Mind the Gap Year

Mind the Gap Year

Helene Snee (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Prince Harry announced in March 2015 that he would be taking a ‘gap year’ on leaving the British Army. His period of ‘time out’ is to include volunteering in sub-Saharan Africa. This is not the first gap year Harry has taken; both he and his elder brother Prince William travelled and volunteered before they attended the Royal Military Academy (Sandhurst) and the University of St Andrews respectively. The Daily Mail questioned whether this might be the best use of Harry’s time, citing this as evidence of his lack of responsibility and a continuation of his party-focused lifestyle.

So when is a gap year justified? Can it ever be ‘meaningful’? We might dismiss the stereotypical gappers as posh young people ostensibly ‘broadening their horizons’, but really travelling the world getting wasted on their parents’ money. The ‘gap yah’ student can be a source of comedy and derision, bumbling through ignorant interactions with ‘the locals’ and spending most of their time consuming drink and drugs. Yet gap years are also promoted as beneficial experiences, especially for young people at turning points in their lives. In my research (Snee 2014), I consider the symbolic struggles over value and what kind of gap years are ‘worthwhile’. However, they are not only symbolic issues; we can also think about how gap years are implicated in the reproduction of advantage.

Gap year research has developed along three main lines of inquiry (see Snee 2014 for an overview). The first has concentrated on volunteer tourism in ‘less developed’ countries, the impact on host communities and whether these placements help cross-cultural understanding. Such concerns can be seen in debates in the media over who really benefits from ‘voluntourism’. A second theme of gap year research focuses on the ‘identity work’ that takes place at what is often a crossroads in young people’s lives. Thirdly, we can also consider the benefits of the gap year – both in terms of the sorts of skills and knowledge that could be developed but crucially also ask: who benefits? What counts as the ‘right kind’ of gap year is something that develops advantageous personal traits and ‘soft skills’ like independence and teamwork for future reward in the job market. This means that greater value is attached to certain kinds of experience – those of the most privileged – but the outcomes are seen as reflecting the qualities of individuals rather than social inequalities.

Taking a gap year is something that young people are actively encouraged to do by government agencies, careers advisers and, unsurprisingly, the gap year industry itself. Companies specialising in ‘youth’ travel and volunteering organisations (not necessarily charities – some of these are profit-making businesses) make it easier than ever before to take either a ‘structured’ gap year – one which involves some kind of organised placement, be it working or volunteering – or an ‘unstructured’ one, usually involving independent travel. A key message from all of these gap year actors, and one that is always repeated in advisory articles, is that young people should use their time out wisely.

Gap years are presented as something different to simply going on holiday. As Sue Heath (2007) has pointed out, the rise in popularity of gap years can be seen in the context of the expansion of higher education. A degree on its own is no longer enough, so gap years are one way for young people to ‘stand out from the crowd’ and gain a competitive edge over their peers. Take the Higher Education careers service Graduate Prospects, which lists the potential benefits of taking a gap year as a means to: ‘… develop your transferable skills, including your communication, leadership, time management and decision making; increase your work experience … allow you to learn a new craft … hone your existing skills … ‘

Gap years,are here seen as a challenge, primarily orientated to future gains in the graduate job market (another section on the same Prospects webpage is entitled ‘how will I sell my gap year to my employers?’). The instrumental logic underpinning the ‘right way’ to take a gap year to provide future economic benefit can also be seen in higher education, as pointed out by Nicola Ingram and Richard Waller in Discover Society (Issue 20). Moreover, spending time overseas is a valuable dimension of gap year experiences, demonstrating how young people are becoming more ‘cosmopolitan’ – a significant attribute in a global economy.

My own research on gap years focused on the experiences of young people taking time out overseas between school and university. Despite the rhetoric that often suggests such experiences are ‘for anyone’, it is relatively privileged youth who spend their time in this way. In an analysis of survey data on young people in England in 2008 by Crawford and Cribb (2012), 12.5% of young people intended to take a gap year before university at age 18, but only 6.6% had done so when resurveyed following summer. Crawford and Cribb found that young people who were white, from more affluent socio-economic backgrounds and from independent schools were more likely to take a gap year. They also found that more privileged young people are the ones who are more likely to plan a gap year, travel, work, and volunteer overseas, and go to university on their return. Those whose ‘gap years’ were unplanned were less affluent and more likely to either work or continue in education (for example to retake exams) during their time out, and far less likely to then progress to higher education.

