Grey Gap Years

April 29, 2019 | Share this article

We live in polarised times.

We are all guilty of sometimes using binary shortcuts in order to make life easier. Tea or coffee drinker. A cat person or a dog person. Conservative or Labour. Leave or remain.

In recent weeks, these binary shortcuts have exacerbated our current political situation. As Brexit discussions continue to intensify, it’s easy to buy into the popular binary narrative that almost all old people voted to leave, while the young voted to remain, en masse.

As with any stereotype, there is a grain of truth to this. Some older people did indeed vote to leave, but so did some younger people. Some older people voted to remain.

On the People’s Vote march a few Saturdays ago this was clearly evident, as people of all ages and backgrounds joined together, in the time-honoured tradition of wandering the streets with home-made placards, wondering if the government takes any notice of such things. If nothing else, it served as a timely reminder to reject generalisation and stereotypes of the over 55s.

Age isn’t a defining factor, but the sense of cultural belonging may have been. What differentiates us most is not our age. In fact, we are more than the sum total of all our demographics. What binds groups of people together, and differentiates them from others across demographics, is their culture – shared experiences, values, and beliefs.

In our industry we often bemoan the laziness of using the term ‘millennial’, but we’re equally as guilty of those over 55 too.

Earlier this year we launched The State Of UK Culture – a research report that looked into emerging subcultures that we believe will begin to have a big impact on popular culture in years to come. One of those subcultures was people taking Grey Gap Years.

We found a thriving, emerging subculture of people over 55 travelling to explore new cultures, often going for long periods, visiting different countries or regions. A gap year, basically.

We looked at the cultural motivations of the Grey Gap Year travellers, and compared them to their UK-bound counterparts. We discovered distinct differences in their holiday and travel habits, which can be directly traced back to their cultural drivers. The Grey Gap Year travellers were primarily motivated by benevolence – putting the needs of others before themselves – which explains why they’re keen to spend money in the local economy, to ‘give back’. Over 55s who rarely travel abroad were primarily motivated by origin – the connection to where they come from, its history and heritage – which seems to explain why they prefer to spend their holidays in the UK.

What our research reminds us is  that when trying to understand people and their behaviour, we should try to understand the culture that they belong to, and their cultural drivers. We should not rely upon our pre-conceived notions of age, or any other demographics. Culture eats demographics for breakfast.


Written by Jed Hallam, Chief Strategy Officer at Initiative