In a professional era characterised by creative dynamism and lapped by the growing waves of globalisation, there is a distinct fascination around the world with Gen Y, those people in their 20s who are beginning to join the world of work. For some, their experiences beyond education begin even before entrance into university in what is termed the ‘gap year’.
Having rose to eminence in the 1990s, the gap year involves taking a year off, often before or after studying in university. The period is traditionally furnished by backpack travelling, volunteer work and adventure tourism with India, South-East Asia and South America among the popular destinations. There are infinite possibilities with the globe rested alluringly at your feet and, for the late teenager beginning to acquaint themselves with their own character, this freedom is both a gift and a curse. It is this fragile interchange that lies at the heart of the gap year.
Over the past five years, over a quarter of British students have opted to take a year off, last year 160,000 students leaving college alone went out in search of sun, adventure and moral fulfilment. Gap years have yet to take off in India, with students reluctant to fragment the educational process with a year off, however they are by no means non-existent.
Wasted Gap Years?
But what is the real value for Gen Y as they roam across the globe, and how can the experience be tailored for maximum value? Having opted to take a gap year between school and university, I was wary of the continuing debate over the value of a gap year. Recently a spokesperson for the gap year planning company, Year Out, lamented that the majority of travellers “just go off and travel independently without any real purpose”. This judgement was potentially influenced by the rise of the ‘gap yah’ brigade, named as such because ‘yah’ is a posh pronunciation and reflective of the disproportionate amount of public-school educated students taking gap years.
The focus on public school students is explainable when you regard the costs of a gap year. Market researcher Mintel found that the average gap-year traveller spent up to £4,000 on each trip. Subsequently, a trend has emerged whereby middle-class students with access to larger funds are the most likely to elect for a gap year. This flamboyant social group has become the subject of parody in recent years and a YouTube clip emerged entitled ‘Gap Yah’ that ridiculed the culture of students travelling abroad for the sole purpose of getting drunk, attracting over 3,600,000 millions hits in the process.
Indeed, in areas such as South-East Asia and South America, these ‘gap yahers’ have earned notoriety for their pursuit of hedonism. Amanda Miller, who worked as a bargirl in the gap year hot-spot Vang Vieng in Laos summed it up when she questioned the moral value of some travellers’ experiences. “Most people come for the sole purpose of getting drunk and letting loose, there was absolutely no interest in local culture. I’m not sure how people are meant to ‘find themselves’ in the bottom of a vodka bucket”, she sighed. A true manifestation of this hedonistic take on gap years is the Thai party island, Koh Phangan, which hosts monthly ‘Full Moon’ parties. Credited as the highlight for some gap year travellers, these parties last throughout the night and are a notorious haven for drugs, sex and violence with deaths as inescapable as the tides that lap the beach.
It is perhaps the popularity of the full moon parties and the emergence of this hedonistic culture as the fundamental drive for some gap year students that encouraged Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of the British body responsible for applications to universities, to call for a recalibration of priorities for people taking gap years. In her view the time for people to use gap years for a break to see the world was extinct. Gap years should instead be used strategically to gain experience to support a university application.
A survey undertaken by gap year organization company Projects Abroad went further and suggested that gap years hold real value for potential employers. Their research found that 60% of business managers believed taking a gap year to be just as important as a university degree when regarding possible interview candidates. They recognized the non-vocational worth of the gap yearer as they travelled and experienced different cultures, which could help develop crucial business skills such as leadership and organization.
It is no surprise that, while some gap yearers opt to sip sangria and gaze at the moon, others have kept a firm eye on the potentially daunting future of universities and job interviews. As a result, ‘voluntourism’ has emerged as a popular choice for students wishing to volunteer in their gap year. It was estimated that 500,000 students participated in volunteer schemes last year. This sector has developed volunteer projects ranging from teaching in Africa to conservation in South America. The company Projects Abroad features a number of opportunities in India, including the promotion and development of sustainable agriculture in South Indian villages. The catch? Being a volunteer is not cheap, the company ‘Real Gap Experience’ offers a three-week conservation placement looking after wild life in South Africa for £1,279 with flights included.
Voluntourism in Africa
With the chilling possibility of my own gap year descending into a global booze cruise whispering seductively in my ear like the demonic Mephistopheles with Dr. Faustus, I was determined to use the time to build professional credentials and widen my global perspective. This was indeed my aspiration when I found myself staring into a vast, 15-month gap year that floated ominously like a black hole, barring my entrance to university. To follow the ‘gap yah’ brigade, cavorting their way across the South American wilderness, I perceived as a wasted opportunity. At 18-years-old, I had the opportunity to gain professional experience and credentials as a tool for differentiating myself in the increasingly competitive labour market. Last year graduate unemployment rates in Britain rose to 20%.
As an aspiring journalist I concluded that work placements in local publications across the globe would be a good opportunity for me to develop and harness my skills, but also creating a unique insight into the countries I would be working at as I interacted with them as a journalist. The locations were perhaps the easiest decision. In this era of globalisation, China and India have demanded the world’s attention for their spiralling rates of growth and increasing role in worldwide politics and economics. China has sustained an extremely high GDP growth rate averaging over 10% in the past ten years while India’s population has soared above 1.2 billion people this year and is expected to harbour the largest population by 2025.
