Grown-up gap years: new horizons

They can help the less fortunate, leave a legacy and instead of having to rough it, stay in luxury accommodation

April 17, 2012 | By:

Voluntourism, combining travel with environmental or community work, is appealing to over-fifties seeking a more meaningful break. Oliver Bennett reports

Grown-up gap years

Leave the lounger behind: someone out there needs your help

When Karen Spicer, with her high50 years looming, travelled to Africa with BUNAC on a grown-up gap break, it was after several years of commuting to her job at the American University in London had become “all a bit Groundhog Day”.

She says: “I became conscious of the ‘now or never’ factor. My life revolved around work and I was constantly running from one place to the next.” So she decided to do some voluntary work abroad and went to work on a cheetah reserve in the Limpopo region, followed by teaching in South Africa. She loved it.


This is not the ‘Gap Yah’ of youthful folly, but part of the search for meaning in mid-life. Some take a year, others go for a sabbatical of various lengths (there’s even the ‘gap month’). But they are all part of a trend: older gappers, volunteers and sabbaticalists are a growing phenomenon. Six per cent of the adult population has been on a holiday involving a voluntourism component, according to Mintel, and a third of adults hope to do so.

Short projects, flexible timescales

The travel industry has noticed it and is starting to provide opportunities. Paul Bondsfield, head of marketing at Round The World Experts, says the company is taking an increasing number of bookings for voluntary projects from the over-fifties. He says: “Many choose short voluntary projects with flexible timescales – anything from two weeks up – that are part of a larger trip lasting for one to three months.”

These fellow travellers tend to follow traditional gap year-type routes, including Australia, South-East Asia and South America. But they have larger budgets than their younger counterparts, and treat themselves to nice hotels for the non-voluntary parts of their trip. So it’s a worthy, fruitful experience… but with proper lavatorial arrangements.

“They can help the less fortunate, leave a legacy and instead of having to rough it, stay in luxury accommodation,” says Chris Hill of Hands Up Holidays, another voluntourism firm.

The founder of adventure tourism company AdventureTemples, Rob Pendleton (who has himself enjoyed three ‘gap-year’ breaks), sees the grown-up gap movement as part of a larger search for significance that departs from mere leisure.

“We are no longer satisfied with run-of-the-mill holidays: all that luxurious five-star-plus-spa stuff,” says Pendleton. “I see travellers seeking destinations with memorable components, such as natural environment, community, culture, history or adventure.”

Marking a milestone

The need for breaks to mark life transitions is part of that, too. Indeed, the phenomenon may to some extent be driven by the contract culture and changes in work patterns. But perhaps the most important is Karen Spicer’s ‘now or never’ factor: after all, this may not be something you’ll be physically able to do after you retire.

Quinn Meyer, the MD of Crees, a rainforest conservation and community project in Peru, has a volunteer programme that started in 2005 and has witnessed the boom in over-fifties sabbaticals. “They have the nagging feeling that they didn’t see it all before,” he says. “Volunteering is an answer to this itch, as it mixes adventure with comfort and community.”

And crucially, it allows for a sniff of a life-change, while allowing the possibility of a safe return. The older volunteers for Crees tend to do four weeks or longer but can make do with a two-week tester.

Some destinations have noticed the size (and, possibly, the spending power) of this market, and go out of their way to attract them. Malaysia, for example, offers conservation holidays to Malaysian Borneo to help save the orang utan, through tourism company Great Projects.

Then there are the more difficult destinations, in which the apparatus of an organisation is helpful. Charley Habershon, co-founder of The Collective: Sierra Leone, finds experienced volunteers to do work that would be normally done by non-governmental organisations, even the UN.

“One worked in the electoral commission and led to an unprecedented increase in the number of people registering to vote in that area,” he says. If that isn’t giving back, what is?