Should you take a sabbatical year abroad?

  • jeune etudiante
Published on 2024-04-12 at 10:00 by Asaël Häzaq
Taking a sabbatical year abroad is considered a character-building experience that fosters personal growth and prepares young people for the working world in a unique way. It can also be their first time living in another country. While popular in some countries, the concept of a sabbatical year is far from universally embraced. Some countries worry about the "gap" it creates on a resume and other negative impressions it might leave with recruiters. Let's have a closer look.

A stepping stone to expat life

In Nordic countries, Australia, Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, sabbatical years are more ingrained in the culture. Of course, there's variation between countries and over time. For example, the number of young Danes taking sabbaticals is declining. But the tradition persists. These countries make it easier to take a sabbatical year. Their education systems allow for more breaks, and parents generally recognize the benefits.

In fact, many who take sabbaticals use them to go abroad. It's a chance for young travelers to experience living abroad, often for the first time. It's also an opportunity to explore a new professional world unless they choose to work in their existing field. In any case, travelers encounter a new culture, way of life, and work style. Several options exist for those wanting to experience expat life during a sabbatical, including international solidarity missions and working holiday visas.

International Volunteering and Solidarity Programs

There are many ways to volunteer abroad through various organizations. International Volunteering (IV) allows young European Economic Area (EEA) citizens aged 18–28 to work abroad for 6–24 months. This isn't unpaid work; it's a paid position within a company or administration (with a fixed allowance).

Another program, International Solidarity Volunteering (ISV), allows travelers to participate in a mission abroad with an approved organization. Again, this is a paid opportunity. Unlike IV, ISV has no age or nationality requirements. However, it's primarily aimed at graduates with some initial professional experience. ISV placements are mainly in healthcare, education, urban and rural development, and emergency response. In contrast, IV accepts people with all types of backgrounds and experiences.

Working Holiday Visas (WHVs)

The WHV (working holiday visa), allows eligible people to travel abroad, usually for one year. This makes it a perfect option for a sabbatical year. Generally, applicants for the Visa must be between 18 and 30 years old, with some exceptions for certain nationalities. For example, French citizens can apply for a WHV in Australia or Canada until they are 35. The WHV results from a bilateral agreement between partner countries that determines the eligibility criteria. This explains why destinations and visa durations may vary depending on nationality. The working holiday visa offers the advantages of traveling, living, and working in the host country for 1 year (or longer, depending on the bilateral agreement). It also provides the opportunity to take language courses. Since borders have reopened, countries are striving to regain, and even exceed, their pre-Covid numbers of working holiday visa holders.

Benefits of taking a sabbatical year abroad

There are numerous social and professional benefits to spending a sabbatical year abroad. Typically taken between the end of one educational cycle and the beginning of another, a sabbatical year is a unique opportunity to learn differently. It's anything but a year of idleness; rather, it's an adventure filled with new experiences and encounters.

Proponents of sabbatical years also highlight the professional advantages for young people who choose to go abroad. They gain unique experiences that make them more independent, resourceful, and employable. They encounter another culture and a different working world, and they may learn a new language. The health crisis has reignited the desire for sabbatical years, not just among young adults.

The sabbatical year is not accepted everywhere

France, like Belgium, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, South Korea, and Japan, hasn't fully embraced the concept of a sabbatical year. The United States also has reservations about taking a year off "without a good reason," although the gap year is slowly gaining traction. International relocation, self-discovery, and all the positive aspects of travel and meeting new people aren't always considered valid reasons for a break. In these countries, a gap year is often seen as a wasted year.

Education systems and culture play a significant role here. In France and Japan, for example, academic paths are largely predetermined from primary school onwards. In high school, students must choose their career paths, which creates early pressure. This pressure continues after high school as students strive for the best results to secure a spot in higher education. In Japan, job interviews begin during the final years of study; companies come to recruit the best people before the student has even graduated. Taking a sabbatical year during this period to go abroad is almost impossible.

Sabbatical year: By choice or obligation

It's also important to consider whether a sabbatical year is truly desired. In some cases, it may be forced rather than chosen. This might be the case for students who weren't accepted into their program of choice. While not ideal, this unplanned sabbatical year can be used strategically. Students can fill knowledge gaps, learn a foreign language, take additional training, or pursue other activities to improve their chances of success the following year. This way, they can turn a forced break into a productive one.

Anticipated expatriation?

Why is there reluctance towards sabbatical years in some countries? Parents and professionals often view young people taking a sabbatical year abroad unfavorably. Working abroad for an internship, on the other hand, might be seen as more acceptable because it's still within the framework of their studies. However, taking a whole year off, like taking leave, raises concerns among skeptics. It is often seen as a way to escape responsibilities and prioritize "adventure" over career progress. Parents may worry that their child will "fall behind" during their year off, a setback that could affect them "for their whole lives." They fear their child won't be able to "get back on track" with their studies or work, struggle to explain the "gap" in their resume, and ultimately be rejected from the working world.

The fear of a "gap in the resume" is still prevalent, both for those staying in their home countries and for expatriates. For expatriates, there's the additional challenge of adapting to the foreign country's culture. In South Korea or Japan, for example, resumes are very formal and don't offer much space to explain an educational background. They might simply list their career history year by year. French work culture also traditionally favors a "gap-free resume," although things are slowly changing with a growing interest in a candidate's personality. This is precisely where expatriates can leverage their experiences.

Recognition of the benefits of a sabbatical year: Slow progress

In countries resistant to taking breaks, not working is often seen as a sign of weakness and lack of motivation. However, cultures embracing sabbatical years argue it's not just a simple break. Students in gap years are still active but in a different way. They explore new countries, meet other people and cultures, and discover new professions or different ways of practicing their chosen fields. These experiences can lead to valuable technical skills (hard skills) and social skills (soft skills).

The situation is changing, even in countries without a strong sabbatical year tradition. In France or the United States, there's more openness to unconventional resumes. The "gap" in a resume is no longer seen as a flaw but rather as an asset. In today's world, where soft skills are valued as much as hard skills, the profile of an expatriate can be very attractive to universities and companies. Living abroad helps develop a wide range of skills. The traveler discovers and integrates a new culture, including new norms, values, ways of thinking, and working styles. They learn to compare these experiences with their own backgrounds and adapt their behavior accordingly. They may learn a new language and assimilate new codes of conduct. This process of self-reflection, deconstruction, and rebuilding is highly valued in a world that prioritizes teamwork, compromise, negotiation skills, and autonomy.

Even employees are getting into the act. Although subject to debates similar to those of the sabbatical year, sabbatical leave is gaining popularity. Employees are seeking opportunities to redefine themselves, pursue other professional projects, and experience living abroad. The conversation around sabbatical years is definitely evolving.