Travel and the Thirty-Something Midlife Crisis

Alberta Canada Road

Since Douglas Copeland first defined my generation as Generation X, scores of books, studies and treatises have been written trying to get to the core of who we are. Moving beyond just my generation, Generation Y and now the Millennials are coming into their own, and with this maturity comes a whole host of new issues.

I began my blog in March 2010. It was the culmination of a long-term thought process, a process I went through in hopes of changing my life and coming to terms with what I really wanted.  I knew I wasn’t alone in the thirty-something malaise, but I didn’t think it was a common problem. Imagine my surprise when, upon entering the world of travel blogging, I found an entire community of people who seemed to share the same outlook.

Articles and books have been written on the phenomenon of the thirty-something midlife crisis. Older generations may scoff at the idea, but it is very real and has an equally real impact on our society. What is most interesting is that this sense of discontentment seems to be occurring at an even younger age for Generation Y.

Rather than enter in a long and complex analysis of the sociological underpinnings for this shift in attitudes, it is easier to pinpoint some key reasons. Our generation, unlike the ones before us, came of age in a perfect storm of societal influences. A combination of the burgeoning computer age, a rapid increase in personal wealth and credit and the parenting philosophy that every child is a winner, has helped mold the moral backbone of Generations X and Y. As a child I knew that I didn’t have any limitations, that I could do what I wanted and that if I didn’t like something, I could do something else. Gone forever was the concept that you did something because it was necessary, not because it was enjoyable.

Working 9-5

My father worked for the same organization all his life, as did his father before him. I however have worked for four different organizations in my short ten years of professional life. I haven’t changed jobs so often because I was bad at them or was laid off. I left them because I no longer found them enjoyable. While this concept may not seem unusual to anyone younger than 45, I can guarantee you that older generations are cringing at this attitude. I am certainly not alone in this phenomenon of job-hopping; it’s been widely discussed and researched. But aside from this professional promiscuity, the basis for this shift in priorities is what most intrigues me.

The concept of ‘I will not do that which does not make me happy’ is causing people to make life altering decisions in numbers never before seen. Rather than patiently wait for retirement to see the world, many are leaving behind their lives and seeking something new. But what makes them do this, what has made them so dissatisfied?

Once again, using myself as an example, I have been trying to figure this out. I was brought up in a traditional middle class household, neither rich nor poor. I did well in school and went to college where I also did well. I was on the socially accepted track for those in my socioeconomic bracket. After graduate school, I entered the workforce and did what I was supposed to do. I earned a living, had an apartment, and started the next phase of my life. At this time I was fortunate enough to find my soul mate, with whom I have been ever since – married for all intents and purposes. Both of us now have good jobs, are progressing well in our chosen career paths, own a home, two cars and three dogs. The American dream, right? That was what I had been told all my life would make me happy.

And yet, as I sit here, my partner who is just thirty-one years old is suffering from heart issues due to the extreme stress of his job. His career is literally killing him. He works at least twelve hours a day and when he is at home, usually has more work to do. The only time I see him for more than a few hours at a time is on vacation.  Simply put, even though we should be happy, we are not.

My example, I don’t think, is abnormal. I also don’t think that it is historically unique. I think that individuals and families in the 1950s, ’60s, and so on probably felt the same way. What is unique is that in contrast, I was brought up to believe that if I didn’t like something, I could change it. In retrospect, I don’t think my father liked his job all that much. However, he was brought up in a time where it was instilled in the youth of the nation that what is most important is to work hard, support your family and everything else be damned.

Please don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my job and my partner loves his profession, in spite of the aforementioned health issues. But it necessarily begs the question – is this all there is?  Are two-week experiential trips once a year going to be our only exposure to travel for the next twenty years?

Every evening, I take time to feed my travel addiction and read through a variety of travel blogs. I am constantly amazed by and envious of these travelers’ adventures and their ability to leave their lives behind and pursue the great unknown. I have also read many articles by people who feel the same as I, wondering what more there is for us. Some of those individuals have pursued their dreams in a variety of ways, perhaps best encapsulated by Keith Savage in his article The Precipice.

For those of us though who have been in the professional world for ten years or more, the challenge is even more difficult. I own a home, I have dogs, I have a comfortable life that requires both a salary and for my dogs, my presence. As nice as it sounds, I simply cannot say goodbye to my daily life, my furkids and my house and trek around the world. I know that people do it; I do not mean to say that it is impossible. Rather, I am saying that for me, and thousands like me, it is simply not the right decision at this time.

Endgame

Even if it were possible, what is the endgame? Unlike those who are ten years younger, I am at a mid-point in my career. Let’s say my partner and I take a career break and travel the world for a year or two. To what would we return? His career would be destroyed and mine would be considerably derailed. Even though the travel experiences would no doubt be life altering and enlightening, how would we be able to pick up and carry on as if nothing had happened? And why on earth would we want to return to the exact same set of circumstances that made us so unhappy in the first place?

Of course our other option would be a permanent relocation abroad, which is certainly an intriguing idea. However, when you go through life with someone else, both must reach this realization together and I don’t think either of us are there yet.

Windmills

This begs the question, what does this mean for the future, for my future. I too, like Keith, am on a precipice. I do not know exactly what this means or what this entails, but I can feel it, almost like a gathering storm. On the one hand, I enjoy my saccharine, suburban life that I have worked very hard to create. I am blessed with a great job and wonderful friends. On the other hand, my soul is aching for more – for enrichment that conference calls and trips to Home Depot cannot fulfill.

Perhaps I am spoiled. Perhaps my entire generation and those following are simply the victims of our parents’ success. Those who do not make as much and struggle much more than I, do not have the luxury of seriously considering a career break or a move abroad. For them life is a struggle and that is all. Regardless though of what brought us to this point, and whether or not I am spoiled, the fact remains that this malaise is not uncommon and is growing by the year.

