What is the career gap?

career gap

The way we approach our working lives is changing. A growing number of people are deciding to take time out of their career to explore and reevaluate. The days of the nonstop, one-track career are disappearing. A more fluid approach, in which people dip in and out of a career to make more time for travel and personal development, is on the rise. And as the benefits of taking a career gap are being increasingly recognised, the stigmas surrounding them are gradually being lifted. But what exactly do career gaps entail, and what effect do they have?  If you take a career gap it does not mean you are halting your career progression.  It just means that you are stepping back from your regular workplace environment to develop in other ways. Employers are increasingly recognising that taking time away from the traditional path does not simply mean you are stopping and restarting your career.

Career gaps explained

Career gaps are often described in other ways. Career break, sabbatical, gap year, mini-retirement – you’ve probably heard some of these before.

While each of these terms have slightly different connotations, in essence they all mean the same thing. A career gap is a period of time spent away from work to pursue other interests.

A career gap can be taken for a variety of reasons. It could be to travel, volunteer, learn a new skill, raise children, or even to try a different job.

Whatever the reason for it, a career gap is an opportunity. It gives you a chance to take a step back from your current situation – perhaps to take a break from a job that has become stale and unrewarding – and reflect on your overall life outlook, while developing as a person at the same time.

Our specific focus is on taking a career gap to travel. Having done this ourselves, on the pages of this blog we share our experience of how it can be done in practice, and how to manage your life before and afterwards.

Career gap vs sabbatical and other terms

Some of the alternative terms to ‘career gap’ refer to specific situations and arrangements.

sabbatical refers to a fixed agreement for an employee to take absence of leave and return to the same job after a specified amount of time. It’s often a year, but not always. Sabbatical contracts range anywhere from a few weeks to two or three years.

gap year, by its very nature, covers a period of 12 months and is usually associated with young people who take time out before, during or immediately after their studies to travel.

The term mini-retirement was coined by the author of the bestselling book the 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss. This involves taking time out of work to pursue your greatest non-vocational ambitions while you’re still in the peak years of your physical health. It’s a concept that the entrepreneur Stefan Sagmeister discusses in his highly popular TED talk on the power of time off.

While these all serve a purpose, we prefer career gap, or career break. These are all-encompassing terms that do not discriminate by age or specify time. We believe that everyone should be empowered to take time out of work at any stage of their career.

Why take a career gap to travel?

Taking a career gap to travel the world can be transformational in many ways. First of all, the most obvious appeal is that it enables you to experience the places you’ve always dreamed about and only ever seen on a TV screen or the pages of a magazine.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of travelling is that it exposes you to situations that you would never face otherwise. Every day you are exposed to new cultures that push your comfort zone.

Think you can negotiate? Wait until you’ve tried buying vegetables at a local market in Peru, Vietnam or Morocco. Feel like the local metro is a tough commute? You’ll think again once you’ve travelled across Laos in a rickety old bus with 50 other people for ten hours in sweltering heat. Fancy yourself as a good communicator? Try ordering your dinner at a crowded café in the Philippines with no English menus.

Then there’s the break in routine. Imagine a pace of life where you wake up each day and decide what you’ll do and where you’ll go. Released from the nine-to-five, you learn what it’s like to truly be the master of your own destiny.

All of these experiences broaden your horizons and help you to develop in ways that would be impossible within the restrictions of your regular working-life grind. You won’t forget the things you knew before, and you’ll pick up attributes that will be of enormous value when you return to a career.

Not only this, but taking time out to travel is incredibly rewarding in and of itself. There is a mountain of evidence that shows that people are happier when spending money on experiences rather than material things.

Who can take a career gap?

There is, of course, no legal restriction on who can take a career gap. Traditionally, as we’ve outlined already, gap years have been seen as something that young people do. While certain prejudices attached to this premise still linger, it just isn’t the case any more.

We met people from many different backgrounds in all sorts of circumstances during our travel career break. Retired couples, travelling families, solo backpackers (both men and women), people who were using redundancy money to travel when in their 40s and 50s. Even people with chronic illnesses.

Recent research in Canada showed that two-thirds of people have considered taking a career gap, and a quarter are already saving up for one.

Taking extended time away to travel isn’t just for young folk any more. Nor is it only something that rich people do. People of all ages and walks of life are breaking the ladder and embracing a new, more fluid approach to careers.

When we tell people about our own experience of a career gap, people often say “I wish I could do that”. Here’s the thing: you can.

How do you take a career gap?

The first step to taking a career gap is overcoming the preconceptions and making the decision to do it. Once you have cleared that hurdle, you will have a clear focus and you can begin working towards the goal.

Unless you happen to be very well off or have received a windfall of some kind, it can take years to save for a round-the-world trip. We saved for five years for ours. If, indeed, you are planning years ahead, you can simply begin by putting some money away. Meanwhile, start thinking broadly about how long you want to take off and where you want to go.

The next step is to create a structured savings plan. Set yourself a target timeline and amount to save, and work out how much you will need to put away each month. For more help with this, read our essential guide to saving money for a travel career break.

