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 national event in 10 cities across North America.

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.

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 Meet, Plan, Go! Chicago host Lisa Lubin. “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 New York host 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. 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. 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.”

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.

 Fill out this form if you want personal help planning your trip from a BootsnAll team member.

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 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.

“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.”

Want to learn more about how you can take a career break to travel? Attend the Meet, Plan, Go!national event, taking place in 10 cities across North America on October 16:

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

Huge thanks to all of the Meet, Plan, Go! sponsors:

Intrepid:  For travelers with a yearning to get off the beaten track, Intrepid opens up a whole new world. Intrepid travelers discover real people, real cultures and have incredible real life experiences along the way. With over 1,000 different trips in over 100 countries, Intrepid offers authentic travel experiences for anyone.

Hosteling International:  Hosteling International USA.  Join our community of travelers and enjoy access to the world’s largest network of more than 4,000 quality hostels, along with discounts and travel resources in over 80 countries.

Insure My Trip: InsureMyTrip.com is the first and only travel insurance company to focus on helping the North American career breaker. Licensed insurance representatives trained in long-term travel insurance requisites are available daily to assist you.

International TEFL Academy:  Get paid to see the world by teaching English abroad!  All that is needed is English fluency and a short course TEFL certification from International TEFL Academy.

SunChips:  Treat your taste buds to the deliciousness they deserve, anywhere they go!

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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Leave a Comment

  • Feather Ives said at 2012-10-02T14:25:21+0000: Best thing I ever did was take a five month career break which expanded to teaching abroad for a year and a half which grew into a life where I am a permanent temporary worker because I can't fathom working for a company and getting only two weeks vacation.
  • Emily Sussell said at 2012-10-04T00:27:17+0000: I couldn't agree more with this article! While traveling in Australia and Thailand, I, too hardly ever met other American travelers. I realized that the culture of United States doesn't value travel the way Europe and other cultures do. Like you said, it places heavy focus on educational and professional growth (neglecting to realize travel DOES contribute to those) and entirely disregards the value of leisure time and personal growth. As a result of such little time off from work, a typical American's idea of travel can often be the commercialized, short- term kind; five days on a resort, six on a cruise, etc. That's not what I call travel, anymore! I've also noticed that if Americans do consider a long-term trip abroad, it's heavily grounded in educational or career-based objectives; it's acceptable and acclaimed if an individual studies abroad or works as an au-pair, but the idea of a person backpacking just for the hell of it is often rejected. The way I first arrived overseas was by doing a semester abroad; it sounded like fun, but more important to me at the time was that it would look good on my resume. After finishing studying I began traveling and met Europeans and Australians who were traveling long-term simply to see the world and learn about themselves; they didn't need to justify it with professional motives. I was so inspired by this attitude, I ended up backpacking for four months, while I had originally considered going home and applying for graduate school. I'm so happy with this choice, and I'm now dedicated to inspiring other Americans to travel long-term.
  • Kellie Netherwood said at 2012-10-02T14:38:07+0000: Interesting read and great points. I am someone who has a professional finance career, has taken a 'grown up' GAP year and am heading on another one next year, so I certainly vouch for all the benefits mentioned in your article! As an Aussie living in London, taking 5 weeks hoilday a year and/or a longer time career break is not unusual. However, over the past decade I have worked in London for American companies and the different attitude to holidays/gap years in the USA make it very challenging as an international employee with a USA boss. Asking for 2-3 weeks holiday at a time has been viewed as a 'career limiting move' and I constantly find myself explaining (or justifying) my choices. I really hope this gap year trend starts reaching into the hearts of my American friends and colleagues (young and old) - good luck with getting the message out there!
  • Andrea Sadiwnyk said at 2012-10-02T13:47:42+0000: Amazing to be hearing about this! I'm Canadian, and taking my gap year has been the most influential decision that I have made. If not for that, I would not have ended up going to the university that I did, nor the post-graduate program in Travel and Tourism that I am now in. The lack of social understanding of what a gap year is and its benefits makes it difficult for those who want to engage in a gap year--honestly, if I got a dollar every time someone told me I would never go back to school I would have been able to fund my entire trip. I am very excited that someone is trying to promote the gap year and career break for North Americans, and looking forward to seeing you all at the Toronto event!
  • Simone Barber Vecchio said at 2012-10-03T01:19:04+0000: I feel a gap year coming on Steve O'Halek.
  • Mark Mark said at 2012-10-04T06:17:27+0000: There are many reasons why there aren't a lot of U.S. citizens on gap years including: gaps on resume (HR does not understand, in general, the benefits from it), parental ignorance of its benefits, societal expectations of accumulating things and not necessarily experiences, time off from jobs....we are the only industrialized nation in the world to not have governmental mandated time off from our work....Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Years.....its up to the employer, vacation time has all but vanished.....a week here or there but that time, for many, is to get things done (e.g. doctors appointments, car maintenance, etc.) which they cannot do during their 40+ hour work week and their long commutes back and forth to their jobs. My PhD. dissertation, completed in 2008, focused on backpackers from the United States and is the first publication focused on them, their experiences, returning stateside, and the walls they confront upon leaving as well as returning. They are quite different than the typical backpackers from the Commonwealth countries, Israel,
  • Carmel Hartley said at 2012-10-05T21:59:48+0000: I am 55, my biggest regret is not having taken that career break. I have travelled extensively but still dream about an extended trip and will do it.
  • Boomeresque said at 2012-10-02T20:53:16+0000: In 1974, I studied for a semester in Colombia and lived with a Colombian family in Bogota. It was a wonderful educational and life experience. Fortunately, more and more US college students do try to spend some time studying abroad. However, a gap year between high school and college still does not seem to have been widely embraced. Most 18 year olds frankly lack the maturity and life experience to get the most benefit out of college. Those who do it and find they like to travel and live abroad might be more likely to structure their studies and their post graduate life in a way that will allow for them to take occasional sabbaticals or to devise a "location independent" career.
  • Aimee Schmitt Thompson said at 2012-10-04T17:51:34+0000: I totally agree! I wish I had the opportunity to grow a bit more before I went to college. I would love to be able to allow my kids to do something similar. Either way, I want them to do study abroad in their college years.
  • Pablo Guzman said at 2012-10-03T14:00:33+0000: Great post and so true! During my first "long" trip, which was only 12 days, I ran into so many travelers from around the world that had been traveling for months and months! At the time I thought they were crazy. Now, looking at it, the people not doing it are crazy. haha I feel like a gap year could and would help out so many people.