I am not sure what this means for our generation, or if it will have any impact on society as a whole. Maybe the thousands, if not more, who feel this way will continue to do nothing and simply slog through through their quotidien routine. Maybe Hobbes was right, that “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

I do not know what will happen as we move forward. To come full circle, I began this blog as a way to add some of the enrichment and sense of adventure that was so lacking from my life. To at least temporarily leave behind the daily life of emails and meetings and enter into one that truly drives me – that of travel – has been a thrilling process. I enjoy discussing travel and teaching others about the wide world around them. Where it will take me, I’m not sure. But I feel that I am finally on a path that will lead me to the answer I am so desperately seeking.

Ultimately, this may be our generation’s greatest challenge. To figure out how to stop tilting at windmills and instead find out where we really belong.

What do you think? Am I being completely selfish or is this thirty-something malaise normal? How do you reach a balance in your life?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

75 thoughts on “Travel and the Thirty-Something Midlife Crisis”

  1. Great post Matt and hits on some notes that I’ve been processing lately. The life of a traveler certainly sounds so attractive, but isn’t always the best thing. I’ve thought about taking a long trip, but wouldn’t do it unless I had some income stream during my travels. People who are thinking about it should take like a short trip and see first if it’s for them before launching into a 2 year RTW trip. You’re certainly asking the right questions!

  2. I’m about 2 weeks away from 30 so I’m not sure which generation group that puts me in but I feel like I’m right where you are. I’ve been working at a career for 8 years, I own a condo, make enough money to pay my bills & take a few great trips a year… But I’m not content. It’s not what I want my life to be. Sort of why I started my blog too. I’ve been playing around with a few ideas that sound good at first but then reality or practicality (is that a word?) or maybe even fear set in & I tell myself I can’t do it. But I do feel confident, at least most of the time, that if I keep searching & keep working at it, I’ll figure out a way to travel more & not feel like I’m being irresponsible. Keep up what you’re doing, I enjoy your blog. BTW I love when people call their pets furkids, always makes me smile :-)

  3. Hello Matt,

    This post literally made me weep as I know exactly, to the letter, what you are referring to. I’m 43 now, but I’ve had the thought of living abroad and traveling slow for over a decade. I did what I thought was the right thing to do like so many of us, but I grew bitter over time. I totally get it. I had similar thoughts too that I maybe seen as selfish. I am utterly amazed at the 20 something generation and their courage to do what WE want to do. In fact, like you said, I ENVY them.

    The stress and the health thing, I felt it too. It was bad, really bad! BAD for my head! I went through a lot of heart and headaches over the years. I left my job three years ago though I was ready a decade ago. It’s harder when you’re in a relationship, and even harder when you have a child, like us. I’m determined not to wake up UNHAPPY at 50. I simply refuse. It is finally happening for us and it’s a painful process (it really is, at least for me it has been). I won’t sugar coat it!

    Honestly, I don’t know you at all but for some certain reason, I feel confident that you will figure this out, what’s best for you and your partner. You sound quite determined and know exactly what you want – it’s now time to figure out how you will go about getting that very thing you want.

    “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that.” Harold Whitman

  4. I’m 34 and leaving next month. Giving up my business that I am extremely successful at and leaving to surf, volunteer and travel solo. I don’t want a husband, I don’t want kids, and I don’t want the house and nicer car. I want to live. The interesting thing is that I’m not unhappy in my current life, I just want more. Thanks so much for your post. I myself can’t wait to hit the road.

  5. Yes, yes, yes! Exactly the same issues I wrote about on Matador Life last week. We’re tearing down the workforce and rebuilding it, and I couldn’t be happier.

    You’re right though, so many obstacles. So many long-term things to consider. So many questions.

  6. What happens when the savings runs dry? How long can the travel bug last if the savings dry up? I love the lifestyle I’m living currently – but realistically it can only last so long. Then what? Succumbing to the 9 – 5? I hope not, but fear odds favor this happening – at least temporarily.

  7. I had my mid-life crisis about 10 years later than you. I had a home, a car, friends, and a great job. A long term relationship had ended a couple of years before, so considering another person was not an issue. I decided to give English teaching a try. I rented my house, store my “stuff” and took off for a year of fun and adventure. Well, that was almost ten years ago! During that 10 years I have traveled and photographed most of South East Asia. I have visited all of the major cities and most of the big town in Korea. I have earned a Masters degree. My current position provides me lots of free time to pursue other things (like photography), and 5 months vacation every year.

    My house was sold two years after I left. The last time I went back to Canada I sold/gave away all of my stuff. What a load I lifted off my back.

    I’m sure I would be making more money, if I was still in Canada working. However, I make enough here to do what I want to do. My Korean employer also contributes to my pension plan. I know I’m not going to end up with nothing at the end of the day.

    I’m writing a book here :) There are ways to leave. Explore all your options and then choose the one that is best for you and your partner. That might even mean staying where you are :)

  8. Great post Matt!
    As a Gen X’er myself I have been living with my own sense of wanderlust for several years.
    Like your partner, I was working in a high-stress job – my 2nd career path – and knowing that I didn’t want to keep it up. The difference for me is that I have always loved traveling – LOVED IT!! It’s always been my passion and what most people know me for. For me a RTW trip is a no-brainer. However lack of funds is a pretty big deterent.
    Like many people I know I recently quit my job to go back to school for something I WANT to do, for something I’m passionate about – Travel & Tourism. It won’t pay as much as I’m used to but at least I’m following my passion.

