Americans are burning out, in no small part because workers fail to take advantage of their allotted paid time off for fear of falling behind. We’re going to sleep at 23 years old, waking up at 40, looking at our not-quite-empty but not-quite-robust bank accounts and saying with a shrug, “well, it could be worse.”
Yeah, it could. But it could also be much, much better.
As times change, trends evolve. If a classic midlife crisis is calling to you, by all means stomp off into the woods for a week, do your best Thoreau impression, commune with nature, contemplate the meaning of life, and then return dirtier and more pissed off than ever. Or you could take a midlife gap year instead.
The midlife gap year is, or at least should be, the next iteration of the midlife crisis. It’s pretty simple: Just take the concept of a traditional gap year — a year off in between high school and college to travel — and apply it to the adult world. With remote work, it’s becoming more and more feasible to pick up and hit the road while still receiving a paycheck. Depending on your financial situation and relationship status, you could even leave the job behind, too.
Take a year off. Rent a van. Hitchhike. Live in another part of the country, or the world. Whatever you do, don’t do it with a crisis mindset — have a sense of purpose and a commitment to self-discovery, and return with a fresh perspective on your personal and professional future.
Take the trip you’ve been putting off
The standard US allowance of two PTO weeks per year is one issue that seems to unite everybody: it’s not nearly enough time. Between family obligations and mental health breaks, we’re lucky if we can fit one five-day vacation into our schedule each year. The result? Frustrated American workers sitting at their desks scrolling longingly through Skyscanner and Expedia, fantasizing about the trips they wish they could take. While this might be a fun diversion, it certainly isn’t a healthy long-term habit.
Much like a traditional gap year, a midlife gap year is, on its most superficial level, a time for you to venture out of your bubble. When your routine is largely the same every day, life can feel pretty claustrophobic. A midlife gap year gives you some much-needed distance and breathing room. Take the trip you’ve always been planning in your head. Go live on the opposite coast, or abroad. Have the experiences you’ve been daydreaming about while you sit at your desk, bored and waiting for the clock to strike five. You might return to the exact same routine once the year is over, but you’ll do so with a handful of new experiences under your belt.
Finding happiness as an adult is as much about fulfilment as it is about avoiding burnout. The workday used to end at five. Now, thanks to technology, it simply continues at home (if we ever left home in the first place) on our laptops and iPhones with the oft-uttered expression, “hold on, I just have to answer this email real quick.” In a world where everyone is constantly plugged in, it can be hugely beneficial to disconnect from it all.
Even if you continue working from the road, taking a break from your hyper-productive co-workers and results-oriented friends and family can be a major boon for your mental health. We live in a world defined by urgency, where much of our lives revolve around Google Calendar invites. You might be used to it, but there’s a good chance that it’s slowly burning you out without even realizing it. A midlife gap year can lift you out of your stressful environment, give you a change of scenery, and help you return refreshed to your everyday life.
Reevaluate your priorities
The rigors of the daily grind often make it impossible to see the forest for the trees. The big picture is lost in the daily haze, in the tedious minutiae that demand our attention at every turn. The midlife gap year allows you to take a step back and see the forest.
Traditionally, a gap year is a bridge between two major periods of your life: high school and college. Its experiential nature can often inform what that next chapter looks like, giving us time to both reflect and look ahead. For adults, this is even more true. By the time our “midlife crisis” moment hits, we’ve likely been on a professional employment track for quite some time. We’re relatively comfortable in our job, our family, our friends, and where we live. Maybe it all lines up perfectly, and maybe it doesn’t. Taking a year off can offer some much-needed perspective at a pivotal juncture in our lives. The teenage gap year is a time to look ahead to the college years. The adult gap year is a time to look ahead to the rest of your life.
A midlife gap year is the perfect time to reflect and change course if need be. Finding yourself isn’t just for 19 year-olds — it’s something we all need to do from time to time.