The Ball & Chain: Brief Study of Millennials and Career Breaks

Screen Shot 2018-12-11 at 5.34.44 PM.png

In this research plan, I focused on understanding the details leading up to young persons wanting to take extended sabbaticals, gap years, career breaks, and travel to “find” themselves. I am also curious about which places they plan to travel to, and which places they claim to have “found” themselves in — a variant of the broad topic of “planning a vacation”.

Questions I asked at the beginning were as follows: Is it ever possible to make this act of taking extended travel time less of an abrupt halt to young people’s career paths? How new or unique are these questions I am asking? Has there been similar research on this specific subject? Do people really need to quit their jobs in order to sate their wanderlust? Is it possible to achieve a balance?

Ways in which I found my insights included Co-Design sessions and interviews in additional to a general audit of existing articles and literature in learning more about the custom of the gap year and career breaks custom.

Through interviews, I have found that even though it is true human beings have a deeply ingrained need to wander and explore, the past decades, there has been a mounting general sense of anxiety among young people. This kind of anxiety and uncertainty often pushes this generation to step back from their careers in order to either take control of their lives, or transition into periods of hyper-growth and personal development.

In addition, through a co-design session,  I came to discover and understand differences in which we hold our values in relation to the values that may be imposed on us by many companies and workplaces.

At first, I had some initial hypothesis I have about these issues. I wondered if human beings were born to explore, and that it is the workplace that is unnatural to us. I suspected that there is something deeply wrong with society.

Literature Review
Through some basic audit of resource on the internet, I found many existing rituals built within varying cultures that seem extremely similar to this topc of gap year:

Rumspringa is the period of adolescence in Amish societies. Though it begins at the age of 16, it could extend to 21 or older for some societies such as the Wenger Mennonites of Eastern Pennsylvania. During Rumspringa, young members of the Amish community are allowed freedom to explore the outside world and partake in modern habits such as driving cars, watching movies, even drinking alcohol. During this time, participants are not yet under the authority of the church. At the end of this period, they are given a choice to stay Amish or join the modern world.

Hajj is a holy pilgrimage performed by members of the Islam faith. All Muslims are required to partake in this trip at least once in their lifetime. During the five-day pilgrimate, participants travel to a sacred place called Mecca and take part in a series of rituals that brings unity among their faith. These rituals involve changing their outward appearance to represent giving up worldly appearance.

Wanderjahre is a transition period before becoming a craftsman for traditional apprentices in Germany. For three years and one day, the apprentice will travel about and practice their skills in different workshops in order to complete their training to become a master.

From this quick review of existing practices in different cultures, I have concluded that taking time to explore and transition between growth stages had always been a natural part of human societies.

Participants and inquiry. For initial interview stages, I talked to three individuals, all three of whom took extended breaks in transitions between growth periods of their life. Two interviewees expressed that their career breaks and gaps were taken when they felt it was appropriate for a life change, or that they were stuck in a “rut”, confirming my initial hypothesis that this yearning to travel is built-in to the human instinct.

However, one participant was different. She had very similar worldview in which she believed that jobs were things that held her back, and that she would be willing to just quit positions every once in awhile on principle. However, this interviewee also told me that she constantly steps away and travels as a reaction to events that happen. For example, she once took a summer off to travel to Asia after breaking up with her boyfriend. Recently she took an extended trip to Iceland after turning 30 years old. The interviewee told me that she believes she and her friends are driven to this by a constant “cloud” of anxiety that permeates society now.

This interview in particular was very important to my research in that it challenged my initial suspicions and gave me new insights. At this point, I made these three insights:

It is already deeply ingrained in our nature to wander, to travel, and to take extended pauses in our lifes during periods of transition. “Gap years” are only new in name. My observations of existing traditional customs show that these practices are actually quite old and that our post-industrial society has simply “forgotten” them.

This current generation feels an inordinate amount of anxiety and uncertainty compared to Gen X and Baby Boomers. Millennials are compelled to stop 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.

Therefore, there is a “push-pull” kind of interaction and dynamic between millennials and their current environment that they wish to take breaks from. 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.

The participatory design exercise was a challenge in that much of the expectations needed was to understand values that may or may not be unspoken or intangible to users. I realized that many of the reasons there is both a pull felt by young workers to exit their companies for periods of break, or that there is a push of anxiety that drives them away is a misalignment of values.

