One of the most indelible messages of the pandemic is that nothing in life is guaranteed. Not that we Gen Xers needed a reminder.
We’re the cynics who called out the 1990s cubicle office life for its “veal fattening pen” existence. Coined by Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X: Tales for An Accelerated Culture, that phrase spoke to how little we wanted to be marginalized in soul-sucking jobs.
But here we are now at middle age and supposedly at the peak of our careers. Research shows that even though we’re the hardest working generation, we’re also the most unhappy and least rewarded at work. Sandwiched in multiple ways — between Boomer and Millennials professionally, our aging parents and kids personally — we deserve a break.
So even as you may be discussing a gap year for your college-aged kid to keep enrichment opportunities rolling without being tied to one (uncertain) situation, what about you?
A gap year (or two, or even just six months) is defined as taking time out between life stages to gain perspective through exploration and novel experiences.
Before you decide you can’t afford to take a grown-up gap year, it’s worth considering the value of taking an extended break to check out new horizons. You may come out ahead in the long run.
The Case Against Retirement
At our age, we’re repeatedly told that saving for retirement is our top priority. If I had a dime for every headline about how our generation is screwed when it comes to retirement savings… well, with nearly 70 million search results, I’d be able to retire “on time.”
Of course, Social Security propagated the “retire at 65“ myth when it was launched in 1935. Back then, encouraging older citizens to exit the predominantly manual labor market made sense.
Clearly, times have changed. The biggest work-related health threat for many of us is vision loss from staring at screens too long. With longer life spans and the Boomer “un-retirement” trend paving the way, capping your earning capacity at an arbitrary age seems short-sighted.
Beyond that, research shows that a stretch of 25+ years of retirement without the work-related benefits of social connections, intellectual challenges, and purposefulness — not to mention an income — can lead to depression and other psychological issues.
And finally, in light of the uncertainty and upheaval of the pandemic, does postponing joy really make sense? The promises of retirement, including reconciling regrets, spending more time with loved ones, having adventures, pursuing interests, being of service, and expanding knowledge, shouldn’t be relegated to “someday” status.
With some careful planning and strategy, you can retire the idea that you have to hold your breath until you’re 65 to catch a break. Instead, think in terms of periodic breaks that help you keep going onto even greater things.
What Color is Your Backpack?
While the impetus for a midlife gap year is similar to what it is for 18-year-ods, it’s not going to look the same.
As much fun as backpacking around a foreign country picking up odd jobs for beer money sounds good in theory, we have responsibilities. That includes mortgages, family obligations, and in-progress careers, which means we should view a planned hiatus through a different lens.
According to the Ethan Knight, Executive Director and Founder of the American Gap Association, a successful grown-up gap year is characterized by a handful of key aspects:
- Career exploration
- Paid work (different than or outside of your current career)
- Space for “free radicals” (exploring the unexpected)
So, for example, If you’re like Brian, your gap year might be about getting in uber-quality family time on an extended trip before the kids are out of the house for good (or at least until they come back). Others, like corporate-exec-turned-consultant Chris Mogee, choose to become full-time students before making a career pivot. And many volunteer organizations, like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, don’t have age limits.
The point is to use the time to shake up your status quo to rejuvenate, reassess, and reconnect with what matters most. Unlike retirement, which signifies an end to your work life, a midlife gap year can provide inspiration, energy, and a renewed sense of purpose for your professional next steps.
Mind the Gap: Financial Implications
It may seem that the only feasible way to take a gap year is if you’re independently wealthy. But if you’re creative and willing to forego luxury living, you can plan to make your hiatus dreams a reality.
It all starts with a thorough assessment of your finances. In their Midlife Gap Year guide, the Advisory Group of San Francisco advises a three-step process:
- Assess your resources with a balance sheet that covers your assets and liabilities. Be sure to consider your liquidity and any big costs/windfalls coming your way. And if you own your own business or lead a team, make sure you have the human resources necessary to keep things running while you’re gone.
- Calculate the investment needed by looking at costs of your gap year — both fixed and opportunity, like reduced retirement savings and impacts to your business/career growth.
- Figure out if you have the funding necessary by subtracting what you have from what you project you’ll need.
In many ways, living through a pandemic has helped us become both more realistic and resilient. We’ve already had a crash course in shifting priorities and better managing budgets.
Some, whose earnings weren’t significantly cut but whose expenses were, are in an enviable position of becoming a “super-saver.” You can strategically put this newfound knowledge and/or circumstance to work in planning a gap year.
Additionally, renting or swapping your home, getting paid a stipend for volunteering (as both the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps offer, for example), and considering spending your time where the cost of living is lower are all ways to maintain a reasonable budget.
Just keep in mind that reentry after your gap year may also take a while — up to six months, according to Knight. So be sure to factor in living expenses for that period, too.
If taking an extended hiatus isn’t possible for you but sounds appealing, there’s no need to write it off completely. After all, a midlife gap year may seem like a radical notion, but think about how dramatically our concept of what work looks like has shifted in less than a year.
With more and more companies supporting a distributed workforce, balancing lifestyle and career is much more feasible. So, for example, you might move to a four-day workweek and factor more altruism or adventures into your life.
Or perhaps take a month off here and there to experiment and explore. And like the gap year, digital nomadism isn’t just for kids anymore. Research shows more than half of those who take their professional show on the road are over 38 (surprising, right?).
Just by reading this article on a midlife gap year, you’re affirming what we’re all about here at Further. It’s about ditching traditional systems and finding freedom through new possibilities that are dependent on — not mutually exclusive from — personal growth and development.
Face it — there is no gold watch at the end of your career to reward you for a job well done. But in today’s new all-bets-are-off world order, a grown-up gap year may be just the golden ticket to buy yourself a whole new outlook for a happier, healthier, more prosperous next chapter.