Taking an Adult Gap Year

Meghan Hollis
Oct 11 · 22 min read
Photo by Sonnie Hiles on Unsplash

Recently, I quit my job without having another job lined up. Plenty of others have written about the benefits, horrors, stupidity, and joy of quitting your job without a plan. I will write about that another time. Right now I want to talk about why we should encourage taking an adult gap year.

I have been incredibly unhappy in the past few jobs that I have had. First, as an academic, I was chasing tenure (and more money). My mantra became “I just have to get tenure.” Then, I started watching those around me who had recently (or not so recently) been awarded tenure and I noticed something — they were doing the same thing as the pre-tenure folks. Frankly, academia is filled with miserable jerks (and miserable folks who are just struggling to match the unhealthy and unrealistic expectations but are actually pretty nice when you talk to them outside of the pressures of the university).

Is it the culture? The “you-must-be-the-best” mentality that is indoctrinated in graduate school? Is it fear of becoming irrelevant in your field? The reality is that the push to publish a lot comes from multiple sources, continues once you already have tenure, and is slowly internalized to the detriment of your health, mental health, family, and quality of life. Older full professors will likely disagree with me — they did not come of age in the “metrics” and “quantity of articles” you-must-publish-two-a-year-minimum age. They also do not face the same pressures of the younger faculty. I have worked in institutions where I have been told that the younger faculty need to publish twice as much to cover for the older faculty who are tenured/full professors and not publishing at all or maybe once every few years. The need to keep the faculty-publication ratio as high as possible in research universities places a burden on the young who want to get tenure. They know that getting tenure is based on the opinions and whims of the senior faculty. The truth is you can do everything they are telling you to do — publish a lot in decent journals, serve on a ton of committees and provide a lot of service to the discipline, teach without getting horrid reviews (mediocre are okay) — and they can still choose to vote against you. I will save that rant for another day. Needless to say, I was unhappy as an academic. My quality of life has improved dramatically since I left that game (and I am now free to write higher quality work at a slower pace).

I left academia but felt the need to run straight to another job. Any job. At this point I was just chasing more and more money in my work. Society has conditioned us to believe that we MUST have a job. We MUST have insurance, and the only way to do that is to have a job. We MUST have income and preferably a high income. We MUST buy all the things. This is ridiculous, of course. A lot of the things that we feel we MUST have are wants, not needs. The job I ran to had nothing to do with my interests, and it was a poor use of my expertise. Initially, I was happy. I was making a lot of money. Then I realized something. My expertise was not valued by others.

Over time, that job broke me. It destroyed my sense of self. I watched people being mistreated by the system and became increasingly depressed and anxious. I did not trust the people I worked with, and I was constantly looking over my shoulder. We were all scrambling to climb to the top, to make more money, to have a position higher in the hierarchy. It became hard to get out of bed each day. I was not sleeping at night. I spent a lot of time questioning the reality I was living. I wondered: Is this going to be my life? For the rest of my life? How long can I do this?

The truth? Not long, apparently. But I was letting societal “words of wisdom” mandate my life. “You need to stay in a job at least a year, even if you are unhappy.” “You need to have a job before you quit a job.” “People with gaps in their resumes have more difficulty finding a job.” “It’s easier to find a job if you already have a job.” “No one is happy at work. That’s why they call it work, not play.” “You need to work so you have the benefits.” “You might not be happy at work, but your job has good pay and benefits.” The list goes on and on. One day I stepped back and realized something: all of these words of wisdom are designed to do one thing — keep us working in jobs we hate and spending the majority of the best years of our lives as drones submissive to employers who care nothing about us. Why do we allow them to do this? There are so many more of us than there are of them. (More on those thoughts in another post on another day).

I was sitting there thinking about how bad my quality of life was, and I decided to write my letter of resignation. I did not want to work in this job any longer. I did not want to be in an environment driven by gossip and games. I did not want to be in an environment where I feared how far they would stretch my integrity and morals. I just wanted out while there was still a sliver of humanity, empathy, and compassion left in me. I quit.

It has only been a week and a half since I quit, and I have been applying for other jobs. That is what society has told me that I have to do. However, I am also looking at alternate options for my life. Can I live off of my writing? Can I work at a bookstore to earn enough for the books I want to read and to cover health insurance and other necessities but spend the rest of the time reading, writing, and enjoying my life? Do I really NEED a job?

As a result of this, I have decided that we need some sort of program in place that allows for a mid-life-crisis-style adult gap year. We need to allow for one year where adults can take a step back and sort out their lives, take care of their mental health, and rediscover a path to a happy and fulfilling life. The rest of this article details my arguments for the adult gap year.


