Give me a break

A student taking a year out thinks African villages could do without the 'help' of middle-class gappers.


Topics Politics

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Gap years are becoming ever more popular among school leavers, and as numbers increase a healthy new industry is burgeoning. According to one recent report, ‘Last year 26,400 students deferred entry to university – a rise of 30 per cent in the past five years – and a further 20,000 take a year off after graduating’ (1). Respected universities such as Nottingham are giving advice on planning a year out, and some are now actively encouraging arts students to take a gap year (2). Connie Cullen, director of admissions at York University, believes that ‘gap year students arrive with compensatory maturity and focus’ (3). But are the students-to-be really growing up, or are they simply leaving their structured, safe life at home for more of the same abroad?

There is nothing wrong with travelling, learning more about the wider world and having a bit of fun, but too much is being loaded on the gap year as a force for change. This trend is being exacerbated by gap year companies, which provide an all-inclusive working holiday in a suitably poor and remote village. For me, the idea of paying around £3000 for the privilege of doing volunteer work does not, for some reason, appeal (4). Paying a company to provide extensive support services hardly amounts to developing freedom and responsibility. There are even pre-gap year courses in which you are taught about ‘diffusing confrontation, survival in extremis, kidnap, international rescue signals and how to maintain a low profile’, for just £125 a day (5). If I am in such need of such guidance perhaps I shouldn’t be leaving home at all.

Before choosing a scheme, the Year Out Group advises you to ask ‘Why are UK young people needed on this [project] and who asked for us to do it?’ (6). The real question is, what skill does an acne-ridden Western teenager have to offer? If you invade someone’s village and start trying to erect school buildings, there are bound to be several people living there who are somewhat better qualified for the job. And given that universities in Britain think that potential students could do with a year to grow up a bit, how can they be suitable candidates for international volunteer work?

Customers of GAP Activity Projects made comments such as ‘GAP gave me the opportunity to believe in myself and to have confidence in my own beliefs’ and ‘I have learned a lot about myself, [including] my own personal limitations and how to cope with my emotions in a more healthy way’ (7). Developing as a person is fine, but should other people’s poverty be sold as a life-changing experience? Rather than doing gap year projects in a small community, it might be better to go there as a tourist and give the locals something useful: not an incompetent 18-year-old handyman, but some money.

Now there is the phenomenon of ‘adult gappers’. According to a recent article in The Times (London), a ‘mini-industry’ has sprung up to cater for adults who are trying to ‘work out what they want to do with the rest of their lives’. Tom Griffiths, founder of, says that there are two main groups who are taking a belated year out: ‘The 25 to 35-year-olds are our fastest-growing market, and the pre-retirement group the second.’

Perhaps I am just a petulant youth, but I would have thought of these people as being in the age bracket where they might be settled – or settling – down. Instead they seem to be succumbing to an ‘old as you feel’ mentality, keen to escape the pressures of daily and life go gallivanting off to exotic lands. John Crace of the Guardian has tried to explain the explosion of adult gapping, saying that ‘Youth is now a relative concept and you don’t have to stop having fun just because you’re getting older’. According to Crace: ‘Existential angst is no longer the preserve of self-obsessed youth; it’s also been appropriated by the neurotic adult, and a gap year is just one response to a self-evaluation that finds something missing.’ (8)

The Personal Overseas Development (POD) website offers career breaks that it describes as ‘voluntary work and personal development in the developing world’ (9). The website tells us that ‘More and more people are recognising the value of a career break, as an opportunity to take some time away from work to pursue other interests, giving a complete change from their normal environment’. This can last anything from two weeks to a year. The emphasis seems to be on POD helping to organise the break that you want, even extending to advice on how to manage your money while away and how to approach the topic with your boss. proudly announces that ‘From the age of 18 people will now become “serial gapers” as they head through each life stage’ (10). Rather than being something to celebrate, this should be understood as part of the current ‘Peter Pan’ culture in which people are refusing to grow up. Why should anyone need to take ‘a “gap” to prepare themselves for the transition ahead’? Part of adult life is surely being able to prepare yourself for changes.

A gap year can be a great experience on an individual level. A majority of people who went away with GAP Activity Projects tell fondly of ‘the time of my life’ (11). But there needs to be a reappraisal of what the gap year has to offer. If young people want to change the world, it will take more time and effort than a couple of months digging trenches in Africa. Meanwhile, thirtysomethings should perhaps find a better way to make difficult decisions than taking ‘time out’ from life.

Francis Boorman is taking a gap year between school and university, and is currently working as a spiked intern.

(1) Work in a gap year? Give me a break, 11 August 2004

(2) Gap year options, Centre for Career Development at the University of Nottingham

(3) GAP Activity Projects: Should I take a year out?

(4) Cost and fundraising, Raleigh International

(5) GAP year preparation courses, 1 August 2002

(6) Year Out Group: organisations and their programmes

(7) GAP Activity Projects: Should I take a year out?

(8) New year, new horizons, Guardian, 28 December 2002

(9) Personal Overseas Development: career breaks

(10) What is a gap year?

(11) Gap Activity Projects: Should I take a year out?

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Topics Politics


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