The “Gap Year” Complex

Perhaps you have seen photos posted on Facebook of Canadian students on working holidays in impoverished countries. They are surrounded by new friends or maybe children with their arms slung over each other’s shoulders, though their bodies don’t actually touch. Their smiles show just a little too much tooth to be sincere, while their rigidly straight posture reveals that this is an entirely crafted moment.

The awkwardness of the situation is, in small ways, painfully visible.

A year spent abroad has become a rite of passage. It’s the cherry on top of a liberal education. Rightly so: it’s only by seeing where other people stand that we can really know where we are.

But why has taking a year off to travel become so intrinsically linked with helping the developing world? Why must we pretend we are helping others on what is in essence a self-serving mission?

The forebearer to the working holiday, or what the British call the “Gap Year”, was the Grand Tour of the 18th and 19th centuries. The English upper crust would tour continental Europe to take in the sights and refine their classical education. There was no pretense at accomplishing something for the people they were visiting. The aim was to learn, maybe also to get a little drunk and have a few sexual encounters along the way.

In the modern evolution of the Grand Tour, it is not enough to see the world: you have to save it. There are a host of organizations, not to mention the government, offering the chance for young Canadians to work overseas for non-profit organizations. And the poorer the country, the more street cred you get for having been there.

Wanting to help marginalized communities is in itself an honourable aim. But the current fad of working holidays seems to have its roots more in affectation than compassion. Thanks in part to a stream of celebrities making guest appearances in sub-Saharan Africa, humanitarianism has become something to imitate, and the apathetic indifference that defined cool in previous decades has been supplanted by a sense of social responsibility. Within this zeitgeist, the experience of having worked in a developing country has become a sort of fashion statement, much like a $200-dollar handbag made from recycled tires.

The problem is not with wanting to do something good but with the pretense of doing something good, as well as the notion that doing something good can be a byproduct of a holiday, accomplished by students who are themselves just learning how to function within their own society, never mind a foreign one.

It’s more than just a little arrogant to think that twenty-somethings from the developed world will be able to contribute meaningfully to a country they have never been to and can generally only hope to begin to understand over the course of a working holiday.

I say this from experience. Having been part of the hoardes of young Canadian who find themselves working for NGOs abroad, I can say that, despite some sincerely good intentions, what we had to offer was minimal compared to what we had to learn. Not to mention that working holidays are a cultural practice in which recent high school graduates suddenly find themselves in countries where alcohol is a third of the price of what it is in Canada.

This is not to say that programs that send young Canadians to work for NGOs in the developing world aren’t valuable. They are extremely valuable. You learn things that can’t be taught in a classroom and the cultural exchange is worthwhile for both sides of the equation. There is nothing wrong with that – but let’s be honest about who the main beneficiaries are and why we are doing it.

What is objectionable is pretence. The pretence that we are doing it for some other reasons than our own desire to be well-travelled, to gain a little respect for having lived without running water, and to have a few Facebook photos showing that we are socially-conscious people.

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