Gap years: A new form of colonialism?

By Phil Lewis

Gap years.  The not-so-new rite of passage for liberal-minded middle class students.  A year full of life changing experiences, life affirming moments and tearful yet financially motivated phone calls home.  A time where, like true saints, parents will shell out £1000 of travel expenses so that Timothy can build a new toilet in a Peruvian village.

Gap years are now seriously big business.  Companies such as Real Gap Experience offer the chance to build a house in Costa Rica for £479 (1 week), to “experience” Botswana for £2522 (4 weeks) and to “assist” in a Malaysian zoo for a bargain £799 (4 weeks).  Previous experience doesn’t seem to matter.  As long as you can stump up the cash they are happy to have you.  Whether the staff at the Malaysian zoo have any say in who is thrust upon them is not mentioned.  Presumably they are expected to take whoever is thrown at them, even if it is an incompetent halfwit with a debilitating allergy to all forms of animal.  You may say that such a person would be unlikely to apply for an animal based experience, but you see my point.

And there is certainly something rather colonial about the whole operation.  The idea that a developing country is incredibly lucky to have a British student assist in their community for four weeks smacks alarmingly of old-school Western arrogance.  Who are we to thrust these (let’s face it) relatively unskilled and inexperienced youngsters at a community that has most likely been functioning perfectly well for centuries?  The use of these poorer countries for the development of our wealthy youngsters can fill you with a sense of unease.

In a 2011 report from think-tank Demos, one in five people said they did not think their presence in the place they visited made any positive difference to the lives of those around them.  And there is one good reason for this – they did not offer any discernible skill or service that the community needed.  The fact that this basic supply and demand concept of capitalism has been removed in the gap year trade is worrying.  You now buy your experiences rather than earning them.  It does not matter if a community needs a volunteer.  It does not matter that they may need a certain skill set.  They are getting what they are given because the young person in question has paid his deposit.

This is not to say that the gap year as a concept is discredited.  A friend of mine is currently on a gap year placement, working for six months as a concierge in a Chinese hotel.  He accessed the scheme through his school, and to my knowledge is unpaid.  But in return for this he gets full bed and board for six months in a rather nice hotel, a free intensive language course in Chinese and a proper job that quite frankly looks excellent on his CV.  The hotel in question gets a charming and hard working concierge for very little expense.  Both sides benefit.

I also know of two people in particular who have been on an organised gap year trip to the developing world and got an awful lot out of it.  But in both cases they went for a purpose – one to help with a building project, and one to teach English.  They felt needed.  And while they may not have been skilled workers as such, by all accounts they were put to good use.

The “Gap” experience then is inevitably subjective.  You may find yourself at the heart of a community in desperate need of an extra helping hand, or you may find yourself feeling unwanted and with an awful lot of free time (in a Malaysian zoo, for instance).

Many young people are still choosing more traditional routes of experiencing the world – seeing their little darlings embark on a month-long Inter-railing trip round Europe may still make parents go misty-eyed with nostalgia.  There’s the Camp America route, where one becomes a Camp Counsellor for a summer and sings the American national anthem with increasingly forced gusto at six every morning.  And for the unimaginative gapper there is still the fallback of going aimlessly to Australia in the hope of getting some bar work and meeting an attractive blond.

But the worrying trend of “packaged experiences” still makes up the bulk of the gap year market.  And the potential gapper would do well to examine such an experience closely before parting with any cash.  He could, with a stroke of luck, get all the positive character-building experiences a gap year can provide.  Or he could end up paying £799 to spend four weeks feeding a despondent chimp in a rather desolate Malaysian zoo.