    I think the 30-something mid-life crisis is real but I don’t think you need to solve it with travel. What are you passionate about? I have one friend who quit a great job producing TV shows to be a personal trainer. Another friend left TV news to be a dog trainer. I know multiple people who have left great careers to be massage therapists and yoga instructors. I don’t know what it’s all about. It’s like we all collectively decided we didn’t want to be just a cog in a wheel but want to do something for ourselves. For me personally, I just don’t want to feel like I wasted my life by just ‘working’, I want to leave this life knowing I lived. Like I said, my passion is traveling but it’s not just the actual traveling, I love to learn about new cultures, and experience new/different things and see as much as I can. I want to see/do/learn all I can because afterall, our experience and knowledge is all we take with us – if there’s anywhere to go.

    Of course you could be like a traditional mid-life crisis and go get a new shiny toy.

    Soloadventurer

  9. Daryle (@d_travelbug)

    You put so eloquently into words many of the ideas I have been pondering for the last couple of years! I’m in a very similar situation. I’m nearing 40 and I have a good job, a wonderful partner who also has a career she loves, we own a home, and have a furkid :) I often ask myself if I am just going to continue on this same path for the next 20-30 years until I retire or try to get out and do something more interesting now. While I have not come to a conclusion about that yet, I’m so happy to find others who are questioning it and actually getting out there…and writing about it!

    I enjoy your blog and I will keep reading in hopes you will share whatever answers you come up with!

  10. I may have missed the answer while reading, but I have one big question: Have you spoken to your partner about what you’re going through inside? It hurt to read about you not being able to see each other but for a few hours, and as it sounds like you are both an important fixture in one another’s lives, he’s probably looking for a way to more happiness and satisfaction with you as well. Since you are married in your hearts and bound together for life, hopefully you can both discuss what are the best paths for you to take together to bring you closer to a more fulfilling life. Communication is key in this because a move like this will take a lot of readjustments in your way of thinking, wants vs. needs, priorities and possibilities, and you both want to be on the same page when it comes to these goals. Either way it sounds like you are figuring things out. Keep us posted and I wish you guys the best.

  11. This post is so so good. And written from the heart. I think you are in the process of finding your answer so give it time. It took my mind three years to realize I even needed to make a decision. At least you are aware. Perhaps for generations X and Y it’s harder to give up the “good life” defined by our parents. They knew what life was like before the good life and so we’ve heard about it. This latest generation is born of people who have only known the good life (to speak very generally) so maybe it’s easier to sacrifice.

    What is the endgame? What if the game never ended? What if we just kept playing and playing, and that was the reason in itself?

  12. This is a great post, eloquently written and sums up the many of the machinations I have too been going through. I am 41 and have been agonising about making the leap to travel long term.

  13. This is so honest and thought-provoking Speaking as a twenty-something who is technically a “Millennial” I’d say my generation is suffering through a lot of the same things at an even earlier time- probably because we were raised with an even more intense version of the factors you’ve described. I often hear it called a “quarter life crisis” which seems apt. Maybe we could call yours a “third-life crisis” but that just sounds like a video game.

    I think you should give yourselves a big pat on the back for even realizing the source of your unhappiness. That’s more than 95% of our society ever does. Realize that there’s no one size fits all solution but that you guys have to seek out a work-life balance that is right for you. This might take some thinking outside the box!

    Thanks for sharing.

  14. My age is different, but my situation isn’t. I’m 58 and until I finally chucked it all and went on the road, I was never happy. I knew there was something more out there, but I just kept slogging away at my job, putting in those 80 hour weeks and watching my net worth grow, thinking, just another year and I’ll have enough. Of course, it was never enough. Then I got so sick (from stress) I thought I was going to die before I got to see all the places I’d always wanted to visit. It was a huge wake-up call. I started planning. Put my house up for sale and committed to leave in a year, no matter what. The house didn’t sell, the recession hit and I pretty much lost everything, but I put the backpack on and went anyway. And it was the best thing I’ve ever done. The house finally sold (at a loss), I sold all my furniture, and I have little in the way of money, but I am happier than I have ever been in my life and I am approaching “break-even” with my new writing career.

    One theme that runs throughout your wonderfully written post is fear. What will others think of me if I just go travel? How will I get job when I return? Etc. First, I would encourage you to throw the fear about the “gap” in your resume out the window. This is not as much of an issue as it used to be. Career breaks have long been an accepted part of the European/Australian culture. Companies over there understand the benefit of a career break and are supportive of sabbaticals, realizing that their employees will come back renewed, refreshed, and full of new ideas. US companies are getting on board with this mentality. Think of it this way. It takes certain talents to travel around the world – determination, problem solving, quick decision making ability, the ability to stay calm in a crisis, communication skills (with language barriers included)…..etc. These are all qualities highly prized by companies and you can point this out in a cover letter. And you can stay in touch with your professional network while you travel.

    I also hear how you “can’t” do it. If long term travel is what you really want to do, stop telling yourself you “can’t” do it and and start thinking in terms of “can.” Christine at http://almostfearless.com has been traveling long term with her dog for years, and now she’s had a baby, but none of that has stopped her. There is also another site you may want to check out: http://briefcasetobackpack.com. Sherry Ott and Michaela Potter both took mid-career breaks to travel. They did it in different ways and had different experiences reentering the work force, but both agree it was one of the best things they ever did. Upon returning, they decided to do everything possible to try to make the mid-career break an accepted part of the American culture, and they created their website to do just that. It is filled with information and advice about this issue, from planning to reentering.

    Wishing you all the best as you struggle to figure this out. If I can be any help, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

  15. great post! being in my 30’s as well and climbing the corporate ladder I can totally identify with what you are saying. i too would love to leave my job for 2years but it will certainly be gone by the time i get back. Heck there are ppl who already want my job NOW! LOL

    i guess everyone has their own path to walk .. and their own epiphanies to experience.. if u are unhappy, then maybe it’s time for change;) the trick is to do something which makes u feel so invigorated that u don’t even realise that you are 30 something;)

    Good luck.. excellent post.. thx for sharing!