In examining the stories young people tell about their gap year, I found that their experiences tended to follow standard ‘scripts’. For example, the gappers reproduced wider trends in ‘good’ middle class taste in travel by wanting to be a traveller, not a tourist. Being a well-travelled person was premised on the idea of getting to know a place and emphasing danger and risk in valuable travel experiences. We can think of these encounters as helping young people to accumulate a kind of ‘cosmopolitan cultural capital’. Being a ‘citizen of the world’ is something that is increasingly valued. We can also see parallels with other international strategies, for example students who are able to mobilise their resources to study overseas.

The kudos associated with being a well-travelled cosmopolitan person shares a number of qualities with being an employable person, an ideal worker.

According to the official rhetoric, young people taking a gap year – as long as they do it in the right way – can show that they are motivated, independent, and confident. In order to achieve this, gappers have to do something ‘worthwhile’, defined with reference to activities which are less worthy. Christina, who taught English in Uganda, was able to use the altruistic, ‘productive’ nature of her placement to distance herself people who were ‘just’ backpacking: ‘I really wanted to travel, do something different rather than another year of exams! And like exploring and stuff … and I wanted to help people, do a gap year that was constructive, rather than just travel’ Christina both draws on the qualities associated with ‘proper travel’ – exploring, doing something different – while also making a moral distinction about her gap year being more worthy.

However, young people who ‘just travel’ make similar distinctions, also using ideas about what is constructive, and what is good (middle-class) taste. Owen implicitly references the uncultured masses who are not interested in travel as a form of self-development, telling me he was not just ‘on holiday’ (despite not taking part in any formal placement):

‘We were actively more trying to interact with the local people than, I think other people [who] were just cruising out there for a party. Especially in Thailand, they were heading out for a teen holiday to go and get drunk on the islands. It’s great, I had a lot of fun doing that but it’s not what I wanted to do the whole trip’

Owen dismisses the ‘teen holiday’ experience as something frivolous compared to his own approach, despite there being little discernible difference. He also spoke about going overseas as more desirable than staying at home because was a better use of his time, and compares himself with other young men he meets at university:

‘The idea had always been there but I was concerned about wasting my time. I’d seen a lot of friends, er, take a year off, even just a couple of guys from halls, took a year off and just worked in [City] the whole holiday and went out drinking and buying clothes and stuff. I was quite concerned I would get stuck in that rut’

Having the resources to take an overseas gap year is ‘misrecognised’ as evidence of personal qualities, of making sure you do something constructive so that you don’t waste your time. It is seen as being up to individuals to make the right decision so they can accrue benefits, rather than structural factors such as social class shaping young people’s potential pathways.

An assessment of the long-term benefits of gap years would need longitudinal research to track the outcomes for gappers compared to their peers and to establish whether accumulating ‘cosmopolitan cultural capital’ does result in gaining advantages. What my own research has shown is that young people were working within a shared understanding of what the outcomes of gap years should be, reproducing dominant meanings and values yet seeing these as moral differences. Underlying this rhetoric of choice is the fact that strategic efforts are simply seen as reflections of individual merit. If gap years offer evidence of desirable personal qualities, then the young people who cannot take one – because they cannot afford it or have health problems or caring responsibilities – are categorised as possessing less desirable qualities. Exploring the representation of these experiences highlights the ‘gaps’ between what (and who) is worthwhile and what (and who) has value.

Heath, S. (2007) ‘Widening the Gap: Pre-University Gap Years and the “Economy of Experience.”’ British Journal of Sociology of Education. 28(1): 89–103
Snee, H. (2014) A Cosmopolitan Journey? Difference, Distinction and Identity Work in Gap Year Travel. Fareham: Ashgate.


Helene Snee is Lecturer in Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research explores stratification and socio-cultural change with a particular focus on young people, cosmopolitanism and class. She is co-convenor of the BSA’s Youth Study Group. Her publications include A Cosmopolitan Journey? Difference, Distinction and Identity Work in Gap Year Travel (Ashgate, 2014), which was short-listed for the BSA Philip Abrahams Memorial Prize 2015.