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Are “Gap Years” Good for Everyone?

Are “Gap Years” Good for Everyone?

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“Gap years” for teenagers are spiking in popularity, as more high school seniors put college on hold after graduation. This gives them a yearlong break from academia, more time to mature, and often includes travel, work, research, or volunteering.

Thinking about this made me wonder — could we call adult breaks from work and life “gap years” too? This felt like a far more positive way to describe my recent year off from regular employment (another one 20+ years ago too). It also shifted this experience from an embarrassment to hide to something beneficial to tout. 

My two “gap years” couldn’t have been more different. The first one happened back in the 1990s, when my job was downsized after an organizational merger. I got a good-sized severance package and decided to make the most of it.  I’d been working and going to school or both since I was 10, so knew a break could be good for me. I called it my “first retirement” and pursued whatever sounded fun and interesting. I traveled, learned, volunteered, made new friends, had a wide range of fabulous experiences, and collected a ton of wonderful memories.

This recent “gap year” started much like the other one, with my job being eliminated but that’s the only similarity.  At almost 60, I felt desperate to get back to work fast.  Then my right hip deteriorated in nose-dive fashion, giving me a physical disability that I struggled with far too long to resolve. There wasn’t much fun in any of this. There weren’t a lot of new and wonderful memories getting banked to savor later.  

Though very different, both years gave me an “outside the box” view of possibilities and options. 20 years ago I shifted my career direction toward the aging field, work that I’ve been passionate about ever since. This time around I returned to writing, and found new and expanded ways to get my messages about aging well out to the world.       

Neither shift would have happened without taking a break. I’m convinced this can be good for many types of circumstances health and healing, grieving, big transitions like divorce or retirement, and more. Allowing time to decompress and adjust and look around can be good for anyone not just teenagers coming out of high school.  

This reminded me of a book I discovered during my first gap year  The Three Boxes of Life and How to Get Out of Them by Richard Bolles. His thesis: the Linear Life Plan and its three separate and distinct boxes of life (Education, Work, and Retirement) was okay when we didn’t live long, but wouldn’t serve us well as life spans increased. He proposed the Balanced Life Plan instead, with a continued focus on all three key aspects (learning, work and play) throughout life. I tried hard to achieve this at midlife and hang onto it in the years since. I got then and now that a total focus on any one aspect does not make for full living. 

This past year didn’t feel all that balanced (much too little fun and play!), but taking a break and “looking outside the box” was what I needed.  Far more often than not, it takes distance and a new perspective to see other possibilities. Otherwise, it’s just so easy to jump from one box into another, and never look for what might fit better.   

Yes, “gap years” can benefit everyone. Young people, plan to take breaks along the way to experience all the joys and gifts of life. Agers, freely take time with any transition to decompress and look around and explore options. Everyone, don’t be fooled into thinking that the end goal is a carefree and “play only” retirement. A life without learning and vacant of purpose quickly becomes a hollow existence.  

Balance is the key to thriving with age and living fully for life. Please don’t hesitate — at any age  to take a break to find out what this means for you.

Sue Ronnenkamp

Sue Ronnenkamp has over 30 years of experience in aging services and health care.

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