Therefore, my co-design session involved activities in which participants “played” with and wagered their value and belief systems. In my activities I planned for participants to list out these values: Family, Education, Self-Discovery, Love, Travel, Spirituality, and Social Good. In my original plan, they were to rate these values against one another in terms of how much they think about them on a daily basis, and the anxiety derived from them through the use of stickers, after which they chose three values that were non-negotiable.

Originally I had assumed that the non-negotiable activities may vary from person to person, in that everyone looks for something different in life. However, during the actual session, participants all circled Family, Love, and Self-discovery in different orders.

Artifact from Participatory Design Session

Artifact from Participatory Design Session

Upon realizing that my co-design session had took an unexpected, but interesting turn, I quickly adjusted my plan. Instead of having my participants compare their differences, I had a round table discussion of their similarities. During the discussion, participants all revealed that in order to make up for one, they would give up the other. For example, one participants loves traveling, but valued her family more. Whenever faced with the prospect of spending less time with her family, she would travel less. Another participant decided that he wanted to cut down his Master’s program length by half in order to spend more time with his girlfriend.

Another topic participants discussed during their round table discussion was the change in how they ranked these three primary values during different times in their personal development. A participant noted that she used to set self-discovery as her top priority. However, as she matured, she would often sacrifice her time and career to instead spend more time with family.

Role Play
In my research afterward, I performed a role play exercise with my partner. This roleplay was quite different in which, instead of a physical product or service that we tested out, she played the role of an individual at a life transition.

My partner decided that for her roleplay, she would take a gap year for love. She just broke up with her boyfriend and she decided to quit her job and take the summer off. She imagined that in this particular case, the exit from the workforce would be a slower transition; she would give 2 weeks of notice and spend that time training her replacement. My partner speculated that she would also spend the fortnight planning her trip; two months in thailand before coming home and looking for work.

I have performed two synthesises for my findings: before, and after.

Preliminary Concept Map
Before formally beginning my research, I sought to define the scope of the reality in which I was exploring. I realize that it was not only about gap year, but the triad of gap years, sabbaticals, and career breaks.

Preliminary Concept Map

Stakeholder Map, aka the Circle of Needs
After the co-design session, I realized that the other stakeholders in this kind of scenario. In addition to their relation to the primary stakeholder, they also exist in the primary stakeholder’s world corresponding to the primary stakeholder’s values and aspirations. Similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I believe that most people would want all sides of this circle to be fulfilled in some way. From my co-design session, I have also realized that many people may seek to overcompensate one value for the other; however, as they grow and mature, they will seek to make up with that “debt” later on. It is when there is a value misalignment with their work-life and no way of allowing the workplace to suit their needs, that the young worker leaves.

Circle of Needs (Stakeholder Map)


Product Opportunity
It is my recommendation that company hiring departments create a service that seeks to fulfill these “hidden” needs unearthed in the co-design session. Of the values discussed in that session (love, family, self discovery, social good, education, and spirituality), three values, love, family, and self discovery, participants would not compromise on, and will not choose work over.

Companies often offer compensation to attract talent by fulfilling needs on other sides of the circle, such as education (Emirates), travel (Google), or social good (Patagonia). However, it is these “inward” dimensions to workers’ value systems that not many companies are seeking to fulfill, which results in that company losing the talented employee.

A good solution to reducing the turnover of talented employees MUST allow flexibility of time beyond vacation, sick days, or work from home. There must be a framework in place that not only allows extended periods of absence without punitive measures, but the encouragement of the employee to leave the workforce for periods of time and be allowed to come back.

This solution COULD additionally nurture the employee by taking a more proactive role in their personal growth in making way for a love life or self discovery by taking initiative to understand individual aspirations. This could be done with ways such as counseling exercises or initiatives to improve relations between employee-direct supervisor dynamics. However way of implementation, this solution SHOULD act in a non-intrusive way to respects privacy.


Horse-and-buggy Mennonites: Hoofbeats Of Humility in a Postmodern World

Donald Kraybill-James Hurd - Pennsylvania State Univ. Press - 2007


What Is the Hajj? Everything You Need To Know About Islam's Holy Pilgrimage

Jack Kubovich20-Nir Hassonyesterday- Noa-Amos Harel21-Gideon Levacyesterday-Ayelett Shaniyesterday-Noa Shpigelyesterday- Associated Press -

Funny Looking Hobos? Craftsmen Awandering - Spiegel Online - International


Brian XiaoComment