MENTAL HEALTH

One of the primary reasons that I think we all need to have the opportunity to pursue an adult gap year is for our mental health. Mental health diagnoses are steadily increasing. There are many arguments for why this is happening, and there are many debates about the topic. The reality is that adults are struggling with mental health. Anxiety and depression run rampant through society, but we are not really doing anything to actively address them.

My solution is the adult gap year. Giving adults an opportunity halfway through their career to take a year off and focus on their mental health and overall wellbeing. We continue to pay a living wage and provide access to benefits over that year, but it gives the individual a chance to recover before going into the second half of their career.

I am predicting attacks that this would be a socialist program or that people can have jobs where they have paid time off. I do not want to get into political left/right, name-calling style debates in this post. Please take it somewhere else if you are getting ready to put that in the comments. I want to focus on ideas that could address the wellbeing of the average worker right now. Even if those ideas seem a bit far-fetched to some.

Here is the reality: I know MANY people who have their excess annual leave converted to sick leave at the end of each work year, because they do not feel that they can afford to take that time off from work. Whether it is a lawyer who fears what will happen in his cases while he is off on vacation or the nurse who feels that she needs to take care of her patients. The manager who worries that something will happen in their unit while they are out or the worker who fears the emails and tasks that they will fall further and further behind on while they are out. We are afraid of taking time off. This is NOT HEALTHY!

My solution is to force people to take a year off at the mid-career point. Let’s say an individual starts their career between 22 and 25. They plan to work until 60 or 65. They should take the adult gap year between ages 40 and 45. We should just plan for them to take that year off, expect it, make it a normal thing. Create an environment where they are not worried about the emails or work that will pile up. They are taking so much time that we are forced to plan for it and set up a structure where they can step away and focus on their own wellbeing. They do not have to worry about income or insurance — that will keep coming. Instead, we could equip people to focus on their own health and wellbeing for a year at a time when we could have a big impact on health outcomes — particularly mental health. This would allow people to return to the workforce refreshed and ready to tackle the next 20 years of work.


PHYSICAL HEALTH

We are also seeing increased physical health challenges. Obesity is a big problem in society. Linked to this are challenges with diabetes, hypertension, dental health challenges, heart problems, back/spinal issues, joint problems, and so on. I would argue — based on my own anecdotal experience (something a research-oriented person frowns upon, I am going to struggle with having done this later) — that many of these problems are tied to conditions in modern work environments.

We sit at desks; we sit in meetings. We are largely stationary throughout our work days. Some work environments will provide a standing desk, but often they tell you that this will require a workplace accommodation request with a letter from your doctor. It is not acceptable to stand up and pace during a meeting that is lasting several hours so that you can get your steps in. We just accept this as the reality of the work environment. We are not getting any physical activity or exercise during the 8–12 hour work days we endure five days a week (or for some, 6–7 days a week).

Additionally, work cafeterias (when provided) often do not provide healthy food options. Many workplaces allow 30–45 minute lunches. Some allow up to an hour for lunch. In many cases, workers feel that they need to work through lunch eating at their desks. This is not a healthy way to eat. Short lunch hours do not allow the time to head off-campus/away from the workplace to sit down and have a healthy lunch. We are increasingly likely to eat junk food, fast food, or other unhealthy options OR we eat the unhealthy choices in the cafeterias.

Additionally, the stress of the work environment often triggers a reaction where we crave comfort foods for lunch. We want something fast, and we want something that will make us happy. I had one coworker that would eat candy for lunch. The structure of the workday combined with the timing of our lunches and access to healthy options that fit our busy schedules results in many making unhealthy food choices during their workdays.

The gap year would provide an opportunity for people to refocus on their own physical health. This would allow time to restructure priorities and make physical activity and healthy eating a priority. Frankly, it would also give people a reality check. One of the first things I attempted on leaving my job was a hike. I realized just how out of shape I am. This gave me an opportunity to reflect on my priorities and decide that I need a work environment where I can focus on my physical health, physical activity, and healthy eating.

It would also give people a time where they can address recurring health problems without the time constraints that many of us face in the modern work environment. People can focus on getting the physical therapy they need, going to yoga and meditation classes, spending more time outside, and overall tuning into what their bodies need to be healthy and happy. Hopefully, by giving this reprioritization a year to sink in, people will then return to the work environment mindful of the need to keep those things a priority in the work environment. This could lead to long-term healthier outcomes at an important time in adult lives.


