What is a quarter-life gap year? Here’s what you need to know

The new world of working sees younger workers rebalance their work-life commitments with an extended career break.

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

As the so-called anti-ambition generation, Gen Zers have had a lot of shtick from older colleagues for supposedly lacking work ethic. Now, it seems they might be warming to the label.

Swapping briefcases for backpacks, more young people are leaving their jobs to go on a ‘quarter-life gap year’, where they can spend months or even years seeing the world rather than sitting behind a desk.

The anti-work trend is the latest rejection of the traditional 9-5 by young workers. So why is an entire generation of employees now prioritising passport stamps over professional development?

What is a quarter-life gap?

Quarter-life gap years are where a worker quits or pauses their job to travel the world. On the face of it, they are like any other career break. What’s interesting is the age of those participating.

As opposed to the traditional gap year, taken after leaving school or university, quarter-life gap years are usually taken by those in their mid-to-late-twenties, during the beginning of an individual’s career.

At this stage, those in an entry-level role are usually expected to focus on building an impressive resume, making work connections, and learning the job.

But that doesn’t seem to concern the next generation. Putting their OOO on, they’re heading abroad in their droves, resulting in a cohort of well-travelled, qualified individuals returning to the UK with big gaps in their CV and – likely – a fair share of vexed employers.

Why is the quarter-life gap gaining popularity?

Partly, the mass exodus is a delayed result of Gen Zers catching up on missed experiences. Millions put their travel plans on hold during COVID, with lots of youngsters heading straight into work instead. Now that the travel industry is back in action, the plans are back on.

Perhaps the bigger trigger, however, – and a more pressing concern for businesses – has been a growing disenchantment  with the reality of modern working. This has caused many young people to butt heads with bosses they feel short-changed by.

Whether or not they are correct depends on where you’re standing. Some view refusing to work extra hours or use corporate talk as a pushback against outdated business practices. Others see it as lazy and juvenile.

The dissent is causing Gen Zers to press pause and reexamine their place at work. They include Chris, a 26-year-old energy analyst from Oxford, who is currently taking a quarter-life gap year in Colombia. He says he made the move to fall back in love with the sector.

“I was tired and stressed from working long hours on a project that we delivered just before I left,” he tells Startups. “But I still feel really passionately about sustainability and the energy sector. I thought taking a break might help me remember why I got into it.”

Meaningful work

The motivation to look for a workplace that better aligns with your values is another common trend affecting UK employees. Many staff members are seeking out so-called ‘meaningful work’ in an attempt to find a work role or environment that matches their personal passions.

Gen Z are particularly attuned. April 2023 data from LinkedIn of more than 7,000 global workers, reviewed by BBC Worklife, shows 64% of Gen Zers in the UK and Ireland now consider it important to work for companies that are aligned with their values.

Natasha is a 29-year-old ex-marketing agent who used to work for a company in the UK. She quit her job in October due to what she describes as a toxic workplace culture, and is now travelling Central America.

“I was paid very little and my boss kept asking more of me, but however hard I worked it wasn’t good enough,” she recalls. “I’m not sure what I want to do in my career next. I want to stay in marketing but I think I need to find the right company.”

The money problem

Like many workplace issues, the money problem cannot be ignored. The UK has some of the highest living costs in the world. Combined with the current poor economy, today’s salaries stretch far less for workers.

Dissatisfaction with wages is another issue our commenters named – and one they argued could be solved by leaving Old Blighty and its extortionate living costs behind.

Alice Martin is a 24-year-old copywriter. Having previously worked in London, she quit her job at the end of January to travel around Vietnam, where the average pint costs 80p.

“It’s very hard to enjoy a good standard of living in a decent area at the moment,” Martin says. “I don’t think wages are keeping up with the cost of living in London, especially for entry roles. People my age are living to work, rather than having a healthy work-life balance.”

The trend will continue as long as the current cost of living crisis refuses to abate. Indeed, university graduates report feeling unhappy with the average wages being offered by today’s starter roles – no doubt a reason why many aren’t sticking around.

How to travel and work at the same time

The modern world of working has sent an entire generation on holiday, with young people increasingly going on a gap year early on in their career. But for those who don’t want to come back – what then?

The answer has already arrived, in the form of remote working. Digital jobs have been popularised at the opportune moment, offering young people the freedom to work whenever they want (it’s no wonder Gen Zers value flexible working as much as a pay rise).

With the world opening up, junior employees are now having their cake and eating it by accepting a UK job but working abroad with a digital nomad visa.

The permit is offered by more than 40 countries across the globe, and grants workers the right to legally live in another country. It’s something Martin is hoping to begin in South East Asia.

“I previously worked remotely for a month, got the travel bug and realised that it’s much cheaper and a better quality of life abroad compared with London, especially in the Winter,” she reveals. “That’s my goal this year, to build my career while seeing the world.”

Some might argue that your twenties are traditionally for establishing your profession. But in truth, the ‘traditions’ of the UK workplace are fading fast for Gen Z – the group who will overtake the number of baby boomers in the workforce this year.

“Everyone is on their own schedule and your twenties are for trying lots of things,” Martin says. “I don’t want to work online forever. But I think I’ve got a good stint of wanderlust in me before I move back.”

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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