Forget Everything You Think You Know About Gap Years

You there. Yes, you. It'll be quick, we promise.

Did you know that the price tag for a four-year degree has nearly quadrupled since the 1980s? That the numbers of both aspiring applicants and college applications are increasing year on year, while acceptance rates sink lower and lower? That experts worry that stress tied to academic achievement is contributing to health problems?

You know all this already because you're already living it? Moving on, then...

It is no secret that today's Millennials are an impatient generation. Conversation is more likely to occur online than in person, and the pace of everyday life grows quicker and less focused. From Facebook and Instagram, to job searches and promotions, young people today expect immediate feedback.

Still with us?

A new study by the Pew Research Center shows that Millennials are losing confidence in traditional institutions, like government and the church. This trend folds over to community engagement as well: the number of Americans that serve in civic, political, professional, and international organizations has decreased by almost half since 1989.

It's not your fault. Coming of age in the midst of partisan gridlock and church scandals, who can blame you?

It isn't surprising that Millennials, navigating less linear careers than their parents, aren't joiners per se. Instead of taking over the family business, they are more likely to strike out on their own: according to the 2011 Kauffman Index, 20-34 year olds made up approximately one-third of new entrepreneurial activity in the United States.

Did we mention our nation's service gap is widening?

The U.S. boasts a rich tradition of service. From military service and the Peace Corps, to bake sales and blood drives, community service is in our DNA. Having walked the hallowed halls of the United States Military Academy at West Point, we view military service as a meaningful and honorable path to serve one's country. However, we must broaden our collective understanding of what service means and what it looks like.

How should we look at it then?

To us, it's simple. First, no one form of service trumps another. Both formal and informal paths of can enrich our local communities, nation and world. Second, benefiting others and improving oneself are not mutually exclusive. In a 2009 study, researchers at Notre Dame found that "having an identified purpose in life is associated with greater life satisfaction at all stages of life." Third, we must empower socially concerned youth -- research shows that the younger generations of Americans care more about social justice than ever before -- to act.

Recent decades have seen the influx of highly impactful alternative paths. In the early 1980s, Bill Drayton created the largest network of social entrepreneurs in the world; his Ashoka Fellows are empowered to tackle problems from a grassroots perspective. Other organizations like Ushahidi, Circle of 6, Nextdoor and Dorm Room Diplomacy have pushed the envelope of social innovation by leveraging technology. If you see a time-sensitive problem today, why wait?

"But my dad said he'd disown me if..."

Parents care. That's their job. A concerned parent can rest assured that universities recognize that students who have taken constructive gap years return to their education with greater life and professional experience. Oftentimes, these are the very students who have greater context or focus for their studies, as informed by their time away from traditional education.

Whether building apps in Silicon Valley, WWOOFing on an organic farm in Argentina or providing humanitarian aid as a uniformed service-member, you are learning and growing. Returning to school with greater awareness of both oneself and the broader world hardly sounds problematic.

All too often, high school seniors and recent college graduates simply take the next step without reflecting deliberately on their interests and goals. Well-intended young people want to make good decisions, but often lack guidance or support.

I see the gap, should I "mind" it?

Taking a gap year is hardly a revolutionary idea. Our European and Australian counterparts are champs at it. Nonetheless, many view this time as a setback, a waste of time, money and the chance to get a jump on that all-important career. This is short-sighted.

American families must reframe the gap year as a win-win. Let's turn this time into the most productive and influential opportunity young professionals have, setting the stage for future gains -- personally and professionally, individually and societally. Why not harness raw energy, creativity and digital fluency, and channel these strengths?


Impatience isn't a bad thing when it leads problem-solvers to identify smarter, better, less expensive solutions, all the while helping caring people better hone their strengths and ultimate passions. We see no reason why constructive impatience can't be brought to bear on challenges: climate change, economic inequality, and beyond.

Previous generations created many of the problems facing the world today, but pointing fingers does little good. We are neither naïve nor arrogant enough to count on Millennials to solve all of society's ills. We laud the Greatest Generation's past example, but we're living for today and tomorrow.

Society has no shortage of challenges; we also have multiple paths toward tackling them. What keeps us up at night is that too few give themselves permission to try something other than the well-trodden path.

With parents' support and guidance, we can envision a culture of service in which it is not only socially acceptable to take a gap year to serve, but in which service is the cool thing to do. Call them "service hipsters."

Dude, have you met them? They're amazing.

Rather than getting caught up in the rat race of tests and applications, evidence suggests society is better off relieving some pressure and helping young adults find their impact sooner. Consider the return-on-investment of that $200,000 student loan. If you're a Millennial or care about one, having the time and space to grow, learn, contribute makes good dollars and sense for all involved.

So go ahead and be impatient. And don't mind the gap.

*The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.