RECOVERY FROM OVERWORK CULTURE

My third reason for encouraging the adult gap year is that it will give people an opportunity to recover from overwork culture. I personally believe that overwork culture is exacerbated by increased screen time. Our jobs give us laptops to take home, work cell phones that we are expected to keep on us when out of the office, and these combine with our personal cell phones and computers and televisions at home to create an environment where our brains never get an escape from the work environment (or what feels like a work environment).

My father worked for the same company for most of his life. He retired a few years ago and seems to be loving retirement. I have noticed one thing about his retirement, however. He still needs a work-like structure to his day. He does not wake up as early now, but when he wakes up he still goes through the same routine he had every day that he worked (with the exception of putting on work attire and getting in the car to drive to work). He has his morning e-mail and “administrative” time where he checks his emails, pays bills, and attends to the business of the day. His days are very structured, and that structure bears an eerie resemblance to his days as a worker.

To be clear, I love my father and he seems happy. That is all that matters to me. He is a wonderful human being, and I rank him in the best people that have ever walked this earth. I know he (unlike me) has a need for structure and organization in his days. My point is that his daily work structured life patterns have continued into his life post-work. I just wonder how much this is the case for other people.

I found myself repeating patterns that I saw in my father as an adult. When I was a kid, my dad woke up, got ready for work, had breakfast and read the newspaper, brushed his teeth, grabbed his suitcase, and headed to work. I assume he arrived around 6:45 (because that’s the time we arrived for the short time that I worked at the same company — every single day). He worked until 5 or 6 each day, arriving home between 5:30 and 6:30 most days. When he was younger he would go for a run or mow the grass while my mom made dinner. Then we all ate dinner together. After dinner I would pull out my homework and dad would pull out his work. We would sit at the dinner table for an hour or two doing our work together. This was not an uncommon thing when I was younger. Often he went in on Saturdays after a round of golf.

Recently, I realized my work life was forming a similar pattern to my dad’s but worse. I would get to the office every day between 6:45 and 7:00. I would start my morning checking my emails. Then I would dig into the work of the day. My work day would frequently be a series of meetings sometimes running non-stop from 8:00 am until 3 or 4 in the afternoon without a break. Then I would need to do the work that wasn’t getting done while I was sitting in meetings. I often did not leave work until 6 or 7 pm (sometimes later). I would get home where either one of my kids or my partner would be making dinner. Sometimes they were already done with dinner. I then turned on the news and checked my phone every 10–15 minutes. I was checking my work phone to see what was coming in to make sure there was nothing that I needed to address immediately. If there was something urgent or if I realized I had forgotten to do something, I would open my laptop and work on it. I was not focused on my family at all. I was never really present in my time spent with them. I worked at least a half day every weekend. My life was all about a job that I didn’t really enjoy.

My mental health was suffering from this overwork. I was not sleeping, because I was constantly worrying about what was happening at work. The high stakes, high stress environment was causing me nightmares. My anxiety was the worst it has ever been in my life. Work was all that I thought about. This overwork culture is not healthy.

A week and a half out from being employed, I am slowly starting to recover from the Overwork. I still wake up at 5am every day. I still feel like I need to go through my morning routine (although that is slowly shifting already to give me a little more flexibility). Initially, I felt like I needed to sit down and write or read for my writing or otherwise structure my day similar to a normal work day, but that is fading (thankfully). The biggest Overwork remnant is my fixation with my phone. I feel the need to check it constantly. There is a lingering fear of missing a deadline or an email that I have not overcome yet.

One of the best changes I have had at this point has been spending 3–4 hours each morning sitting with my dog (outside on the deck until today — but we needed this rain), reading, listening to the birds, and watching the hummingbird feeder for my little feathered friends that are migrating through right now. At times I just sit there and let myself be bored. This is hard to do as I am conditioned to think I need to constantly be doing something. I am trying to work on leaving my cell phone on the kitchen counter and going outside without it. I am trying to work on detaching from the technology more, but those habits are incredibly difficult to break.

An adult gap year would allow people the freedom to learn to detach. It would give people space to breathe and remember to live their lives rather than racing through the overwork every day without remembering to stop and live slowly. Again, my hope is that this would help people reprioritize in a way that would allow them to resist the Overwork when they return to work.