  16. I’m in a similar position as your partner. In 2008 I was told by my doctor that my job was literally killing me. That’s when I decided to quit and try to relax. I ended up going to Niagara Falls for 6 months and worked in a hostel. I was in my 30’s and working in a hostel! My family and friends cringed at the thought, but I loved it.
    Although I’m currently back in Alberta, working in Management again, I keep wondering how I can work at my passion. I’ve wanted to travel long term for years. But how realistic is it for me to do it for the next 2-5 years? Lots of people do it, but can I?

    All we can do is try and have a back-up plan ready in-case it doesn’t work out. I wish you the best of luck figuring out what’s best for you.

  17. What a great post. You wrote and put into words what so many of us are thinking and feeling. My wife and I both loved our lives for the most part. I really enjoyed my job, she dealt with hers with some ambivalence, but she didn’t hate it by any means, and the money was enough to justify it. We lived in our hometown with all our family and friends, and we were generally happy and enjoyed life. But like you and so many who have commented, we just felt as though something was missing.

    Long story short, we came up with a RTW trip idea, got a plan together, saved, and went. We left it open-ended and planned on coming home when our money ran out. We actually could have stayed gone longer but decided to come home right around the one year mark. We were both ready to come home actually. After the initial honeymoon period wore off, we realized we were back. Back in the same house, both of us looking for jobs in the same field as before we left, doing the same exact things we did before we left. Everything was the same. Except us.

    We felt as though we changed so much during our travels, and we came back to everyone being a year older, some having a kid or a second or a third, but other than that, everything was the same. As my wife went back to work as an attorney, I unsuccessfully tried to find a teaching job. Luckily for me I wasn’t able to and am now trying my hand at becoming a travel writer. It’s something I love to do, something that will ultimately lead to being able to be location independent (I hope), but now my wife’s sort of stuck. Luckily we don’t own a house or have kids, but we are saddled with a good deal of student loan debt, and if my wife leaves her job again, it’s going to be even harder to find another one if this is the career she wants to stick with (which isn’t necessarily what she wants, but it’s difficult to leave something that affords you the opportunities it has afforded us).

    We both love it here at home. This is and forever will be “home.” But we have realized that a big house and a lot of shit is not something we care about so much. We also realized that our big trip we took, partly to “get it out of our systems,” only fueled the fire. We know that we canNOT live a life that only affords us two weeks of travel a year. It simply isn’t acceptable. Period.

    So what are we going to do? Now that’s the million dollar question because we really don’t know. Right now we’re back in money saving mode and just biding our time. We have no idea what our future holds, but I know that traveling and seeing the world is our top priority right now, so whatever we have to do to make that happen again, we’ll do it and figure it out.

  18. Were we separated at birth? No, I’m serious. I’m 34 and have gone through the same issues. The 30’s are weird for sure – you are no longer struggling to make ends meet like you were in your 20’s but suddenly you start to realize that this whole thing we are prepped for sucks. You realize you don’t want to work until you die – at least not for someone else.

    I worked in real estate for years. There were times I loved it so much I thought it was the career I spent so long looking for. But the hours were long, the stress was insane. It was awful. Then at 31 I was diagnosed with cancer. Since I am really healthy, never smoked and have been a vegetarian since I was 18 and had no family problems with cancer there wasn’t really a reason for me to be sick. But deep down I knew what it was – work. We are not supposed to work like crazy. That isn’t life. In fact, it is the farthest thing from life.

    While your partner may not hate his job, tell him to get out now while he still can. Make plans to disengage and get back to a real life. His heart is hurting. Isn’t that enough for him to realize that something has to change? I’m sure deep inside, it is. It is just really hard to break the mold and do something different with your life, especially in your 30’s. Everyone expects you to work, have a house, kids, the whole 9 yards.

    Your partner needs to get out. You need to get out. This blog is obviously the beginning of you starting the path. So you have a house and dogs? So what? You can still do it, it just might take you longer, rent the house, save $$ to pay the difference of the mortgage while you are gone. Maybe you can rent the house now, move into a cheap place and pocket the difference? I know a few of my friends out here that are stuck in their homes because of the market but that is a way out. Find someone to watch your fur babies, or take them with you. A lot of people do slow travel with their pets – you could rent a flat in Barcelona for a few months and hop around or go someone else with them.

    What is the worst that can happen? The jobs you only half like will still be there when you get back. Maybe not the exact same job but something similar. The same people you work with now will still be there lamenting about their boring, stressful lives while digging themselves one foot into the grave.

    The best that can happen? You both flourish, you spend time together, you learn to really love yourself, you find new ways to make life happen, you live life fully.

    Just do something before it becomes too late. I am scared for your partner because after working my butt off, making $$ and getting sick, then working more again I know it’s not worth it. His heart hurts, so does yours. Make new plans and make them happy again.

    I’m gonna sign up for your feed and I wish you both the best of luck! – Beth

  19. Ok, I’m being a Comment Ho’, double dippin’. Some awesome discussion here and reminds me of what Keith, see above, had written at traveling-savage.com about standing at the Precipice and whether to jump.
    Yet, another reason I just love Barbara. I consider her as a pioneer for this kind of stuff. Reminds us of whether we’re ever really ready. Are we ever 100% ready to get married? Have a baby? Move across the world? And the list goes on…

  20. Whata thought-provoking article and so well written. I’m in my 40s and have gone through this same cycle of thinking. Working long hours eventually broke me (though it ironically involved huge amounts fo travel but very thankless travel) and it simply wears you down till work is all you have time for. Like other commenters, I don’t think there is an endgame, but a series of event where you have to be bold enough to take the next step knowing that you can always take another one when that new situation isn’t quite right anymore.