China’s distinct culture rendered it an enticing prospect to work in and, through Projects Abroad, I found a placement at Shanghai’s largest English speaking monthly publication, That’s Shanghai. The office was run predominantly by expatriates so contact with local Chinese was limited. Despite this, I observed first-hand the impact of the Chinese government at micro level when, before print, a government representative arrived to censor any necessary articles. Government censorship, I learnt, is a crucial factor in China’s creative industries. For example, the movie industry is highly constrained and potential film-makers face banned themes such as time-travel, propagating feudal superstitions and portraying ambiguous moral lessons. In our publication, an article on haunted routes in Shanghai had to be vetoed for fear of government intervention.
As irony would have it, having jumped ship on the gap yah booze cruise, my main role was writing on Shanghai nightlife. Rather than chained to the office desk, I found myself exploring the city’s jazz digs and futuristic roof top bars. As I met bejewelled club owners and interviewing up-and-coming DJs I discovered the city far more than if I had visited the land marks, fuelled the desperate drive for sight-seeing that accompanies most tourist holidays. Mingling with locals I also developed an understanding of China’s unique business culture, such as the importance of one’s reputation and the development of contacts or ‘guanxi’ as they’re known. All useful knowledge when you account for the 132,000 millionaires languishing in Shanghai.
Interning in a publication there is a responsibility to be proactive and create opportunities for yourself. Under the energetic policy of ‘take anything’, I was tasked with transcribing an hour-long interview with a local who had the comprehensibility of White Noise. Four laborious hours later and I was told it was for a half-page article. Developing this mentality to actively seize work I found was priceless experience, especially in professions like journalism where nothing comes free. Working in the exceptional Chinese environment was an opportunity to develop flexibility and, as the Chinese economy hurtles forward, experience with Chinese business is an invaluable asset for potential employers seeking to assault the Chinese market.
… and the Elephant
Continuing the trend of globe-trotting, I then alighted in India to work in Mumbai’s largest publication company Spenta Multimedia and later the English language daily newspaper, DNA. At Spenta, to provide the nautical theme for my personal ‘booze cruise’, I was placed on the editorial team for ‘India Boating’.
Commuting on the Mumbai trains to work (I was told afterwards there was an average of ten fatalities a day on the tracks) and interviewing for stories, I had the unique opportunity to experience India from a more localized perspective. Travellers who wrestle their way through hawkers in Connaught Place or queue outside the Taj Mahal for that perfect photograph for their desktop screensaver only view India from a distinctly outsider’s perspective. During my work, I found myself scrambling across Juhu beach in the company of crab catchers and being led through the creaking passageways of Crawford Market by a wizened guide. All two months without seeing a tourist.
Living as a local and being immersed in the eclectic Indian culture, meant I appreciated the country, in my opinion, far more than a gap year student’s typical foray across the Sub Continent. For prospective gap year students, the experience of working in a city is the best opportunity to put your ear to the ground and tailor the experience for your personal benefit rather than follow in the foot steps of a well-leafed guidebook.
The English factor
The defining factor of my trip observing the Elephant and the Dragon was the influence of my English nationality on people’s perceptions. England still holds ties with India, especially through the hysterically popular medium of cricket, but the overwhelmingly welcoming and positive response I received exceeded all expectations. While working for DNA newspaper, this novelty of nationality took a temporary turn for the worst. While attempting to interview a television actor over the telephone I started, “Hi this is Christian from DNA”. Without skipping a beat the actor replied, “yeah sure, and I’m Julia Roberts!” before abruptly hanging up. He had been deceived by my accent into thinking it was a prank call.
In China, the permeance of Western culture over the last decades (fast food outlet KFC has over 3,200 outlets across China) has led towards ingrained and positive assumptions of people from the West. Last year an underground industry was unearthed in China, whereby Western actors are hired by Chinese companies to pose as fake foreign executives working with the company. This appearance of collaborating with Western companies is perceived to show the business as international, well-connected and prestigious. One such actor even had to pose as the vice president of an Italian jewellery company and had to deliver a speech onstage about his pride in working with the Chinese company for ten years.
This overridingly positive perception of Westerners extended, in the case of a 19-year-old, to assumptions on business ability. Interning at a Chinese business publication, the college student was approached by a local colleague who proposed they started a business together. The colleague was essentially pitching his future on the assumption that, being from the West, my friend was a sure thing as a business associate. By my reckoning, the West has contributed tremendously more than their share towards the bubbling cauldron of global problems. But shhhh, don’t tell the Chinese otherwise the gig will be up and I won’t get the temporary job as vice president of an Austrian plastic manufacturer.
In the light of an increasingly globalized professional environment, my prediction is that more students will combine the prospect of travelling on their gap year with gaining work experience. Working in a foreign city provides priceless experience, both in terms of demonstrating flexibility and the opportunity to cultivate an exclusive and personal relationship with the city. My advice is to use every assignment in work placements as a chance to develop your experience and be open to a globalized society of flexibility and diversity of skills.