Voices: Later-life gap years are all the rage, darling

·3-min read
Our mid-career man and his camper van  (Samuel Fishwick)
Our mid-career man and his camper van (Samuel Fishwick)

In a time of strikes – doctors, teachers, Hollywood writers – I have been downing tools as well. Last year I, aged 31, took four months off work after getting married. My wife and I left our jobs and went careering around the United States in a campervan on a shoestring budget, backpacked around Mexico and Vietnam, and generally lived the life. It taught us a lot about each other (yes, we’re still together). It also reminded us of why we work: to have something to talk about other than ourselves.

Many, I imagine, will poo-poo the idea of a later-life “Gap Year” for all the obvious reasons: it’s the preserve of the posh, the pampered, the mewling millenial snowflake. Those who can, do it anyway. So, why shouldn’t you?

Thirty is the perfect point in your life to hit pause. You have had a decade in your chosen fields, or fields, plus a network and a reputation to leverage. Perhaps lost sight of your own self-worth. If so, go forth and find it.

That we are not built for a daily grind is surely, by now, obvious. David Graeber, the late British philosopher, noted that for the majority of human history, jobs from warrior to fisherperson to novelist had a cram-and-slack rhythm, in part because these jobs were shaped by actual productive needs, not arbitrary working clocks. By 2030, a majority of Britain’s hope — nay, expect — to be working a four-day week, according to a poll by Survation.

Something is clearly off. Despite Britain’s anaemic productivity levels, burnout is endemic. We all feel like we’re working our socks off – but for what? Young professionals are “quiet quitting” in droves – doing the bare minimum – and pivoting to side hustles. A nation cannot thrive off Etsy alone.

A more extreme revolution has been seen in China in “tang ping” (lying flat): the youth rebellion against mind-numbing work that emerged to the alarm of the government. The term was coined by Luo Huazhong, a 26-year-old who left his job to go travelling. Sometimes, less is more. The choice is clear: build in a break – or break down.

Emma Watson, aged just 33, explained to the FT recently, over a glass of Chablis at her father’s French vineyard, why she hasn’t really gone to work since 2018.

Because she is Emma Watson – young, beautiful, and extremely well remunerated – she is bound to take flak for talking, honestly, about the need for a career break. But, clearly, she is catching the national mood.

This is not to say that I support a slackers’ union. Watson, for what it’s worth, talks of working flat out since the age of 11 –adding that she felt “caged” by her career, locked into a “robot mode” just to survive the working day.

Sound familiar? Similarly, Ed Sheeran, now 32, took a year off to “travel, write and read” in 2019 after having clocked up 300+ gigs a year since the age of 16. If it means a less intimate relationship with my inbox, I’m all for it. Let the robots take our jobs. Here’s to Emma. Let’s raise a glass of the finest Chablis.