Those bright-eyed, back-packing 18-year-olds might get all the attention, but increasingly, it’s us older folks who are taking gap years -- and loving it. We are taking breaks from our jobs or quitting altogether, packing up the family or reveling in an empty nest, and setting off for adventures we never before dreamed possible.
This, we realize, is actually the ideal time for a gap year. We are older, more mature. Nothing rocks us but everything interests us. We have some resources saved up and we know how we like to spend our time. We love meeting new people, learning about new cultures, and we’re not as worried about calories so we can eat our way through vats of gelatto on a foodie gap year around the world.
The idea of taking advantage of a 'gap' really resonates with a lot of us no matter where we are in our lives.
The hardest part of deciding to go on a gap year might just be figuring out where to go and what to do because there are so many options for a grown up gap year. We might just gap year for the rest of our lives.
At the same time, travelers over 50 have different concerns and interests than that aforementioned 18 year old backpacker. So let us help you figure out the logistics for an over 50s gap year.
Gap Years Aren't Just for the Young
The term ‘gap-year’ generally means the time between high school and university when young people have a chance to be carefree and discover themselves while exploring the world. But the idea of taking advantage of a ‘gap’ really resonates with a lot of us -- like the woman behind The Grown Up Gapper -- no matter where we are in our lives.
The gap might be when our children go off to college, or a gap in careers, or feeling there is a gap in our life experience. Gap years are the perfect way to find something we really love and do it in an exciting way. For some, this is studying Beethoven with an Oxford University professor, for others it’s working in orangutan conservation in Borneo.
The key is to remember that this can be whatever we want it to be. It doesn’t have to be a hardship, it doesn’t even have to be a whole year -- it could even be a string of shorter adventures, but no matter where we go and when, it’s sure to be a transformative and meaningful.
Planning Your Grown Up Gap Year
Anyone taking a gap year is going to have concerns and preparation to do -- after all, you are putting your life on hold for an extended period of time.
Wherever you are in your life or career, that can be a hard thing to do, but it is especially hard for those of us who have work, families, homes, and communities that depend on us.
It’s natural to think that the world might stop spinning if you stopped juggling all of these different responsibilities. The truth is, though, that once you break down your fears, you might realize that there are ways to make it work:
How can I take a break from my career?
The reality is that career breaks are totally possible, and sometimes even encouraged. It takes courage and planning, but the rewards are enormous. Talk to your boss about taking a gap year, explain your intention, and discuss the possibility of returning later. Present it as a sabbatical if you have to (some states, like California, actually have legal stipulations in place to protect employees who take time off for a sabbatical).
Who’s going to take care of my family?
Every family and situation is different. Maybe your children are older and while they'll miss you, they're pretty independent. Or maybe if they're younger, you might consider taking them with you. There are plenty of resources out there for parents considering taking a gap year as a family. Just to name a few:
- Parent map explains what happens when you move your family abroad.
- Gap work has a guide for taking a gap year with your family.
- And of course, Go Overseas gives tips on how to volunteer abroad as a family..
There are also plenty of families traveling the world together! Do some research, talk to others doing a similar thing, and decide if this might be the path for you.
How can I leave my house, car, pets, friends, and community?
Again, it all depends on each individual’s situation, but there are many resources out there to help. Property managers, for example, are great for taking care of a house and any problems that might arise. Or perhaps you'd like to rent out your space -- so you know there's someone there, taking care of the space, and (bonus!) generating some extra income for your travels too.
Make sure you can spend your adventure focusing on the adventure and not who's feeding Fido.
Then, depend on your community -- friends and family members -- to help you take care of pets and any other concerns. Plus, you can bribe them by promising to bring them back some amazing thank you gifts from all of your adventures.
Know that the internet is making everything more connected so you can be sitting at a quiet cafe in Amalfi and check your bank account, mortgage, and any other responsibilities that are waiting patiently for you back home.
Can I afford it?
Because there is nothing worse than spending your whole time overseas worrying about money. If a year feels too extravagant, look for a shorter program, but be sure that when you’re on your adventure, you can focus on all the fun you’re having and not the credit card statement.
Start by consulting some resources, like The Independent's guide on gap year finances for any age or This Money's advice on financial considerations for gap year takers.. Basically, you'll want to:
- Get set up with an online banking system (if you haven't already)
- Give your bank your travel iteinerary
- Get a travel credit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees (note: American Express is the hardest to use abroad)
- Create a budget and estimate the total cost -- can you save up enough? Have you already saved up enough?