OPPORTUNITIES TO EXPLORE YOUR INTERESTS

Taking an adult gap year would give people an opportunity to explore their interests and possibly redefine their lives. I have been talking to several of my older, retired friends recently, and they uniformly talk about the freedom to spend time on things they are interested in, on hobbies they did not have time for when they were working, and learning about things they are interested in but never had time for when working. My father, for example, read his way through the MLA top 100 novels list and has spent time since completing that reading books in areas of interest that had nothing to do with his work life. Another friend spends a lot of time flying remote control airplanes and repairing and building them. Yet another friend spends her time reading things on topics that have nothing to do with her area of expertise. My mother is cross-stitching and knitting and using her creative talents that she did not have much time for as a working woman. The examples go on and on.

All of them have made comments about how they wish they’d had the time to spend on their interests more during their working years. In fact, my father has been quietly encouraging me to spend my time exploring things that I enjoy instead of being locked into a grueling job that I hated (and, frankly, that hated me). Allowing for an adult gap year would give people an opportunity to refocus and explore areas of interest, talents that have been dormant, and learn more about themselves.

The adult gap year would also provide an opportunity for people to step back and consider their work life thus far. In doing so, people might better identify mismatches and realize that they might be better off in a different type of career or job. This could allow for increased innovation and creativity in the workplace and expanded discovery and creative problem solving as people either renew their interest in their work or realize their talents better fit in another environment. Imagine the problems of the world that could be solved by allowing people the time and space to discover their interests, engage with their passions, and renew their ability to create and innovate. The brain could be re-primed to learn at this time and help people approach their work in new and innovative ways that are discovered only by giving the brain a chance to recover from the tunnel vision that dominates the current work environment. It would also work to reduce cynicism and distrust in the work environment as people are allowed to come to work with a fresh perspective.


THE CHALLENGES OF THE ADULT GAP YEAR

I have given my top reasons for why we should have an adult gap year, but it is important to address the challenges this proposal presents. It would be difficult for many people to take an adult gap year in the current work structure. Not many people build up enough time off to take an entire year off with pay. Additionally, most work places would not approve an entire year off even if you had accumulated that much time. Many work environments also have rules requiring you to work a set number of days in a month to qualify for benefits. In other words, work rules create an environment where it is difficult to take any time off, let alone a full gap year.


LIVING WITHOUT HEALTH INSURANCE

At this point, taking an adult gap year means quitting your job as I have done. As a result, I am probably going to be forced to take some part time work so I can afford to provide some form of health insurance (and continue to pay my car payments, cell phone bill, insurance, etc.). I am fortunate that I had enough leave and comp time on the books to be paid for a month and a half of my time off. That is giving me time to sort out how I am going to do what I have decided to do — take an adult gap year.

The biggest challenge that I am seeing is finding a way to live without health insurance. I am one of those people that gets sick at least once a year, and I know that with the structure of health insurance and healthcare costs in the United States I simply can’t afford to go without health insurance. The question is how to afford health insurance when not working full time.

One solution is for me to get a part time job that provides just enough income to pay for insurance through a writer’s health insurance program or Obamacare. This will partially defeat the purpose of taking an adult gap year but might be my only option. The other option is to use my writing to earn enough to afford insurance. Again, this defeats the purpose as I would be working again.

Ultimately, I think there needs to be some sort of provision to allow people to maintain health insurance coverage during an adult gap year to make this a reality. I do not have a great solution to this problem other than an employer-provided adult gap year program or some type of grant or governmental program. I am still working on solutions to this problem for myself.


MONEY

One of the biggest challenges in taking an adult gap year is money. Taking a year off does not eliminate the bills that we need to pay. I have student loans, car payment, car insurance, a storage unit to pay for, my cell phone bill, and other bills. I am fortunate that I have a life partner who can cover a lot of my living expenses. Other adults who might want to take a gap year are not that fortunate.

I have contemplated doing a voluntary repossession on my car to eliminate the car insurance and car payments (even though I love my car). I figure I have a bicycle that I can use to get around and we have public transit. I can get rid of Netflix and my gym membership (that I don’t ever use anyway). I can reduce the number of books I buy by forcing myself to read my way through the books I have bought but never read before I am allowed to buy any more books (a process that would likely take over a year anyway). I can go through the items in the storage unit and either get rid of them/donate them or bring them to the house if I just can’t live without them. I have reduced my cell phone plan to a bare bones plan that I might be able to cover from what I make for my writing. I can switch to an income driven repayment plan on my student loans that will make my payments contingent on how much money I am making. It won’t be easy, but it is possible. The biggest monetary question mark is how to afford health care and health insurance.

Others would not have this type of opportunity. Even minimalistic living would be cost-prohibitive for someone taking an adult gap year. I am not sure what the solution is other than an employer-provided adult gap year.


