Have We Forgotten to Wander?

Research Overview

For this research topic, I have conducted interviews as well as secondary research techniques in learning more about the custom of millennials taking gap years and career breaks. 

At first, I had a hypothesis that gap years are a somewhat new custom that is unique to our generation. The millennial generation and rise of the “gig” economy have led to our valuing freedom over job stability, something that is very different than the habits of Gen X or Baby Boomers.

However, this hypothesis changed as I delved into secondary research regarding not only the gap years of millennials but similar migration and life transition patterns of human beings throughout history. I realized that even though in these modern times, there is a stigma against quitting work or taking long career breaks for self-reflection, generations before us have had similar customs such as Rumspringa or journeymen.

At first, I became sure that these kinds of behaviors have always been present in our instincts, and that there is something deeply flawed with modern society in that companies usually do not allow employees to take full years off. However, a session with one interviewee made me realize that other psychological reasons drive young people to travel as a reaction to events.

Insight: It is already deeply ingrained in our nature to wander, to travel, and to take extended pauses in our lifes during periods of transition or “hyper-personal-growth”

I have made this insight in researching similar habits of past generations. This idea of “gap years” are only new in name. Customs such as Rumspringa, Islamic Hajj pilgrimage, Tibetan Kora, and traditional Journeyman customs of Bavarian apprentices (Wanderjahre), all show that these practices are actually quite old and that our post-industrial society has simply “forgotten” them.

Insight: This current generation feels an inordinate amount of anxiety and uncertainty compared to Gen X and Baby Boomers

During one of my interviews, I realized that many millennials are compelled to stop and take a gap year or extended break as a reaction to the mounting anxieties in dealing with a rapidly changing environment. This is not only a natural mental state of human nature, but a way of reacting to a seemingly hostile world.

Insight: There is a “push-pull” kind of interaction and dynamic between millennials and their current environment that they wish to take breaks from 

Another big insight I realized was that both kinds of states exist for many millennials taking gap years, often within the same “trip”. Wanderlust and exploration is such a large part of being human that we are “pulled” to take sabbaticals by it. However, at the same time, we are “pushed” away by a rapidly changing post-industrial society that fosters a culture of anxiety. Understanding these two kinds of dynamics can help us build a good UX framework to create better services and environments for the next generations of travel and human resource methods.

Brian XiaoComment