We Need a New Term for ‘Gap Year’

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This piece challenges notions and ideologies behind the term ‘gap year’ and reflects on societal stigma associated with the concept.

‘Gap year’, ‘sabbatical’, ‘year out’, whatever you want to call it, all of these terms imply one objectively pejorative concept- cessation or pause. 

Gap (noun): A break or space in an object or between two objects. A space or interval; a break in continuity (Oxford Languages). 

But what exactly are we taking a break from? Whose prescribed trajectory or assumed norms?

‘Gap’ is not a neutral term. It implies a degree of futility, cessation and an anticipated return or recommencement (and to what, exactly?). It also automatically assumes that everyone is on a common path- in which one saliently decides to temporarily take a break or ‘year out’ from. The term prematurely deprecates and undermines the concept of the year, deeming it already to an extent invalid or ineffective. Gaps must be filled. But isn’t there more to life than a series of gaps merely waiting to be filled? 

If anything, ‘gap years’ or ‘years out’ are the years where some of the most productive ‘filling’ of life is done—the filling of such gaps generated from unwantingly prescribing to society’s singular almighty path for so long without reflecting.

We live in a society that thrives on restricted notions of success governed by a hustle culture fit for capitalism and early onset heart attacks, at best. In a society terrified of taking the foot off the pedal, of pausing to find one’s own subjective path, to enjoy the now, to experience life for what it is instead of incontestably following the status-quo from step X to Y (and to an incessant, high-speed plethora of fixed steps…).

my next step had already been pre-decided and assumed

I recently found myself defensively explaining, if not justifying, my own upcoming ‘gap year’ - if you consider not doing a masters in the same academic year, after completing a four year bachelor's straight after second level education, a ‘gap’ year - to friends and family, as if my next step had already been pre-decided and assumed. This justification being particularly demanding perhaps, thanks to my ‘gap year’ being situated within the ever-so valued humanities discipline…(but that’s for a whole other discussion).

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I fail to understand how following my own instinctual path and gaining valuable practical professional experience constitutes a ‘gap’. How and what from is this to be considered a ‘break’ and not starting my life in my own decided manner?

If this ‘gap’ is stigmatised, I can’t imagine what it’s like for those who dare to try justifying a gap year non-adhering to the strict dichotomy of professional or academic advancement. Maybe it involves travelling, learning about life (in the unconventional, “Eat Pray Love” sense) or even worse- taking the time to simply enjoy life in the now, unobsessed with the next step on this glorified, singular roadmap of life. Why do we only measure success and intellect through the trajectory of academics and professional triumph? 

there remains significant, irrefragable conventions within developed society that fear and stigmatise the idea of gap years

Success is subjective. Success for some, may very well be found by following the accelerated promoted route of education, education, job, salary, car, house, etc. For others, perhaps success is self-growth, the nourishment of new or existing relationships, improving one’s financial situation, discovering a new culture, passion or simply falling back in love with life.

Generally speaking, one must assume a certain subjective degree of contextual privilege when discussing the mere capacity to delay the inevitable path to economic prosperity and relative stability. A plethora of contextual circumstances come into play here—family, health, finances and even the area of the world we find ourselves in. 

However objectively speaking, under ‘regular’ circumstances, there remains significant, irrefragable conventions within developed society that fear and stigmatise the idea of gap years or not following the status-quo life instructions in general. I’m coining it ‘gap-year phobia’; a condition affecting not only those daring to engage in the concept, but also those around who question and berate others for doing so.

‘Gap years’ are more than valid life experiences. Young people especially, should be celebrated, not stigmatised for daring to ‘pause’ and live in a way that makes sense for themselves; for being able to do so despite background noise, doubts and stereotypes. It’s the people that consider life as a series of pre-assigned gaps waiting to be filled, the ones who will be ‘left behind’, and not these brave individuals who live life to live, not fill it. They’re far from ‘taking a break’ from life- they’re perhaps the ones living it more than most people out there.

At the end of the day, ‘gap years’ can be taken, prescribed trajectories can be followed but life will always be ‘unaccomplished’ to a certain extent; there is no magical ‘gap filling’ that solves everything. We may be living in the hustle culture era, but we’re also in the cancel culture era, hence why I vote to cancel and re-coin the term ‘gap year’ as ‘living life in a way that makes sense to me and not others’ year.