Why and how you can take an adult gap year to help discover your true desires

By Rosalind Ryan,
updated on Jul 2, 2022

Why and how you can take an adult gap year to help discover your true desires

Taking a gap year is no longer just for school-leavers or recent graduates. A ‘grown-up’ gap year can help you work out what you want in life, at any time of life

I took my first gap year when I was 19, just after sixth form. I took my second in my late 20s following a messy break-up and being made redundant. My third? My husband and I are planning to sail around the Mediterranean to celebrate a big birthday. But I’m not a permanent student or living off a trust fund; I’m part of the steadily growing trend for ‘grown-up’ gap years.

Although there are no official figures for how many of us are now taking adult gap years, a quick Google reveals the explosion of travel companies aimed at older ‘gappers’. Social media is also filled with photos and updates from older generations taking a year off. Some of us have reached a natural break in our lives, like turning 30, 40, or 50, while others are discovering there’s more to life than the standard nine-to-five.

If you’ve ever thought about taking a life break, but are put off by the thought of travelling solo surrounded by amorous A-level students, then a grown-up gap year may be exactly what you need.


Why take an adult gap year?

There are many different reasons to take a gap year. “You might get itchy feet, or start wondering if there’s something else out there,” says Gemma Nixon, a life coach from Durham, who’s also taken three grown-up gap years. “You could be getting married and decide to take a longer honeymoon before you have children, or plan to take the children travelling while they’re still little.”

Your desire for a gap year could also take you by surprise. Gemma says: “You might develop a sense that you’re not 100% content in your life, but you’re not sure why.”

For me, my first gap year felt like a natural point at which I could take time off to backpack around South East Asia, but my second was more about helping me work out where I wanted to go next in life. “A gap year doesn’t have to ‘bookend’ parts of your life, but can offer new dimensions to it,” says Gemma.

This yearning to take a different path is inspiring more of us to make the break post-pandemic. “As people have gone back into shops and offices, they realise their ‘old’ life is no longer enough,” Gemma says. “Many loved spending so much time with their family, and want to enjoy more experiences together, or they’ve decided there’s more to life and now’s the time to enjoy it.”

Others may have planned for years to take a grown-up gap year. This could be after retirement, getting the all-clear after an illness, or to celebrate a milestone event, like a significant birthday or the children leaving home.

What to do during a grown-up gap year

A gap year isn’t limited to full moon parties in Thailand, or fruit-picking in Australia – although if that sounds appealing, go for it! You could use the opportunity to explore a new career, or put more time into a creative hobby. Gemma says: “You might want to do a year-long cookery course in Italy, or follow a passion for wildlife photography in Costa Rica.”

But what if you don’t know what to do?

“Taking time off gives you the head space to think,” says Gemma. “When you don’t have to deal with the commute, getting the kids ready for school, or worrying about work, you can ask yourself some important questions.”

These could be “What do I really enjoy doing?”, “Is this where I want to be in my career?”, “Am I happy where I am?” If this feels overwhelming, working with a therapist or life coach can help you to start asking the right questions.

Taking a gap year doesn’t mean you have to go away either; there’s no rule to stop you from staying at home. If a relative becomes ill, for example, you could use your gap year to spend quality time with them. If a good friend has given birth, or is going through a divorce, you can be there for them without the usual time pressures. Or you may want your gap year to feel like one long bank holiday: lazy lie-ins, doing DIY, and inviting friends and family round for lunch.

You don’t have to stick to one adult gap year, either. I try to take one every 10 years, so I never feel ‘stuck’ – emotionally or literally – in one place. As my life has changed, the things I want from a gap year have changed, too. This could be to escape, to reset, or simply go exploring. Figuring out why you want a gap year can help you plan how to spend it.


Planning your gap year

“Think very carefully about what you want to do, rather than what you think you should do,” advises Gemma. So, don’t sign up for something like a three-month cycling trip if you’re not a big fan of exercise, or feel pushed into travelling abroad if you’re a homebody at heart.

On the other hand, volunteering overseas can offer some amazing opportunities you might never experience again. The key is to find out what’s motivating you to take time off, and what you hope to gain from a gap year; it’s less about the specifics of where you go, but more about what you need to feed your soul in that particular time.

Once you know where to go and what to do, the next step is paying for it – and this is where being an older gapper really helps. Gemma says: “If you own your home, you could take a mortgage break, or rent out your property. Work may be more understanding, too; they’ll value your years of experience and might offer you a sabbatical or unpaid leave, rather than having to quit your job.”

If your employer is a national or international company, talk to them about getting a transfer, then take a few months off to discover your new location. And if you’re taking a gap year after retiring, you probably don’t have to worry about finding work while you’re away or when you get back.

Despite all your planning, inevitably things might not pan out as expected. You may decide you hate the trip after three months, or terrible weather stops you taking the route you planned. “There’s nothing wrong with saying it didn’t work out, but can you pivot that experience to your advantage?” Asks Gemma. “OK, you didn’t enjoy cooking in Italy, so can you drop the course and go travelling around the country?”

It’s also worth asking yourself, ‘Is this a bad day or is it a bad trip?’ If it’s just a bad day, give yourself a pep talk and pivot the experience. When I was in Tahiti, it had been raining for days. I felt utterly miserable until I remembered: I was in Tahiti! Rather than dodging the downpours, I went snorkelling – I was wet anyway, and it turned out to be one of the best days.

Whatever you choose to do, commit to making that choice. Gemma says: “There’s never a right time or a wrong time to take a gap year, but if you do it, you need to jump in with both feet.”

And who knows? It could be the first step towards a new career, or a whole new you.

Find out more by visiting life coach directory, or speak to a qualified coach.

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