Once you are into the swing of saving, you can begin to solidify your travel plans. Refine your route and consider getting your main flights booked. You can flesh out the details as time progresses – get a nice big spreadsheet going.

Things to consider as your career gap approaches

The practicalities of taking a career gap to travel will depend on many factors relating to your life situation. Here are a few of the things you will need to consider once you are a year or less away from your planned career gap:

  • Does your employer offer sabbatical arrangements, or might they be open to it?
  • If you plan to quit your job, how will you prepare for resuming your career when you return?
  • What do you want to achieve professionally before your career gap?
  • What will you do with your belongings? Do you have friends and family with attic space, or could you pay for storage? (If we went back and did it again, we would sell or throw away a lot more of our stuff.)
  • If you own your house or flat, will you let it out, or cut ties entirely and sell it?
  • What do you want to get out of your career gap? Set some personal development goals.

For more guidance and insight, read our article on six steps to make your career break travel a reality.

How much does it cost to travel the world?

There is no exact answer to this. It depends on many different factors, but three in particular: how long you want to travel for, where you want to go, and your travel style.

We use the website Budget Your Trip to plan our travel budget. It provides spending estimates for pretty much anywhere in the world for budget, mid-range or luxury travel. We are firmly in the mid-range camp, and we found it to be remarkably accurate.

So if you can answer those three headline questions – where, how long, and how – you can use this service to make a very reasonable estimate of how much you’ll need.

For a breakdown of what we spent on our round-the-world career gap, check out our article how much does it cost to travel the world?

Will a career gap harm my career?

Far from it. While we won’t pretend that taking time away from the traditional career path does present some challenges, this is far outweighed by the positive impact of the reflection and development it allows.

One of the main barriers that prevents people from taking time out to travel is the fear that it will have a negative long-term career impact. In reality, most people we encounter who have taken extended breaks from work have emerged with a refreshed perspective and new-found purpose that has steered them in a positive direction.

Research highlighted by the Harvard Business Review has shown that organisations benefit when employees take sabbaticals. This is being reflected in the growing number of companies that are opening up to career breaks and implementing policies to encourage them.

In 2014, Virgin launched a policy allowing employees to take unlimited holiday. In the UK, the BBC is open to discussing career breaks of 3 months to 3 years. There are countless more examples of businesses, large and small, that are open to career break arrangements.

How travelling makes you a better employee

There are many ways that taking a career break to travel can make you more effective in the workplace. Examples include:

  • Greater confidence
  • Better networking skills
  • Higher levels of creativity
  • Learning a new language
  • Greater self awareness
  • Clearer focus

At a time when job searches are becoming more competitive, having this extra development on your resume can really help to stand out in the crowd.

Read more about this in our article on seven ways travelling will make you better at your job.

A career gap will only be as beneficial as you make it, though. While you might find that unexpected doors are opened along your journey, it’s important to go into it with a clear idea of how you will use the time constructively.

If you’re really concerned about the impact a career gap will have, talk to someone experienced in your industry who you trust.

What happens when you return from a career gap?

You will probably find that things at home haven’t changed a lot while you’ve been away. Expect an initial buzz period when you reconnect with family and friends, and share all of your stories.

After that, it can be difficult to settle back in. You may want to do things differently to your old routine, and that’s ok! We found, for example, that before travelling we had simply too much stuff – we are now happier living with less.

For ideas on how to manage this transition, read our article on how to satisfy your wanderlust when you’re at home.

For women, returning after a travel break can be even more tricky due to the societal expectations that still exist around having children. Lisa addresses this subject in a woman’s perspective on taking a travel career break.

Finding a job when you return from a career gap

If you leave your job to take a career gap rather than entering a sabbatical arrangement, it’s natural to be concerned about how you’ll find another one when you return.

Most people we know who left their job to travel were able to find a new position in a matter of weeks. And usually, it’s a better role than the one they left.

There are many steps you can take before, during and immediately after you career gap to make sure you find the right job.

Before you leave, it’s important to get your house in order. Save examples of your work, get references, write down your achievements and update your resume.

During the trip, keep a record of your development and try to stay in touch with what’s going on in your industry. Do some professional networking if you can. As your return date approaches, start looking for vacancies.

When you return, it’s important to allow yourself some time to see the people you love and sort your general life admin before getting stuck into the job search.

When the time comes, sign up with recruitment agencies. Rewrite your resume and include the things you’ve learned from your break. Don’t play down your career gap – embrace it and explain how it makes you a better person to hire!

Most of all, don’t worry. Be patient and stay positive. It’s likely you will face some rejection, but that’s to be expected. You will get there in the end.

For more detailed advice on this subject, read our guide to finding a job after travelling the world: a winning strategy.

Career gap stories

Our interview series showcases inspirational people who have used their career gap experience to transform their lives.

Gemma is a teacher from Scotland who took a 15-month break from her career to travel the world with her partner. After returning to the UK she set up her own successful business, which she now works on full-time.

Read about Gemma’s story here: how a travel career break inspired a teacher to start her own business.

Our vision at career gappers is to create a world where everyone is empowered to take time out to travel at any stage of their career. We believe that the career gap trend is a positive thing that benefits people and organisations greatly.