Why a Gap Year Should Come to America

As I traveled around the world during my career break, I encountered one thing over and over again: travelers from other countries who have traveled a heck of a lot more than I have.  Whether they hailed from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, or one of a number of other European countries, they all have one thing in common: they have taken the time to travel long-term, and they live in a country where doing so is completely normal.

Such is not the case in the United States – at least, not yet. While gap years are the norm in other developed countries, Americans just haven’t yet embraced the idea of abandoning the typical high school-to-college-to-climbing the career ladder route. At Meet, Plan, Go!, our goal is to alter that thinking through local meet-ups, an online community and training course, and an annual event.

Ready to start planning<br />
your career break?
Ready to start planning
your career break?

We want to see a career break on every resume – and here’s why:

1. Increase happiness and productivity

Compared to workers in other developed countries, Americans work a lot. The United States is one of the few developed countries that does not have a national vacation policy. While countries like Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom enjoy between 20 and 35 government-mandated days off each year, Americans get exactly zero. Most companies offer only two weeks’ vacation time, but even then, many choose not to use all of their days. And those who do hit the road often don’t disconnect, checking emails and even participating in meetings remotely. They don’t truly take a break.

While countries like Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom enjoy between 20 and 35 government-mandated days off each year, Americans get exactly zero.

But by not taking time off, employees are likely to burn out and resent their jobs while their productivity suffers. By welcoming the idea of career breaks to corporate culture, employers are likely to find happier, more engaged, and more productive workers when they return. “So many other countries know the importance of time off and time to enrich yourself,” says Lisa Lubin, host of Meet, Plan, Go! Chicago in 2012 and a speaker at this year’s (2014) event in New York. “It’s really not a question of if it’s good for you – it just is. We already know that studies show that time off builds morale, self-esteem, and more productive, well-rounded employees.”

“Two weeks of vacation isn’t really enough for anyone,” says Meet, Plan, Go! co-founder and host of the 2014 event, Sherry Ott. “Human beings need time to get away and step back from our routine-based, plugged-in lives.  In the end, we will end up more productive, happier, and more loyal when we are given real time to grow.”

2. Develop new skills

Traveling abroad allows you to develop and hone skills in a way that just isn’t possible while working 9-to-5. Improve intercultural communication skills by living with local families. Hone your negotiation technique by haggling in a foreign language. Refine existing professional skills by volunteering or even working abroad.

Employers in other countries don’t look at a career break as an unwelcome gap on a resume – they see it as a chance for employees to gain experience and become well-rounded, valuable employees.

Employers in other countries don’t look at a career break as an unwelcome gap on a resume – they see it as a chance for employees to gain experience and become well-rounded, valuable employees. As travel blogger and UK native Laurence Noah points out, “The idea of a year out is firmly engrained into British culture – many firms even offer sabbaticals to their employees who want to go and see the world but with the safety net of a career to come back to.”

American companies need to adopt this mindset as well.

3. Save money

I know, it sounds crazy to say you can save money by traveling, but it’s certainly possible.  In fact, for workers who have been laid off during the economic downturn, this may be the perfect opportunity to see the world.

By traveling slowly and in cheaper destinations like Southeast Asia or Central America, you will likely spend just a fraction of what you did back home.

With no mortgage or car payment and no monthly utility bills, your only real expenses will be transportation, accommodation, and food. By traveling slowly and in cheaper destinations like Southeast Asia or Central America, you will likely spend just a fraction of what you did back home. And, if you pick up work freelancing or teaching English while you’re on the road, you can come out ahead – and build some new skills to add to your resume.

4. Expand our world view

While we may not want to admit it, Americans lead fairly sheltered lives, and as a result, generally have a poor understanding of what is really happening in the rest of the world. “I think it’s really hard to fully comprehend what your own country has, both the good and the bad, without getting outside of your comfort zone on a deeper, more meaningful level,” says Meet, Plan, Go! Austin co-host Keith Hajovsky. “Taking a gap year or a career break is a great way to accomplish this.”

While we may not want to admit it, Americans lead fairly sheltered lives, and as a result, generally have a poor understanding of what is really happening in the rest of the world.

Likewise, San Diego host Elaine Masters believes that there would be far less intolerance, violence, prejudice, and hatred in the world if more people got to experience the ways in which other people live in it. “There is really no better education available, in my opinion, than seeing the world,” says Masters.

5.  Discover our passions

We tend to be conditioned in the United States that we need to go to high school, move on to college, major in something useful, get a job, and work our way up the ladder. But who really knows what they want to do when they are only 18, or 20, or 21? Taking a career break can expose you to new cultures, new ideas, and new ways of life. It can help you discover passions you never knew you had – and that you might even turn into a new career.

It can help you discover passions you never knew you had – and that you might even turn into a new career.

“Too many people work for several years without really discovering their passion,” says South Florida co-host Jillian Tobias. “They wake up down the line and think, how did I get here?  It’s important to make choices that get you to where you want to go in life instead of just following everyone else.”

To read more about career breaks, check out the following articles:

 

Photo credits:  mac.rj, thoughtwax, 401(K) 2012, mctrent, all others courtesy of author and may not be used without permission

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