When I was 18, it never occurred to me to take a ‘gap yah’. The thought of working in my local supermarket for six months to save money before partying around the world just didn’t appeal to me. I was of the opinion that I could get my partying out of my system at university. I didn't need to hop on a plane to have a good time.
But, by the time I graduated from university, I could see that I had been wrong. Taking time out wasn't just about going to endless full moon parties. I had used my summers travelling South America, even living in Chile interning for a newspaper for a while, and I knew the life-changing benefits of taking some time out. My stress levels disappeared, I became more independent than I'd imagined, I learnt Spanish and I figured out how to make a life for myself in a country where I knew no one. I was a total convert to the 'gap yah' life.
But I still didn’t take time out after I graduated. All of my peers were signed up to grad schemes, further studying or promising internships. They were all so desperate to ‘get onto the career ladder’ amidst an uncertain economic climate that I felt an urgent need to join them.
I ignored the small voice in my head telling me that I would never have such a good chance to take some time out and began applying for MAs. I even secretly hoped that I wouldn’t be accepted so that I could go off to Asia, but when I was offered a place to study newspaper journalism at City University, I accepted it immediately. I had to; what if I didn’t get in the following year? What if, after six months to a year of travelling, I had missed the career boat?
Six years on, I now fully regret not taking time out to travel. I completely agree with Mary Curnock Cook, the outgoing head of UCAS, who has said graduates should take six months off before entering the workplace. “You have plenty of time to figure out how to be successful in the workplace,” she told this paper, warning against an “obsession with graduate employment.”
She’s right. After working for five years solid, I can’t believe that I ever thought a measly six months travelling would stop me from succeeding. First-time employees find jobs every year, and by no means are they all 21-years-old and fresh out of university. Many of my peers took time off before finding their feet in their current careers. Their age never held them back - if anything it gave them an extra edge of experience. Whether they volunteered abroad, worked in their local Starbucks or hiked Machu Picchu, they all came back with new skills: an understanding of different cultures, communication skills, independence - and plenty of stories to entertain new colleagues in the pub.
When I was applying for jobs, the one thing all employers asked me about in my interviews was the fact that I’d spent three months working in Chile during my summer of second year university. It set me apart from the other students - the one who were racing through school, university and grad schemes - and gave me a chance to show that I was capable of doing something different. I just wish I’d taken it one step further and gone off for a solid six months to a year after graduating, instead of trying to make up for it via endless holidays.
As a graduate, it can be hard to see past what everyone else is doing, especially when headlines are screaming out about the lack of graduate jobs and growing unemployment. In today’s culture, if you don’t have a vaguely prestigious job/MA/internship lined up before you graduate, you feel like you have failed.
It couldn’t be further from the truth. And particularly given that we’re probably all going to be working for 50-odd years. There’s no need to rush. If you’re good enough to get the job you want, then it won’t matter if you do it in June or December. Plus, there is little chance that the first job you have after studying is the only one you’ll ever have.
Long gone are the days where students had to settle down into a ‘job for life’. Millennials are expected to have at least four job changes by the time they’re 32, according to a study by LinkedIn, and with millennial entrepreneurs across the world now worth more than $17 billion, it’s highly likely that many Gen Y and X-ers will go on to start their own businesses.
Travelling doesn't just have to be a drunken 'gap yah' either. When I worked in Chile, I was still able to travel around the country on weekends, but I also gained valuable journalistic experience and improved my Spanish. Students today could plan trips to BRIC countries where they might end up kickstarting their careers whilst exploring a new country. One of my friends met a tech CEO whilst interrailing in Hungary - he's now helping her with her app start-up.
Students today should take Cook’s wise advice, and learn from the mistakes of graduates like myself. We were so eager to enter our careers that we barely acknowledged one of the best opportunities we’d ever have, and now we’re sat in offices wishing we’d crossed America on horseback, picked grapes in a southern French town and learnt to surf on the Australian coast.