Forget retirement, older bankers embrace grey gap year

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At 63-years-old, chartered accountant Robert found himself with a bit of time to spare. With 30 % of the UK's working population over retirement age, 60 is no longer considered the beginning of your twilight years. Robert was ready for an adventure. “With the help of Google I found myself looking at an interesting website offering mountain climbing, camel trekking and the like. The name ‘Madventurer’ struck me as evocative of a challenge, so I clicked on their website.”

In no time at all, Robert found himself on a flight from London to Accra to volunteer as a teacher in a school. At the airport he was met by “a charming girl” called Hannah in a very rugged looking Land Rover. “Some time later we arrived at ‘the Mad House’ headquarters of the Madventurer operations in Ghana and home to Hannah, Rupert Pate (the boss) and an itinerant stream of students on the way to or from assignments.”

A string of notable figures from finance and big business have recently announced plans to take ‘grey gap years’. Sir Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, will step down from his post at the end of this month. On BBC Radio 4’s music programme Desert Island Discs he announced his plan to take a year out: "It will be a holiday … I have promised my wife that, when I leave the bank, I'll take dancing lessons." A month previously, Johann Rupert, founder and chairman of Richemont, the Swiss luxury goods holding company, said he wanted time off to read books and travel to Antarctica. In May, 54-year-old Peter Voser, chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell, announced his retirement, spurred by his desire for a “lifestyle change”.

According to insurer Hiscox, more than a third of 45 to 54-year-olds are considering a so-called ‘grown-up gap year.’ And research by the Halifax suggests that up to 49% of 55 to 64 year olds in the UK would love to leave their current life behind for up to a year. More and more wealthy people of retirement age are jetting off for gap year experiences. Will Jones has been working for i-to-i, one of the original volunteer travel companies, that provides experiences for people of all ages, whether it’s teaching English, working with animals, building homes or working on a community project. He says the ‘grey gap year’ sector has been growing since he started working in the industry: “Lots of parents are thinking ‘why shouldn’t we have the opportunity to do these things.’ After all, you’re never too old to work with lion cubs.”

“At the beginning of the financial crisis, we saw loads of bankers who had been made redundant and were sick of their environment,” says Will. “They said, 'you know what, I’m going to go from a trading floor to a lion park because I want a complete change'.” According to Jones, the benefits that come with doing something meaningful while you travel are tangible for all demographics. “It opens your eyes to new cultures and a whole host of different communities. You don’t just scratch the surface and it allows you to see what you wouldn’t necessarily see if you were protected on a tour.”

Mike Parker was 59 when his daughter decided to go on a gap year. “As I was writing the cheque I thought ‘god this is something I’d love to do myself’. I thought there must be lots of people like me who would like to do something like this after they’d retired, or as a career break, or when they’d been made redundant.” He was inspired to launch the travel company ‘Gaps for Grumpies’ in 2006, which provided gap year experiences for over 50s. “We got completely inundated with interest,” says Parker, who was forced to abandon the project two years later because he couldn’t find the time to devote to it that it needed.

“The babyboomers are very different to the generation before them. They’re more worldly, healthier, more affluent and they still want excitement,” says Mike. “The idea of pipe and slippers when they retire really isn’t for them – they don’t consider themselves old.” And, he says, over 60s are more travelled than they once were, so the idea of adventure doesn’t frighten them.

Jones argues that mature ‘gappers’ can often offer more to the communities they’re working with than their younger counterparts: “They’ve come with careers and professional experience and they’re able to share that.” Robert found his career history very useful when he arrived in Ghana. “In theory I was supposed to teach English and Maths, but it rapidly became apparent that, even though I had not done much prior teaching, as a Chartered Accountant I was quite good at explaining maths.”

And the benefits of setting off to work in an animal sanctuary or teach English in a school with a life-time of savings are obvious. The security that a healthy bank-balance brings is invaluable. According to Will, some older travellers opt to stay in nicer accommodation close to the project base, but many are also happy to stay in what's on offer, such as host families, traditional accommodation or hostels, taking the view that it’s all part of the experience. “I can’t imagine Mervyn King would stay in a Zulu hut in South Africa for too long,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean he can’t get involved in a volunteer project and help out.”

Robert describes his experience as “enormously interesting, hugely rewarding and very humbling.” On the day he left, the school put on a show of singing and dancing to see him off. “I was presented with Ghanaian gifts and asked to come back any time I wished.” At a time of considerable soul searching among financial professionals and, more importantly, at a time of mass redundancies, maybe the ‘grey gap year’ is something to think about. “I would not have missed it for the world,” says Robert.

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