  21. I love your post and the comments here are all quality. I think I agree with Jodi and Bethany the most. The old saying that “youth is wasted on the young” is so apt. I grew up in an upper middle class family and my father worked long hours (still does), I think at the expense of family. My parents were unhappy and if I ever start thinking that maybe I want that suburban life, I just think of when I was growing up and that thought drifts away. I’m 30 and my fiance is 33. He just went through a major health scare and all is ok, thankfully, but it only made us think harder about our choices and our future. We’ve been together for almost six years now and are an international couple – I moved from New York City to be with him in Australia. So i’ve already put my career on the backburner to pursue something important in my life. But we have the typical ‘work and pay bills’ lifestyle at the moment. At the end of the year we are going back on the road. After that we want to relocate to somewhere with a different culture, perhaps Asia or the Middle East.

    You don’t say what your or your partner’s career is, but if you really have these nagging doubts about the path you are on, I say communicate them and make a change. Someone said recently that there should be a sign inside the womb that says “This is it” or something like that – because you only get one precious life. My personal belief is that we are all soul-searching more these days because of what’s going on around us. The baby boomer generation lived in an era of pretty constant global improvement. Yes, they made that happen, but what do the X,Y,Z and alpha generations have now? The global economy is unstable. I feel like no one thought about our generations when they were pursuing technology and excess (the environment, for example). I know a couple of people who lost all their money in the recent (and still ongoing) GFC. Nothing is ever for certain, even if you stay in your cosy house in the suburbs. I think it is a mistake to assume that following in the footsteps of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations will produce the same outcome. We are living in different times.

    As Jodi says, maybe travel isn’t the thing that will set you free. What are your passions? What will buy you happiness? If your current job isn’t doing it for you, can you parlay it into something else or train for something else? You can always make more money but time is not infinite for humans. I clearly don’t offer any concrete solutions here, but I started reading your post and felt excited by it and then at the end I felt a little depressed. Because I think everyone should follow their dreams. It’s the difference between having a life that’s worth living and one that’s just tolerable. And who wants that?

  22. great post. love use of ‘furkids’ and love spencer’s comment ref double-dipping… i have a furkid too. makes me need to travel in smaller spurts vs multi-month extravaganzas, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. travel is travel–whether you go in multiple small spurts or epic RTW journeys.

    ps – great book you might like on generations is called “the age curve.” made me understand my gen (gen-x) better as well as the other gens. fascinating stuff.

  23. Thanks for such an insightful and honest piece. You may not be ready right this moment to throw caution to the wind and take a career break, but I am certain you will find your way. Each person is different, and some people make the decision quickly and some make it slowly.
    Think about how you can take baby steps and promise yourself you’ll make one baby step a month.

    I do understand everything you are saying…I was there…14 years of working and finally I took a job that gave me the ultimate push I needed because I hated it so much! I hit my limit and over 2 years time plotted a getaway.

    Travel can teach you a whole new set of skills that will help you deal with all of those fears that you are talking about…so don’t discount what you will learn while on the road!

    Of course I would say – follow us at Briefcase to Backpack and meet some more people who are going thru the same struggles and have the same dreams! It’s always good to surround yourself by inspiration – and you already have started down that path with this blog!

  24. We can assume the 30s are the mid-point, but the truth is none of us really know. I may have already live more than 80% of my life – that’s the approach I take. We’re at a very unique time in terms of job mobility and travel, both of which I think really open up the world to many people. I think career breaks are great and the option to work the same job from many parts of the world is available too. It’s just a matter of taking the baby steps on the way to the final leap.

  25. Thank you for sharing this with us – sometimes just vocalizing your frustrations is a great place to start for making change. Once you put it out there, people can be behind you to support you.

    As far as your fears about taking off to explore the world, keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be for a year or two. Consider even just a few weeks or months away where you can just take some time revitalize and reenergize. By unplugging for just awhile, you are able to open up your mind to new possibilities.

    I’ve incorporated several mini-career breaks over the years – the first being more of a gap half-year a few months after college. From that experience I knew that travel would be an important part of my life always and managed to work that in with my jobs moving forward. My next break was in 2001 for three months in which I was able to negotiate a sabbatical several months before. Then when I was ready to switch jobs in 2006, I decided to volunteer in Peru for the summer, which gave me the opportunity to realize that I wanted to return to the non-profit realm in which I worked from ’96-’01.

    Then my corporate boyfriend, Michael, decided that after 14 years at the same company he was ready to move on. He realized that because he was a workaholic he wouldn’t be able to focus on finding a new job while he was at that one, so he decided to leave. I jumped on that opportunity to get him to go backpacking for 9 weeks before looking for work. He agreed and was the inspiration behind the “briefcase to backpack” name. He saw that time as an opportunity to really unwind and refocus on his career goals, which got lost over the years.

    He is now back to the briefcase and we are also now married.

    So my point is, there are ways that you can make it happen for yourself. You don’t have to sell everything and take off for years like some, nor do you have to sit still and accept the situation you are in. Take other peoples experiences as inspiration and figure out what works best for you and your partner.

  26. Matt,
    I love that you have chosen to put yourself out there by asking these questions. It is frustrating that so few people take the first step in taking control of their lives by asking hard questions. While I know it is challenging to not have a great answer I am confident that the best things in life begin with questioning what is expected of us and making a conscious choice. Whether this is exploring your political, professional, or religion views you can learn so much from exploring difficult questions of what is important to you.

    I just turned 39 and I am not convinced there is such a thing as a mid-30s life crisis. If there was I would expect far more people stepping up to question their path and leaving their jobs like crazy. However, looking around my job I realize that this is simply not the case. Every time someone hears about our plans to leave and travel they seem shocked that there was even a choice available.

