Gen Zers are repurposing the gap year, trading in travel for service work, interim jobs and internships.

The year-long break some teenagers take after high school and before college is usually a time to explore the world, stretch their horizons and maybe find themselves. With borders locked, that’s now tricky or no longer possible.

At the same time, many find the idea of starting college in a pandemic—remotely, or in person but with limited socializing and no parties, yet with the same high fees—equally unpalatable.

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Harvard University

In the UK, one in five university applicants changed their mind about going to university in 2020, and either wanted to go to a different university or take a gap year, according to a recent Sutton Trust study reported by the BBC.

The US is seeing similar levels of deferrals. Harvard University said 20% of incoming freshmen are deferring this year. The university expects 1,168 first-year students in residence this fall, compared with last year’s 1,650 students.

Interim endeavors

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Courtesy of the University of Oregon

With an uncertain year stretching before them, some teenagers are trying to extend summer internships, or land new ones. Others are scrambling to secure temporary work—any work—in the midst of a worldwide recession and hoping the pandemic dies down enough for travel to be possible again before the next academic year rolls around.

Londoner Sachin Thuraisingham, 19, completed his A-Levels (the end of high school in the UK) last summer. The plan was to spend the first eight months of his gap year working to save money to fund four months of travel around South America. He wanted to see a part of the world he’d never been to and to put his Spanish study to good use. And then, hopefully, go on to study psychology at Oxford.

“I felt I wasn’t quite ready to go to university this year,” Thuraisingham told Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. “I wanted working experience.”

But the economic turmoil that came with COVID-19 has made that hard. A hoped-for stint at a local fishmonger’s—working the till and learning to “fillet and do fish stuff”—never materialized. He talked to a family looking for childcare, but they wanted someone more permanent.

He’s just started working at a local doctor’s office, doing administrative work. And preparing after hours for an upcoming Oxford entry exam.

“There’s not too much I can do. Mulling over it isn’t really going to help,” Thuraisingham said. “[I] just put my head down and hope for the best.”

Come January, he’s got a stint as a teaching assistant at a school lined up. And he’s hoping that by April or so, things will have improved enough for him to make it to South America after all.

Corona Corps

Elsewhere, the pandemic has thrown up some innovative suggestions for how to match young people at loose ends with the needs of society.

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The UO Student Corps to Combat Coronavirus, courtesy of the University of Oregon.

Scott Galloway, a marketing professor at New York University, argued in the Washington Post for a United States Corona Corps, a service army of young people dedicated to fighting the pandemic, a Peace Corps for the times.

This Corona Corps would soak up the 18-to-24 year olds who can’t find work and employ them for a basic wage as contact tracers, giving them valuable skills in epidemiology, social work and operational management. The University of Oregon is putting this concept into action with the UO Student Corps to Combat Coronavirus. Introduced in July, the program employs students for contact tracing and community support.

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AmeriCorps COVID-19 relief efforts.
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There have also been calls to expand the existing AmeriCorps youth service program.

In Silicon Valley, some start-ups see an opportunity. They are offering remote internships to those deferring college, snagging young talent with a view to recruiting down the line.

“There’s a potential for a big shift right now,” Alexandr Wang, co-counder and CEO of Scale AI Inc., told Bloomberg in September, when the computer vision start-up was looking for potentially up to 10 gap-year workers.

For many this year, school seems like a “sub-optimal” choice, Wang said.

For more on how gen Z is responding the pandemic, keep an eye out for our upcoming report, Generation Z: Building a Better Normal

Main courtesy of the University of Oregon.