NEEDS VS. WANTS — ON SORTING OUT PRIORITIES

One of the biggest challenges that I am finding is sorting out my needs versus wants. I am having to sort out my priorities to figure out how to live on limited income. For example, I do not need the full cell phone data package. This also limits my use of my cell phone generally helping to break free of the screen addiction. I do not need to buy the shiny new tech products every time they come out. They are not necessities.

I also do not need to eat out as much as I have been. I can save money to eat the food available in the house. Of course, this is another place where I reveal my relative privilege compared to most of the human species. I have a partner who can keep a roof over my head, the electricity on, and put food on the table without worrying about the loss of my income. Many people do not have that luxury.

I do not need Netflix. I do not need a gym membership. I do not even really need a car and the car payment that comes with it. I do not live in a city with great mass transit, but we have it. Combining mass transit and my bicycle would allow me to overcome a lot of my transit challenges.

My point is that many of the things that I have perceived as needs in my daily life are actually wants. Taking an adult gap year is forcing me to reprioritize and truly identify the needs in my life as opposed to my wants. It has been an eye-opening process.


FINDING A WAY TO TRAVEL AND EXPLORE

One of my biggest concerns in taking my adult gap year is finding a way to still travel and explore. Those things require money. I am hopeful that I will find a low cost way to travel and sort out a way to support that financially. I would like to go back to the English countryside for a few weeks. I would like to find a way to travel to Virginia and see the historic sites that I enjoyed as a kid. I would like to travel to India, Nepal, and Africa to do research for my book. Again, these are wants and not needs, but they are things that I would like to do. I am hopeful that my writing hobby could become a way to fund these wants without causing my writing to become something I view the same way that I have viewed “work” and “job” in the past. That remains to be seen.

I do believe that everyone needs to get out of their comfort zone and travel to places unknown. It is so important for people to be exposed to other places, cultures, and experiences. I think an essential part of the adult gap year should be some form of travel and exploration. Again, I realize this is a very privileged view. The reality is that I believe that travel and exploration should be made available to people of all walks of life, all classes, all incomes. I do not know how to make that happen, but I think it is an important thing for people to have the opportunity to travel, learn, and explore regardless of the conditions they were born into.


LEARNING TO LIVE (AGAIN?)

Ultimately, I think the adult gap year is an ideal vision for helping people learn to live or learn to live again. We are losing out on the ability to live our lives as a result of overwork and need-to-work cultures. This is unhealthy and it is damaging our society. Provision of a livable wage and access to affordable (free?) healthcare for all would help overcome this. Work has become a controlling factor in daily life rather than something people look forward to and enjoy. Are there some that enjoy their jobs? Yes! Of course! But they are the lucky ones. Many take whatever job they can get and slog their way through it looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. No one should live their life that way.

We are wasting the best years of our lives miserable and rushing to the end where we don’t have to work anymore. This is an unfortunate byproduct of the current economy and societal structure. I propose the adult gap year as an opportunity to inject life back into society. It would serve to reduce mental and physical health challenges (potentially — I have no evidence to support this as no one has ever tried it), increase job satisfaction, promote increased creativity and innovation, and allow people to better match their jobs to their lives rather than the other way around. This might be an outlandish proposal, but we have to do something to enhance quality of life and allow people to break free of the controlling chains of work that they hate but feel that they need. If we are encouraging gap years for our teenagers before they enter college, why not have a parallel adult gap year to give people a chance to breathe and grow? Perhaps it could take the place of the midlife crisis?

I realize that many of my complaints and much of what I have written reeks of upper/middle-class and white privilege. I have opportunities that many others could not dream of. Additionally, I had access to a life and jobs that many would dream of having. I see my privilege and acknowledge it. My point here is that others should have access to similar forms of privilege. It should be universal. And I want others to have access to the job that I hated BECAUSE it might be their dream job. Why should I hold onto a job that I hate when there is someone out there who would love that job?


At the end of the day, we need to think about creative approaches to work now that we are in a post-industrial, service-based economy. Factory work does not drive the economy. It is not an economy based on producing goods as much anymore. This should result in different workplace policies and practices that are more human-centric and less bourgeoisie-controlling-the-proletariat. There are opportunities to create a society and a working society that benefits humankind. We need to take advantage of this and work toward a place where we truly have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that our founders dreamed of.

Meghan Hollis

Written by

Meghan is a recovering academic and unemployed writer trying to make it without a “real job” (as her parents call it). She loves to travel and write about it.

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