gap year history Outdoor Blog > Gap Year

How taking a year out became the norm

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A Gap Year is perhaps best described as a year between leaving school and starting university that is spent travelling or working. This definition could also be referred to as a year out, a working holiday, sabbatical, cultural exchange, career break, or even backpacking. There are no specific criteria that have to be satisfied, it is down to the individual as to wish to do with the time they have available. Common activities include cultural volunteering, conservation projects, farming, teaching and language, sports coaching, internships and work experience or just good old fashioned backpacking. But where did it all start? What is the history and who were the original 'gappers'? When did it become fashionable for young people to see the world between different forms of education or between leaving the classroom and starting the world of work?

The Grand Tour

Possibly the earliest gap years can linked to 'The Grand Tour' which started around the 1840's, when steam and the development of the railways really took off allowing widespread travel throughout Europe and further afield. There are however, records of wealthy young Englishmen trekking through Europe as early as 1660 in order to broaden their cultural horizons and experience how the Renaissance had changed places like France and Italy. The Grand Tour was seen as an educational right of passage for the rich and allowed them to immerse themselves in art, language and culture, although following the advent of the railway it also became popular with the middle classes.

The Hippy Trail

The modern day gap year as we know it developed from the 1960's as inter rail travel allowed travellers under the ago of 21 to use the rail network to hop from country to country using just one ticket. The 60's also brought about a change in society, a cultural revolution if you will. People became more independent, freedom of speech was encouraged and those of a certain age were looking to broaden their outlook on life and experience things that had previously been frowned upon. The breaking down of barriers sent young people in search of a more spiritual way of life, the most adventurous followed the so called 'Hippie Trail' to countries such as India and Nepal where they found exciting new sights, sounds and smells, a far cry from the post war 1950's Britain they had grown up in.

The Plight of Africa

The 1980's saw a shift of momentum towards Africa as the plight of countries such as Ethiopia was more prevalent in the news and brought into every living room through events like Live Aid. Gappers saw an opportunity to experience another continent but at the same time do something worthwhile by helping the people that needed it most. Gap year volunteering was born, and the ethos of devoting your time to assist in worthwhile projects, especially in the most impoverished communities of the world, remains the backbone of the modern gap year experience.

Economic Uncertainty

Another boost to the popularity of a working holiday has come over the past few years as rising university fees and an uncertain job market making career decisions for young people less clear cut than they used to be. A year out can help the individual make informed decisions over time rather than rushing into accepting a place on a university course they didn't really want to do, and a recent survey of HR professionals confirmed the majority look favourably on a CV containing a constructive gap year experience so the benefits are evident in both the short term and the long term.

For the modern day gap year traveller the possibilities are endless. No longer is a year out the domain of the wealthy and the upper classes, because opportunities and projects exist both overseas and here in the UK. Many young people are seeing their year out as a chance to build on their work experience to help develop a career so internships are becoming more popular. Similarly medical programmes are a great way for students to learn on the job between study years, and you'll be helping those that need it most so it's a win win situation. Some want to pass on their skills and knowledge to underprivileged children so teaching and sports coaching can be a really rewarding way to spend your time overseas. Wildlife enthusiasts have endless conservation opportunities to care for and protect endangered species and habitats, and some just want to have fun, see the world and enjoy the trip of a lifetime!

But as with those historical travellers, the wealthy upper classes of The Grand Tour, and the Hippies of the 1960's, we all have a desire to travel and our adventurous nature will ensure the year out is here to stay.



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