- Consider renting out your house for extra income while you're on the road.
- Make sure you have travel insurance and read the fine print -- you don't want to go broke over a broken bone!
What are the sacrifices I’ll need to make?
If you’re volunteering in a remote village in Tanzania, there might be a lot of sacrifices, but if you’re taking those cooking classes in Italy, maybe not. Think about the things you’ll need to put on hold and the people (or pets) you’ll miss. Make sure that again, you can spend your adventure focusing on the adventure and not who’s feeding Fido.
Am I doing this for myself?
Make sure you’re not feeling any outside pressure to go -- and make sure that you’re going for the right reasons.
What Are You Going to Do on Your Gap Year?
Ok, now you’ve given this some good hard thinking and you’re ready to start planning a gap year.
Your first step might be to reach out to the experts. Because taking a grown-up gap year is becoming increasingly popular, the supply is catching up with the demand.
Companies are catering to those of us who are looking for a more specialized experience. These professionals can help you as you start to plan your dream gap year. You can find a whole list of gap year providers on Go Overseas' gap year programs page -- complete with reviews.
At the same time, it helps to have an idea of what you want to do on your gap year. What skills and experiences do you bring to the table? What do you want to achieve? We have a few ideas to get you thinking:
Teaching abroad has always been a popular gap year option -- but increasingly, schools don't want to hire a 20-year-old backpacker. They want someone who is older, more mature, and reliable.
Even if you’re not a professional teacher, you have valuable skills and experience that many people around the world would want to learn about. Take a year and really become part of a community, get to know and understand the culture, and be part of something bigger, one classroom at a time.
Note: Are you too old to teach abroad? Well, some jobs may have an upper age limit -- that has more to do with visa laws (for example, China has a strict retirement age which keeps older individuals from getting a work visa) than not wanting older teachers. Volunteer teaching, is almost always a solid alternative.
Volunteer in Your Field
As an older gapper, you bring tons of professional experience and expertise to the table and would make an incredible impact abroad by volunteering your time within your field.
This might also be a great opportunity to take classes that will enhance your career.
Did you work as a biologist? Why not help out with an environmental project in Ecuador as a consultant. Were you in marketing? Help a budding NGO get the word out about their project or develop a marketing plan.
Whatever it was that you chose as a career -- literally, anything -- you're sure to find a project that needs your skills.
Learn Something New
For most of us, though, a gap year might look a little different. Instead of narrowing down one place or one activity, we want to do as much as we can in as many places as we can.
For shorter programs that can be sewn together for a more diverse adventure, consider this range of opportunities:
- You’ve always wanted to learn how to Tango -- why not do it in Argentina?
- Learn Spanish in Guatemala (or Spain, or Chile, or... or... or...)
- Take a glass-blowing course in Venice
- Find a wine course in the south of France
- Take a writing workshop in Dublin
- Learn photography in Berlin
- Find a French language school in Paris.
- Take part in an archaeological dig in Egypt
There are hundreds, if not thousands of ways to use this time as a way to learn new things or enhance your knowledge on a topic you’re already familiar with. There are endless possibilities and the good news is that we older folks don’t have to worry about grades or credit. We can just learn for the sake of learning.
This might also be a great opportunity to take classes that will enhance your career. A chef could take cooking classes in Mexico or Italy; a doctor could take classes on tropical disease in London; an artist could take courses pretty much anywhere.
For those who can do a little research and have an inquisitive mind, you can find classes and workshops in whatever it is that interests you.
Discover a New Hobby
Do you love animals? Children? The environment? Yoga? Whatever it is that you enjoy doing with your free time, there is probably a program out there that celebrates it.
Even if it’s something you think you might enjoy, but aren't yet involved in, this is the time to find out. For those who love adventure and are passionate about their hobbies, you can find something that can really be meaningful and transformative.
The Possibilities are Endless
With so many different options for gap years, there are endless possibilities for travel, learning, and the adventure of a lifetime. Now is the time to take stock in what we’ve accomplished and look forward to what’s next.
Whether that means teaching in a remote village in Kenya, tracing your Swedish heritage, learning how to become a graffiti artist in Brazil, or visiting the historic homes of your favorite British authors. After all, we can’t let those 18 year olds have all the fun, now can we?Photo Credit: Chip Beck, Chelsea Perez, Caitlin Lucas, and Richelle Gamlam.