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The Rise of the Grey Gappers

By Blanche Delany

Last updated: 4th July 2012

With university fees increasing to £9,000 a year for students starting in September 2012, the average debt on graduation is estimated to be around the £56,000 mark. That’s some serious debt. Combine this with the pressures of attaining good qualifications in order to secure employment in the increasingly competitive workplace, and there seems to be a growing desperation for students to jump on the higher education bandwagon after school and battle it out for graduate job schemes.

Consequently, there has been a decline in recent years of the number of students opting to travel for a year between school and university, as the rise in financial pressures means that spending savings on travel is often an impractical option for young people.

Furthermore, the 2012 High Fliers survey states that the number of students planning a year off after graduation has dropped to a mere 12%, highlighting that taking a year out post-university is also not a popular option for the majority.

Needless to say, it’s a daunting prospect; the pressure is on for the under 25s.

However, while there has been a decline in young people opting to gap year, there has conversely been a rise in the number of over 50s taking sabbaticals or long-duration holidays in order to travel. This is the phenomenon of ‘grey gappers’- a demographic of travellers who are essentially filling the void in the gap year market that has been left by their children and grandchildren’s generation.

The growing presence of grey gappers can be attributed to several key factors. Crucially, the over 50s have fewer constraints to consider when planning their travels. With both time and money at their disposal, grey gappers share similar advantages to ‘flash packers’, surpassing the budget travel plans of students and taking a more luxurious approach to seeing the world.

With a huge range of gap year companies on the market these days there is no shortage of trips to choose from, with AustraliaNew Zealand and America among the most popular destinations for grey gappers. The ease of travel and huge variety of destinations to choose from has heightened temptations to leave behind the monotony of daily life, and it’s evident that the allure of the travelling bug is spreading to older generations.

Ask any parent whose child has taken off on a globetrotting year to see South East Asia, or Australia, or South America, and I expect the majority of them will harbour the same feelings of jealousy that the peers of gap yearing students feel.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, grey gappers are frequently involved in philanthropic volunteer projects, thanks to previous experience that they may have in a particular field such as teaching or nursing. Needless to say, the experiences of grey gappers will be radically different to the ‘conventional’ gap year of a 19 year old; not only will they travel in much more comfort away from the shoestring budget that students adhere to, but there will also be a limited likelihood of them rocking up to a Full Moon Party in Thailand, or at the Nevis Bungee Jump in New Zealand. For grey gappers, the cultural experience and variety in ways of life are some of the most influential factors in the decision to travel, and the opportunity to see places which were not easy to see twenty or thirty years ago offers the chance to fulfil lifetime travel ambitions.

Furthermore, at this age people are free of constant lurking thoughts such as ‘will this be boosting my CV?’ and ‘what am I going to do when I get home?’ As a result, there is a greater sense of freedom to the more aged traveller; for them a gap year (or however long they choose to stay) is truly time spent away from normal life, and a chance to do something extraordinary.

Once children have flown the nest and the over 50s are faced with the prospect of freedom and spare time, these generations are increasingly taking the ‘why not?’ attitude towards global travel. And indeed, why not?

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