    Instead I consider you extremely enlightened and lucky to have the wherewithal to take a moment, pull your head up, and ask “Is this all?”. Simply by asking the question I think you sit in a very small group of people willing to ask. Now, that the question is out there you get to explore it in all its ugly, amazing, challenging, and terrifying glory.

    I cannot explain in words how amazing it feels to ask this question and realize there is truly nothing holding you to the “life expected”. For ~20 years I have built a great career, risen nicely in my field, and earn more at this moment than at any time in my life. But once I asked the “big question” the answer had nothing to do with money, plans after I get back, or fear. In truth I have CHOSEN to focus my life on what makes me happy and to take the big leap, with the most important person in my life, that will change my life forever. I do not expect it to always be easy, and do not know what I will do when I get back. However, you cannot embrace the life you want by keeping a foot in the life you have.

    Good luck and I look forward to reading about your process as you tackle this question. Let me know if you ever would like to talk as you go through the process.

  27. I am on the cusp of Generation X and Generation Y. I too have read multiple journals, essays, etc. about the status of the “narcissistic” generation that is coming about. I don’t know why I’m not “happy” but something in my soul is telling me something is not right. My mom definitely doesn’t understand it. As a single mother she told me that traveling was only for rich people. We needed to be down to earth hard workers. Yet, I find myself in a stable job in this crappy economy (video games) and I am heading into my 30s and I find myself unsatisfied. This post really struck a chord with me. Thank you for sharing.

  28. Sarah Chambers

    Matt, this post really strikes a chord with me too; I’m 31, have a good career and just got my foot on the property ladder last summer; no mean feat in London, as I’m sure you’re all aware. I have gone through life setting myself various ‘targets’, always having an aim; get good A-levels, go to uni, get good degree, get good job, climb the ladder, buy a property, settle down….and, erm, now what? I thought I would be happy when I reached this point, but, like everyone here I am not. I have a growing feeling of discontentment and like many here feel like I’m on a precipice, about to fall off, not quite sure what to do now to remedy the situation. Now I have reached the ‘settled down’ point, and, as my parents point out ‘have everything going for me’, why am I still not happy? As Erica says, my Mum doesn’t understand and I feel awful as I know it makes her feel it is her fault. I ended up wishing I had never mentioned it and at the moment am just feeling guilty that I’m so ungrateful for what I’ve got. Jacking it all in and travelling around the world is definitely something that’s been going through my mind for a while; perhaps going off to learn something new along the way which I could come back to (yoga crossed my mind too). But it is a huge step to take, a huge sacrifice. And what of my ‘furkids’ too? I have two cats I adore and I would hate to go off and leave them.
    Anyway, thanks Matt for sharing, as it makes me feel slightly less alone, guilty and narcissistic to at least know there are others out there going through the same thing.

  29. Globetrooper Lauren

    A stirring post Matt. Being a Gen Y/Millennial myself and not quite at the 30 mark yet, I am supportive of change for a positive impact. Actually doing something instead of talking/complaining about it. I can’t contemplate doing something that I don’t like or enjoy for my entire life, and I understand that ‘times have changed’ and our parents/grandparents didn’t have that choice. But now we do, now they do.

    I find it difficult to get on the same level as even some of my close friends and family who don’t ever get to do what they really want because they’ve placed limits on themselves. If something is important, you work towards achieving it. Simple. But not so simple, as your priorities do change.

  30. The fact is people in their late 20s and 30s all dream of doing what you are talking about, but tell themselves they can’t. This may be for a perfectly legitimate reason, children being the main one. Kids aside (and that doesn’t stop everyone, but I understand it) it’s not a question of can’t, it’s won’t.

    I left a 6 figure consultancy job in Switzerland at age 37 to come to South America 18 months ago. I am older than pretty much every single person I have met travelling here, but that makes no difference, in fact it makes things even better. 22 year-olds don’t have a care in the (real) world – I have been able to cut off completely from the materialistic career-obsessed society I needed to escape from.

    The most common “can’t” reason, is the one you use – what about my career? What about it? Are you seriously telling me it’s more important than you’re mental and physicial health, ‘cos that’s what we could be talking about here.

    It’s a personal choice and will always be so, and I can’t tell you what to do. One thing I can tell you is that it will change your life but you’ll never regret it, not for one second.

  31. Beautiful, honest post. I have been through much of what you described and feel like I’ve come to some place of contentment recently. My 20’s were entirely about getting an education and traveling. I never expected that travel or living abroad would not be the main part of my life, but then I met my husband, got a stable job after grad school, and slowly started settling into permanency. When I was 33, I had my son, and so now I am a tenured professor, a mom, I have 2 dogs and a house to take care of, and my husband is in school full-time. Like you, it isn’t practical for me to leave this life that my little family and I have created, especially since my house has lost so much value the last couple years. I try to focus on the positive– I have a great life, there is much to explore here in California, and my job gives me 4 months off a year so we travel, even if it isn’t always where I would really want to go. I blog and read about about travel. In the meantime, we are planning to make a change in the future. We hope to move abroad in the next few years, and that gives me something to look forward to. More importantly, I stay content being in the present moment of taking care of the life I have here, spending time with friends and family, and knowing that happiness comes from acceptance of what is. Good luck with your journey, wherever it takes you. :-)

  32. You said it. You have stuff to take care of and so you need to work to do so. Thousands of people value the things they own more than the time they need to work to accumulate them. Those who are free are free mainly because they are not obligated or emotionally or financially attached to tangibles.

  33. Nice post. I made the change! At 41, I quit my professional IT position last year to go on sabbatical to travel. I realized that life is just too short to not have control over my time and what I do with it.

