What the popularity of Gap Years tells us about Gen Z

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When Malia Obama announced her intentions to take a year off before attending Harvard University, the idea of a “Gap Year” was thrust to the forefront of the national conversation. Countless articles popped up detailing the increasing popularity of the trend and what benefits might arise from such a decision, but those same articles failed to answer the question of “why?” Why is the Gap Year so popular in younger generations, and what does that tell us about their personalities, goals, and preferences? Here are a couple of things the popularity of Gap Years tells us about the upcoming generation, Gen Z.

They want unique experiences

Talk to any 18-year-old freshman at a university, and you’ll find that most college experiences are eerily similar. General education class requirements and dorm living are a universal experience no matter what coast you live on—but if we know anything about the next generation, it is that they value individuality and uniqueness. Yet, what is unique about being one of 5,000 eighteen-year-olds on campus? A Gap Year, in contrast, allows for infinite possibilities. It can be spent travelling the world, volunteering, or working in more than a hundred different countries and cities. A person building houses in Guatemala is going to have a completely different journey from a person who travels to see and sketch priceless works of art in churches throughout Europe. A Gap Year can be an expression of individuality.

They see themselves as global citizens

One of the most popular options for Gap Years is international travel. While previous generations might have found a six-month trip backpacking through Japan, Thailand, India, and Peru quite daunting, Gen Z doesn’t. To them, the world has always been accessible. They have had access to food, clothing, and media from other countries their whole lives, so making the jump to travelling isn’t that big of a deal. That is not to say that travelling in this way will be easy or comfortable, but Gen Z delights at the thought. Their desire to travel and experience culture in an authentic fashion dictates that they avoid tourist traps and luxury hotels. Gen Z recognizes that discomfort builds character and resilience in ways that would be hard in the United States.

They want their higher education experience to be efficient

One of Gen Z’s defining characteristics is fiscal conservatism. Having grown up in the throes of the recession, Gen Z have seen firsthand the consequences of the housing bubble, credit card debt, and student loans making it into the six digits. They fear personal debt. Gen Z doesn’t want to waste time and money dawdling at a university for two years while they figure out their major. Gap Years are an alternative to that. They can be a great time for maturing and self-discovery. In fact, a joint study done by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Middlebury College found that Gap Year students have a higher college GPA than what would have been expected based on their high school GPA.

The rising popularity of Gap Years can tell us a lot about the upcoming generation, and a good understanding of their values and personalities can help us create a marketing strategy that resonates and works.