THE gap year was never an option for school-leavers when I was a teenager.
Back in the unimaginative 1970s we went straight into employment, on to the dole or to college.
Our parents belonged to a generation that had seen leaner times – wartime even – and there was a strong work ethic. We were encouraged to earn our keep as soon as possible.
My father’s gap year between leaving school and gainful employment in a bank was spent fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. He saw no reason why I or my brother should want to venture there.
In a sense he was the first, and so far the only, member of my family to travel the world before settling down to a job and family.
Today, of course, the gap year has become so popular, almost de rigeur, that a vast industry has evolved to deal with it.
An inevitable consequence of this is that from time to time the news headlines speak of tragedies in far-flung corners of the world in which promising young lives are snuffed out.
This week began with such a story.
Four young women were bound for a charity project in Ecuador, the sort of girls who were high achievers from good, supportive families. They were killed in a bus crash on their way to work for a charity project, along with a fifth British woman, a trip leader.
Radio programmes throughout the week have debated the pluses and minuses of gap year travelling.
Parents and students alike have rung in to defend the life-enhancing benefits of travel and the fact that most young people return home safely and with their horizons well and truly expanded.
“They grow up in that year,” said one mother.
In fact, few seem to think that gap years are anything other than beneficial, because even if a young person ends up somewhere they don’t like, doing something they hate, it’s all considered to be valuable experience and life-affirming.
It’s not difficult to see the appeal of setting off with a backpack. To be young is to be adventurous. At 18 I would have happily slept in a tent for six months and risked life and limb on Third World public transport.
Today I require an air-conditioned bedroom with clean sheets and a fast jet from A to B with a swimming pool waiting for me at B.
Part of me is, however, thankful that Firstborn has decided to go straight to university at the end of this year if he gets the grades..
Instead of a gap year he’s having a gap month; four weeks travelling around China, using the country’s long-distance rail network. It will be an opportunity for him and his two companions to use their hard-learned Chinese and see some of the country outside the showcase capital Beijing. He’s avoiding the Olympics and has promised not to mention the word Tibet.
The gap month is, I feel, an excellent compromise. He still gets to travel in a more relaxed fashion than a two-week holiday would allow while I only have to worry for July instead of a year.
What’s more, a month can be funded by his birthday and Christmas money (China is still cheap); a year could not.
Even so I’m starting to get the heebie jeebies.
Just why travelling has become so popular among young people is an interesting question.
Without a doubt it’s now cheaper and easier than ever before to get around the world and the current young generation, hardened to debt by student loans and top-up fees, thinks nothing of borrowing money for its pleasures.
One of the gap year promoters, speaking after this week’s tragedy, said he thought that Britain today was such a ‘benign’ and safe place to live that young people craved excitement and danger.
Another commentator pointed out that many children today lead relatively affluent, easy lives, and when they reach 18 want to, quite literally, find out how the other half of the world lives.
And so they travel to countries where there is no Health and Safety Executive to wrap them in cotton wool; where malaria still kills and children still die for want of clean drinking water.
They take risks with their lives, while living life to the full and, just occasionally, break their parent’s hearts.