When it was announced that the ABC’s The Book Club will finish after the December 19 Christmas special, host Jennifer Byrne gave an intriguing response about what she’d do next.
She said she was “genuinely taking a break – I never took a gap year. I started work at 16″.
During her time off, Byrne, 62, plans to “explore the inner world”.
“I’ve seen lots of the outer world. I travelled to 15 countries in the last year and just returned from Borneo,” she said.
“But it’s time to shake off discipline, to play and explore – especially the natural world. I plan to climb lots of mountains and swim lots.”
Byrne isn’t alone in eyeing off an adult gap year. While it’s almost a rite of passage for school or university leavers to take off for adventure, it’s also becoming more common for adults who have built careers and families and want a new horizon.
Adamant she’s not retiring, Byrne feels it’s simply a well-earned break: “It’s not a spiritual or emotional crisis. I feel very active and positive about it. And I’ll still read – just at a different pace!”
The penny dropped when hearing Jimmy Barnes discuss his memoirs at Byron Bay’s book festival.
“He said, ‘I’ve been running away from anything internal my whole life – I just fill it with doing stuff’. That really resonated. I’ve busied myself and never stopped working. I want great jobs in the future, but I’ve worked long, hard and happily enough to be free for a while.”
For Cheryl Daley, 50, the catalyst to take a gap year was redundancy from a “very corporate” role as a risk manager at a large logistics company. She found herself in an almost identical role after just a month. But she felt restless.
“I had a baby at 19 and worked full-time all my life, so I decided I wanted to go to America’s Burning Man festival.”
But her request for annual leave to attend the festival was denied.
“I thought about all the times I’d sacrificed what I wanted to do, had allowed others to make decisions for me based on their needs. And I walked out,” she explains.
Burning Man kicked off a full gap year which saw Daley, then 46, cross the US in a RV over three months, live in Rio for two months and travel around Bali.
But before any of that, she had some explaining to do to her daughter, 25, who lived at home.
“Initially she said ‘Mum, I’m not sure this is a good idea – you’re just leaving everything, selling everything and starting over when you’re back?’ But she was supportive when she saw I had a plan.”
Her first moments at Burning Man were a baptism of fire.
“The first man I met handed me a drumstick and was completely naked. People didn’t even think it was weird, but I did!”
Before long, though, Daley was learning lessons she’d eventually take back to her new career running her own training company.
“Sixty-five thousand people come, build a city in the desert, then burn it down.”
In between, she saw “aspects you’d love to see in an organisational culture – everyone looks out for one another. Principles of self-reliance and self-expression reign. You can be whoever you want and express yourself in ways you can’t back home.”
A similar catalyst kick-started Anne McKeown’s gap year when she was 28.
“I left school at 18 and worked long hours for a big oil company for a decade. Early on I had a house and car, but felt empty. I couldn’t find meaning. I’d spent years helping petrol station owners build their business.
”Then my company told me to sack them all and replace them with managers. My boss said, if you don’t do it, someone else will. It challenged my values – so I was off.”
A year of volunteering in poor communities in Africa and India taught Anne “the meaning of life”.
“You find your purpose through helping others. The most real people are the most vulnerable – they’ve nothing to lose. I saw human nature at its rawest – without ego or hidden agendas; it was a real lesson for me, having been so ambitious so young. It changed my whole outlook on why we’re here.”
Now Anne uses that in her work as a life coach: “I help other women find a sense of who they are now, just like I did.”
When asked if they wish they’d done the more traditional backpacking trail when they were younger, both women are definitive.
McKeown says: “No – I’d have just gone with the drinking mob – it’d have been a completely different experience.”
Daley says: “It wouldn’t have given me the experience I needed to have. People thought I was crazy. They called it a mid-life crisis. But I called it something else.
“I called it a mid-life consciousness. I knew exactly what I was doing. And it was mind-blowing.”