    We in the states are groomed to have the American dream, which is great. But, there is more to life than material things. No, i didn’t sell any of my luxuries. True fulfillment will never be found in things or just a change in location. It is only found in a relationship with God. But, growth and opportunities come when you step out of your comfort zone.

    So, go for it and be blessed in your journey!
    ~A

  34. Awesome post! I’m looking at this issue now from the opposite end… In August of 2009, I left my Boston teaching job of 6 years to circumnavigate the globe for 9 months. I just got back home to the U.S. a few weeks ago, and seem to have developed a rabidly renewed passion for my old life and for the deliciousness of having places, things, jobs, and people that are really MINE again! This is to say, it really may be true that following those “crazy” dreams of leaving it all and traveling DOES enhance your life when you come back to it.

    I love your line that: “The concept of ‘I will not do that which does not make me happy’ is causing people to make life altering decisions in numbers never before seen.” Indeed, it causes everything to turn over on its head! But in the end I feel so privileged that we live in such a day and age! Let’s take advantage of it, take the risks, and not feel guilty for pursuing the desires of our hearts if we have the power to do so.

  35. Wow, excellent discussion here and great insights from all. We’re in the midst of un-tethering ourselves from the day to day, which is even more challenging with three kids and a dog we love! But we know that our future will be best spent if we’re location independent. We both like our work, and want to work, but we’d love to do it wherever we want…and we hope that that’s someday in the South of Spain, or anywhere in Italy, or Australia, or New Zealand, or, or, or…

    Even taking a STEP (big or small) toward being FREE to make whatever choice is right for us makes us happier. Perhaps it will help you, too, as you and your partner ponder the future.

  36. I can totally relate to this discussion. I’d been restless for many years but feared the implications of making a major change. Eventually I felt so stifled and fed up that I sold my house, my car, quit my job of 10 years and sold all my belongings…most liberated I’ve felt in a long time, but also terrifying! There are definitely times when I think back to the security I had, but inside I feel so much happier, I’ve done a fair bit of travelling now and I’m currently settled and working in order to get to a point where I’m able to travel again, and I think that’s the pattern I’ll stick to so that I can keep exploring-in reality the money pot will run dry if you don’t top it up from time to time! But there are so many opportunities to work as you travel. I don’t think there’s any one right or wrong answer, it’s purely down to individual circumstance and desire-make a list of the pros and cons, worst case senario and best case senario and make your decision from there. I’ve seen too many people wait all their lives before they try to fulfill their dreams and it’s been too late for them, I don’t want that to happen to me. Sometimes you have to take big risks in order to gain big rewards.

  37. This is a really well-thought-out essay. I enjoyed reading it. It must be really difficult to yearn to take off and travel yet not be able to do it. I think you’re wise to realize that now is simply a time in your life when you should stay put. If you continue wanting to travel, you’ll subconsciously open doors for yourself when you’re ready.

    As far as busting up your careers, you can find online location-independent jobs at which you can work while traveling – and which will give you new careers in case you are tired of the old. If you’re not tired of the old, perhaps your employers will agree to let you work remotely for a while during your travels.

    You sound like you really know what you’re doing. I’m sure you’ll find a way to make everything happen.

  38. As someone who’s approaching my 30s (five months to go), I must say I agree with you. I’ve had the same musings over time. I see my parents and wonder how they’ve become so grounded. Our culture is different because we’ve had the luxury of being able to choose from a myriad of options. There are days when I just feel the need to escape from my life and so I travel. Traveling never fails to refresh me.

    Life doesn’t really dishes out any answers. We just have to take each day as it comes. God bless you on your journey.

  39. Matt, I hope you don’t mind but I am actually going to use this post to jump off onto my own post about all the things I wish someone had told me when I was 29. I’m turning 31 next week and I have realized in the last year that most of the fears I had just aren’t all that important to me anymore.

    Brilliant post, by the way. A year ago, I absolutely would have chimed in and said —- yes I understand exactly what you are going through. In the year in between, I have learned an unassailable truth about myself: I must be the change I want to see in myself. I used to talk about how I didn’t like what was happening in my life but I never did anything about it. When we quit our jobs and left the country, we took control of our own destinies. It’s something that every person does in every generation, but we do it in so many different ways.

  40. Being an ex-pat in a fixed location is a good alternative. Stable enough that you can keep steady employment without losing your position on the income escalator. Stable enough that you can bring your children if you have them. Different enough that you get to satisfy your wanderlust cravings, with a new radius for short-range weekend trips. Bookend extended travel at either end of your re-location.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  41. YES. you’ve nailed it. once you’ve got the happiness thing figured out, the rest will follow, i KNOW it. we’re a bit more landlocked than i want because of my disabilities, but are figuring out how to accommodate them while doing what we love (travel)…

  42. What a nice honest post and I think a situation that plagues people of all ages. Even just speaking as a twenty something, I found after graduation, many of my friends and fellow students felt the need to just get a job, no matter what it was. Passion was not a choice in the matter. Practically weighed more. I think in the long run you realize that is not what you wanted and it seems like you are just on the verge of that discovery. Happiness is worth more than that steady bank job, 2.5 kids, and suburban home. It’s your whole life, the day in and day out.

  43. We live in a world of choice. It’s your choice to stay and continue or to leave and change…or to change and not leave. Having just returned from a one year RTW there are plenty of people asking if we think it’s something everyone should do…I think everyone should, at least once in their life, stretch and reach and make themselves uncomfortable. It’s not supposed to be easy…but it’s doable! Either do it, or decide to stay…but don’t decide to be unhappy and in-between.

  44. OH MY GOD.

    Where were you 7 years ago? You took all my jumbled thoughts and squeezed them into a heartfelt, concise article.

