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Planning for a Career Break with a Gap Year for Grown Ups

We all fantasize about taking extended time off from work. But acting on this impulse is a daunting prospect. The practical implications for our careers, families, and daily responsibilities must be carefully worked through. While younger people tend to have fewer commitments, individuals in their 40s and 50s will be more likely to have the financial and professional security to allow a smoother return to professional life following a gap.

A career break involves a number of stages, beginning with summoning up the confidence and determination to go ahead. Then it’s persuading your employer, tackling the practicalities, enjoying the break, and finally re-entering “real life.”

Those who choose to step off the conveyor belt of their day-to-day lives are motivated not by a desire to further their careers but by a craving for new experiences and by a conviction that not all events which make up one’s life need to be success-oriented (in a culture whose definition of “success” can be limited to the materialistic).

The Nuts and Bolts

Having made a commitment to negotiate a sabbatical, the next step is to clarify your position financially and personally. Inevitably, funding a period of time in your life without a salary is going to be expensive, especially if this time includes extensive travel. Make an audit of all your responsibilities outside work that will need to be put into mothballs. Set out a rigorous budget to increase your level of savings. If you intend to do something charitable during your break, it might be possible to mount some fundraising activities in your local community.

A sensible option for homeowners who wish to travel is to make use of your empty home to generate income. Bear in mind that the cost of living in Ecuador or Nepal will be a fraction of what it would be at home.

Renting Your Home

If you are planning to leave your home for an extended period, you have four options: leave the property unoccupied, ask a friend or contact to house-sit, find a tenant either independently or through a rental agency, or register with a house-swapping agency.

Those who are uncomfortable with the idea of strangers living in their house should be assured that thousands of people each year are delighted at how easy it is. An agency will screen applicants, collect rent, and deal with problems in your absence — all at a price. Most agencies charge a fee of at least 10 percent of the rent. It is cheaper and more friendly to organize the rental independently. The rise of the Internet has made it easier to locate suitable tenants as well as to keep better tabs on them, especially if they are email users.

The tried and tested method of finding a tenant is to advertise in the local newspaper, magazine, or web site read by the kind of people you want as tenants. Always ask prospective tenants to supply references from their current employer, bank, and previous landlord.

House Swapping

Another option to explore is swapping your home and sometimes also your car with a family in the city or country that you want to visit. Exchanging houses not only saves housing costs, it immediately takes you off the tourist trail and sets you down in a real neighborhood. The two main requirements are that you be willing to spend at least a few weeks in one place and that you have a decent house in a potentially desirable location. Most swaps are arranged six months or more in advance.

Many home exchange agencies are available to match up compatible swappers. Swaps are usually arranged for short breaks of up to a month in the summer (especially popular with teachers), but longer ones are possible. The great advantage of a home swap is that this is not a commercial transaction, so the costs are minimal.

How to Spend Your Break

A career break is an ideal opportunity to immerse yourself for several months in an old or new interest — from Mandarin to massage, computing to archaeology. Perhaps you have discovered something while on holiday — like a foreign language, art, diving, or cooking — that you want to pursue in more depth.

Volunteering through an agency or charity is popular not only because of the contribution you might make to the sum of human happiness but because of the logistical support an agency can provide. Finding some kind of paid work will be more difficult but not impossible. Going abroad to take an academic or recreational course provides the perfect career break for some.

Lifelong Learning

There is no comparison between taking an evening class in Italian in your local community center and learning Italian in Pisa or Palermo, or between studying Irish poetry at home and joining a course on Gaelic culture in Ireland. Many organizations offer courses abroad that combine language tuition with cultural and other studies. While learning Spanish in Andalucia you can also take lessons in Flamenco dance; while vacationing in Costa Rica you can join a conservation project; while studying Italian in Florence you can study drawing.

In some countries, studying might be a way of obtaining an otherwise elusive long-stay visa. For example, a student visa for Brazil to study Portuguese means you don’t have to leave the country at regular intervals to renew.

You are permitted to work in Japan (which normally takes the form of teaching English) for up to 20 hours a week on a cultural or student visa. Cultural visas are granted to foreigners who find a sponsoring teacher to teach them some aspect of traditional Japanese culture such as shodo (calligraphy), taiko (drumming), karate, aikido, ikebana (flower arranging), and ochakai (tea ceremony).

Taking a career break is a luxury, a benefit of a wealthy society. If you suggested the concept to, say, a Nepali porter or a Bolivian taxi driver, they would think you were from Mars. But in the privileged West, people from many backgrounds, not just a privileged few, have the freedom to exercise the choice to put their professional lives temporarily on hold, a freedom to be cherished and not wasted.

Renting Your Home: Practical Steps

• Notify your mortgage lender and insurance company that you intend to rent the property. Putting your valuables into storage might actually lower the cost of homeowners’ insurance.

• Agree upon a method of rent payment with the tenant — preferably evidence that a monthly payment will automatically be paid into your account or a set of post-dated checks which you or a trusted proxy can pay into your account.

• Put away valuables plus any items you would be heartbroken to see damaged.

• Read the utility meters right before departure.

• Prepare a file with all relevant instruction manuals, guarantees, or insurance for appliances.

• If tenants are new to the area, a few tips on local shops, services, bars and restaurants, physicians, etc. will be appreciated.

• Pick up a mail-forwarding application form from the post office.

• Cancel subscriptions to newspapers, book clubs, window washing services, etc.

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