Well, I don't have a lot of personal experience. DD was just ready to go and knew what she wanted. It seems that the next two children are as well. The youngest though...he is academically well ahead of his emotional maturity, and shy to boot, so I could definitely see us pursuing a gap year. It would include volunteer work and some travel. Around here, teens can not get jobs. The economy is bad, unemployment is high, and the jobs that teens used to do are taken by adults with many years work experience whose unemployment checks ran out and they still hadn't found work. It is nearly impossible to find a job for a teen/ recent high school graduate within any kind of reasonable commute in this area. So, I wouldn't pressure him to find work. I would be happy with volunteer service, and I'd try very hard to line that up in a variety of his areas of interest.
Planned gap years are good. Unplanned, not so much. The kids in our community who do not go directly to college, trade school, or into a parent or grandparent's business, have this tendency to take a lot of time off...a lot...as in several years of living off mom and dad and NOT moving forward with anything. So, that's a concern. If ds is given a gap year, it will be a well thought out and planned one, and then he will apply to college for the following year. We would also look at the longish commute to U of MI in Flint for a few classes...nothing full time but definitely say Calc 2 and college physics so he would keep some necessary skills up to date.
Economically, it's pretty rare to see a gap year that includes travel for most of the kids in this area. The mean income is $32,000.00. Dh is one of the top earners in the county. We live comfortably, but not well off if that gives you an idea. So, while we could afford a trip for ds, most of the parents we know would be unable. The exceptions are some of the 4-H kids. Our extension office hires two 18 year old summer interns each year to help with all of the preparations for the county fair. It's a paid job, and some of these kids are eligible for 4-H oversees trips. These are usually short one-three weeks at most. But, their summer intern job pays for the trip and since their family incomes tend to be on the lower side, they usually can get the Pell Grant, and other grants combined with small student loans to pay for college with many headed straight to MSU because they are 4-H's sponsoring organization and go out of their way to make stellar 4-H'ers able to afford school. Then there is the $12,000.00 4-H scholarship to six statewide 4-H winners, and our county has another $2500.00 to one 4-H member each year. Some of the kids will do a gap year in order to get in more volunteer service, including some of the stuff on campus itself, in order to better position them for these scholarships. These kids do come out a little bit ahead with the gap year, and sometimes they do get part-time paid work at the end of the internship for the extension office as big events come up and extra hands are needed. To be honest, these are the only gap year kids I know of personally who do really, really well and have a good year. That said, these are also kids that are pretty focused to begin with and aren't really trying to figure out what they want to do in life. They are trying to figure out how to make their dream affordable instead.
I had a gap year. This was due to the fact that I had just turned 16 when I graduated from high school on independent study because they didn't have dual enrollment, didn't offer much in the way of honors courses, etc. I used that year to spend about 6 hours a day practicing the piano for college auditions, attending concerts, accompanying for any type of professional gig I could land, etc. Outside of a few piano students, I didn't work per se. I took some coursework at U of M Flint, and Clep tested out of English, History, and a couple of other courses so the combined total put me in school as a sophomore at 17, but with freshman music scholarships which really helped me out financially. It was a very focused gap year.
Dh's brother took a gap year. He had been a young graduate anyway, only 17 due to an October birthday, and was waffling between two different majors each of which had a different set of prerequisites so changing mid-stream would be costly. He taught sailing. Yes, you read that right! The guy was the master of sailboats. The Florida county they lived in had adult boat safety and sailboat classes offered at the community center and needed a new instructor. He got the job and taught these. I think he was paid $50.00 per class period and averaged anywhere from 5-25 students depending on the class. So, he wasn't raking in any big money by any stretch, but he around the community college faculty and had a chance to talk with some people with expertise about his passions and natural skills as it pertained to his options in college. They helped him hone in on his major, and did a great job. Once he went to college he went straight through his BA and then his MA, and he's been VERY good at his career. Still loves sailing!
And no, a gap year of video game playing would not happen. Now, my boy that is very talented in computer programming, IF he were taking a gap year, and if that year included an unpaid internship at my husband's employer, then I would have NO problem with him living off us and spending some time on his android applications which he sells for 99 cents each. If he ever hit on a really popular one, that would pay off for sure. Again, the focus would be business, not entertainment...then again, if he put in 40 hour weeks with his dad doing IT work for GM, I would not begrudge him a good game of Minecraft!
I think a gap year like the one SWB described for her eldest, Christopher, would be wonderful. He did volunteer work in Africa and China if memory serves...exact locations I am fuzzy on, and that year was very well planned. However, I don't think most families can afford a year like that. Hmmm...speaking of graduations...isn't Benjamin ready to graduate? Christopher was the same age as our DD and I think they graduated the same year. I thought her next oldest was one year older then my next, but I could be wrong. Maybe we could get Susan to weigh in and if Benjamin or Daniel are taking gaps years, she'll tell us what she has planned and how they went about designing the year.