortable for many postpandemic.

"A gap year seemed far-fetched considering everything was still hanging in the balance with travel, visas, and COVID."

This was the case for Joseph Grindrod. The 20-year-old was preparing for his A-level exams when the pandemic hit, leading to an abrupt end to his school days. "The jump to university felt very disjointed," the University of Manchester student told POPSUGAR. "I decided against a gap year because I didn't want to put my education and career on hold anymore. At that point, we didn't know how long the pandemic would last, so I thought it was better to get on with my studies rather than stay at home."

For two years our lives were in limbo. With a backlog of students ready to start their next chapter, jostling for university places and job roles became even more competitive, and, with travel still uncertain, a gap year hasn't felt like the carefree choice it once was for many.

"After sending off all my personal statements to various universities and mulling over the idea of a gap year, lockdown hit," Kiera Patel, 20, told POPSUGAR. "A gap year seemed far-fetched considering everything was still hanging in the balance with travel, visas, and COVID. Going straight to uni was the best decision for me."

Gap Year and Work

However, the pandemic has opened up possibilities for a new demographic of digital nomads. The global move towards remote working has allowed Brits to combine it with travelling, albeit less hostel hopping and more rustic Instagrammable Airbnb's. Bali's tourism minister Sandiaga Uno has even announced a five-year digital nomad visa that would allow up to 3.6 million international freelancers to work from the island tax free.

Shockingly, it is actually cheaper to work and travel than it is to work and live in some parts of the UK, according to research by Hostelworld. A one-month trip would cost a solo wanderer £1,170, which is a little cheaper than living in London where an average spend is £1,250 a month if living frugally.

And so the nomad lifestyle is filling the gap for Brits who did not get a chance to take a gap year, like Phoebe Dodds. The 26-year-old, who founded the marketing agency Buro155 after finishing university, told POPSUGAR that her desire to travel was one of the main reasons she decided to get a job that allowed her to be self-employed.

Dodds has spent the past year working in Mexico, Greece, Berlin, Paris, Rome, London, and Amsterdam. "I was always jealous of people who had taken a gap year, but I just wanted to get started with university straight out of school. I didn't get to travel, so I felt I missed out on that and I was really keen to have that experience afterwards," she said. "This is my lifestyle rather than a one-year deadline that people have when they take a gap year right out of school. Now, I have freedom and flexibility."

Three female backpacking friends make their way to depart for the next part of their journey. They are carrying their backpacks, checking the timetable and having a laugh.
Three female backpacking friends make their way to depart for the next part of their journey. They are carrying their backpacks, checking the timetable and having a laugh.

Gap Year and the Cost-of-Living Crisis

In an ideal world, we'd all be able to afford a gap year of sightseeing, sunbathing, and soaking in cultures, but we are in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. The traditional "gap yah", the comedy phrase coined by YouTuber Matt Lacey, is most commonly taken by white, middle-class teens whose families can support them. And that's a tiny fraction of the population.

A huge 30 percent of 14–24-year-olds are living in poverty right now, with 13 percent of young people living in families that are unable to keep their accommodation warm enough, according to research by the New Policy Institute for StreetGames. For many, taking a year off from work and education to travel is simply not an option.

"We are in a financial crisis. The class divide is increasing rapidly, and while the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer."

Sonya Barlow, a 29-year-old businesswoman and founder of the LMF network, told POPSUGAR: "We are in a financial crisis. The class divide is increasing rapidly, and while the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. A decade ago when I was thinking about going to university, a gap year was predominantly for people who came from wealth. As a first generation South Asian immigrant, my parents worked very, very hard to make sure that they could put food on the table. We didn't quite understand the concept of a gap year."

While the gap year might be named as such to illustrate a break from education and work, there is an undeniable disparity between classes and races who can afford to take 12 months out.

"People of colour face more barriers when entering the workspace, so it is generally believed that you should go to university and get a degree straight away," Barlow continues. "No one can take that degree away from you, and it's more likely that you'll be in a position to earn enough money and take holidays at a later date. It is a very competitive field out there. As a woman and a brown person, you know you have to do your absolute best to get into spaces that you're not normally accepted into."

While historically there has been a sense of gap-year entitlement, there are gappers who are doing it cheaply. Tour operators like Contiki have been working to offer budget-friendly tours that can be tailored with guides, foods, work opportunities, and accommodation to make the experience much more inclusive, yet the stigma surrounding gap-year privilege remains in 2022.

Gap-Year Safety

We can't talk about young people going travelling without addressing safety, particularly concerning female and solo travellers. Women's safety and sexual assault has been of the utmost importance, particularly since the devastating deaths of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, and Zara Aleena, to name a few. While these occurred on our doorstep, women's safety is an issue at home and abroad.

A staggering 88 percent of women say they have felt somewhat threatened or unsafe while travelling, a 2021 study by JourneyWoman found. With high-profile cases like Grace Millane, who was murdered in 2018 while backpacking in New Zealand, it's understandable that safety is at the forefront of women's minds.

"You learn so much about your own resilience, being self-reliant, being independent, not needing anyone or a distraction, and just being comfortable in your own company."

Yet 26-year-old senior account executive Annabel Redgate, who took a gap year in 2018, wants to assure travellers that tragedies can happen anywhere, not just while backpacking. "I would tell anyone to travel alone. You learn so much about your own resilience, being self-reliant, being independent, not needing anyone or a distraction, and just being comfortable in your own company," she told POPSUGAR.

"I would just advise women and solo travellers not to take risks. For example, if you want to go on a night out and drink, do so, but don't go overboard, and make sure you tell people your plans for the evening, whether that's friends you've made on the trip, your hosts at the hostel or hotel you're staying in, or friends and family back home. That way you've always got someone to check in with. You should also do your research and get recommendations from friends, family, and the Lonely Planet's 'Solo Travel Handbook' about where to go and what to do, as relying on other people's insights can really help you to feel safe."

Travel companies are responding to the rise in solo travelling. HostelWorld's The Solo System app enables those travelling alone to chat to others visiting the same destination before their check-in date. "Our aim is to ensure everyone using the app is safe and feels safe while travelling. We want to build a safe, open community for travellers to meet each other. We won't tolerate any abuse or behaviour that goes against our community guidelines," a Hostelworld spokesperson said.

Women relaxing and sunbathing at the beach
Women relaxing and sunbathing at the beach

Gap-Year 2022 and Beyond

While there appears to be more on the shoulders of Gen Z than their parents, who took off on hippy trails in far-flung parts of the world, it doesn't mean we are immune from wanderlust. As the world opens its doors again postpandemic, there are undeniable memories to be made by taking a breather from the regimen adult life can bring.

"As borders around the world continue to open, we expect to see a spike in gap-year travellers over the next 12–18 months after those who have had to delay gap years due to the pandemic now have the opportunity to travel again", Donna Jeavons, from Youth Travel Operator, Contiki, tells POPSUGAR. "In the past six months there has undoubtedly been a sharp uptick in searches and bookings - a good sign confidence is returning."

Instead, Gen Z is changing the gap-year blueprint. Companies are working to make travelling safer, cheaper, and more inclusive for travellers. The world has changed, and while the traditional gap year might not mirror the 20-bed hostels and guitars around campfires that we have been used to seeing, enriching lives through travel will never go out of style. The gap year isn't dead, it's just evolved for a new era.

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