Last week Noah at Money Metagame announced he and his wife were considering what he called a “gap year:” taking time off from the workforce to go on an “epic road trip across the country.” I thought this was an excellent idea, and told him so on Twitter. Then I started riffing on gap years and realized the thing I liked least about it was the idea of limiting it to a year: if a gap year is good, surely a gap life is even better.
What is a gap year for?
Noah presumably took the idea of a “gap year” from the current enthusiasm among upper-middle-class parents to encourage their kids to take a year off between graduating from high school and enrolling in college. During such a gap year, a youngster who has been on the “academic treadmill” (in Time’s nomenclature) can “work, travel, volunteer or explore other interests” before enrolling in a higher education program.
You can see why someone who didn’t take such time off in their youth might be attracted to the opportunity to learn more about the world and oneself than is possible in some kind of career-track job they joined straight out of college (which they enrolled in straight out of high school). And rightly so!
Noah and Becky will no doubt discover people and places they never could have imagined during their gap year. They’ll also discover things about themselves and each other, unburdened by the 9-t0-5 (plus an hour commute in each direction) schedule they’ve shackled themselves to so far.
Why a gap life is even better
As for me, the arguments in favor of a gap year are so compelling, I simply don’t see any reason to limit the gap to a single year. Personally, my preference is for a gap life, where you can “work, travel, volunteer or explore other interests” in whichever ratio works for you, for as long as you (both shall?) live.
- During a gap year you might pick a single job, like waiter or barista, to experiment with. During a gap life, you can pick as many jobs as you can find time for, from factory worker in Wisconsin to shale oil roughneck in North Dakota to sleep experiment subject in Massachusetts.
- During a gap year you might travel across Eastern Europe, or Southeast Asia, or Latin America. During a gap life you can travel anywhere you like, as many times as you like, whenever you like.
- And when you’re off the “academic treadmill,” you ironically have access to a virtually unlimited amount of education. Almost anywhere you live is sure to have a school where you can enroll for next to nothing to learn almost anything under the sun. If you develop a particular interest in a subject, you’re also free to move somewhere that subject is taught better than anywhere else.
A gap life is the inverse of early retirement
The early retirement philosophy is “now that I have a ton of money I can do anything I want.” A gap life is about asking the question, “what do I want to do?”
And it turns out that most things don’t cost that much money; many of them are even profitable!
If you want to find out what working in a factory is like, people will pay you to work in their factories. If you want to find out what teaching English is like, you can find people to pay you to teach English. If you want to learn Spanish, it’s pretty easy to find someone to teach you Spanish.
A gap life isn’t easy; life isn’t supposed to be easy
Before you start angrily commenting about raising children and picking school districts and paying mortgages, let me stop you: I understand that choosing to live the life you want to live instead of the life you were convinced at age 14 you were supposed to live isn’t easy.
I simply don’t see the advantages of an easy life over a complex, messy, frustrating and annoying life! Moreover, it’s not at all clear to me that following the rules, attending the right classes, getting the right degrees, applying for the right jobs, and saving the right amount for retirement actually makes your life any easier.
If it did, why would Noah and Becky be so desperate to bail out 5 years after getting started? What is the early retirement movement but a collective admission that “traditional” career paths are working for fewer and fewer people?
The obvious answer to me isn’t that people should get off the traditional career path 10, 20, or 30 years early through extreme frugality and a high savings rate. It’s that they should decide for themselves whether they want to get on a traditional career path at all!
Among the chattering classes there’s a growing consensus that we need to find new and different ways to talk about work, and I’ve written before about how that discourse is failing to deliver answers that are meaningful to actual, human workers. While you’re more than free to treat it as tongue-in-cheek, my idea of the “gap life” is one suggestion for how to cannibalize our culture’s existing rhetoric in service to the actual people who live in it.
So the next time someone asks you what you do for a living, feel free to answer:
“I’m actually in the middle of a gap life, trying to figure out what I want to do next.“