    I’m no more unique than Barb of Hole in the Donut or Bethany of Beers and Beans – since i’m already on the path to this major RTW trip, I definitely have the :what happens after” question in my head.

    The truth? No idea. All I know is I have zero regrets on what happened previously. We spend innumerable amounts of time worrying about the future instead of sinking in the moment.

    Travel pulls me away from those chains of the future.

    In my darkest moments, I danced with returning to school, finish up a degree, but realized how once again, I was playing into a system set up by someone else’s rules.

    To pay $35,000 and emerge from school in my 40’s, probably obtaining a job much like the one I had before made no sense.

    Travel is now my university – and somehow know I’ll learn far more valuable, rewarding insights.

    This sounds final, but to go back is probably not an option, definitely not a desired option. However, that is my choice. Yours might be different.

    So, what I do is go forward. Push through each moment with some clarity and resolve.

    I already had a mid life crisis 7 years ago when I left the ex, this time it’s mid life crisis deux.

    Guess what I’m trying to say is this:
    Reflect on how you really want to live your life. Blow away those external factors that cloud judgement. Houses, jobs – all those things can be bought or procured again. You may not believe me, but it’s true. Map out your authentic life on paper, not the reality you currently exist in. What does that authentic life look like?

    Maybe it’s time to set your own rules? I agree with Gillian – you have choice. Take it from somebody who concluded she didn’t have any. If I can remold what is a quality life, who I want to be, how I want to live – you can do this, too!

    As a Gen-Xer, we had inklings to alter how our parents existed, but not the means. Now you do, Gen-Y is showing us the way, opening that door.

    Don’t be afraid to take it. :)

    Finally, what most scratches the back of my throat is the insinuation there is only ONE way to live and thrive. That tunnel vision inbred in us after post-secondary is straight up B.S. (to be blunt). What travel can do is awaken your viewpoint on how people live everywhere else, there is always another way.

    So thankful I found this! Been out of the loop for a while!

  45. This is a wonderful discussion — thanks to Matt for initiating it!

    I think the problem is that not enough people in the U.S. are even exposed to the possibility of long-term travel until they’re well past college. We were all raised to “be successful” and focus on only one career path and everything we did in our teens & twenties was for that purpose. Only a few got lucky and had someone tell them or, even better, show them that there are alternative ways to live your life.

    While my parents did their best with extremely limited incomes, they certainly weren’t thinking about “broadening my horizons” with offers to fund a gap year type trip. Despite being a top student, it took me years of flailing around in all manner of jobs to find something I truly enjoyed (and had previously never thought of as a job): flight attendant. For a whole host of reasons, it completely changed my life.

    I have dealt with many of the same challenges that Matt describes: wanting the comfort & security of a relationship, job, house, car, and a bunch of other worldly possessions. But, in the end, those things have never made me happy. I ultimately learned, in my late 20’s, that I would only find true happiness within and for me that meant getting rid of all the things that were tying me down (yes, including the relationship!) and setting off on a trip around the world. Unfortunately I didn’t have the funds to take off for very long, so I settled for 2 months in Europe.

    Ever since, I have cycled between phases of wanting to stay put for awhile (and save up money) and wanting to be on the road indefinitely. Luckily I’ve never had a problem finding work when I wanted it although it has sometimes taken a lot of convincing of prospective employers that I won’t just bail on them when the traveling mood strikes.

    I’m in traveling mode again now. Leaving for a true 7+month RTW trip on August 1st.

    All I can say to Matt and fellow “undecideds” is (and I know this is trite and probably repetitive of others) “YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE!!!” Don’t settle for okay. Make it nothing less than great and preferably fantastic!

  46. So what gives??? Is it depression, mid life crisis, extrem borden with
    life???? I just turn 30, and I feel that I’ve lost all motivation to everything and anything I’ve ever enjoyed; I went to college didn’t do so well but whatever I graduated, keep changing jobs cuz I would get bord and extrey irritable, yet I was making a six figured income in a bad economie, living life ala sex n da city, gave up my job to pursue my dream if becoming a doctor, drop out if medical school and now feel completely dis array n confuse at what I want in life, Im 30 what’s wrong with me. .I don’t get it, anything I start I quickly get bord n drop it…. :(
    I’ve always been one with a plan, go getter, high achiever, big dreamer, now I’m just tier, un motivated, n confused, this state of being is very fustrading n difficult n overwhelming what is one to do, I am completely out of options….

  47. I’m part-way reading through “Screw Work – Let’s Play”. Maybe it’s a book that you’ll find interesting.

    The book mentions that you can use envy as a clue to figure out what you want. In your case, it clearly indicates that you want to travel. I think your problem – indeed all of our problems – stem for the fact that we have a certain safety zone: our careers, dogs, partners and so forth. Deep down, we realise that there’s something unsatisfying about it; it’s like a gilded cage from which we can see no escape.

    I’m going to suggest the following seemingly trite proverb might actually be useful: “by the inch, life’s a cinch, by the yard, life is hard”. You feel trapped because you’ve got job security, and of course the dogs need feeding. What I would suggest is that, instead of viewing travelling as an all-or-nothing thing, try to see how you could fit this passion within your current framework.

    Let’s start with an idea, that, oh, I dunno, you wanted to go backpacking around the Far East. Instead of giving up everything to pursue it for a year or two, ask yourself how you might accommodate it on a more modest scale – say two weeks. Now, that easily fits within a two-week vacation, and ought to be very achievable. Think of it as a little taster for the life you might like to lead. Leave your partner for two weeks – it’s only two weeks. He’s not going to die in that time. And even if he does, those are the breaks in life. As regards the dogs, let him look after them. If he’s not willing to do that, then put them in a kennel. To hell with the expense, because it ultimately boils down to this: do you want to open your life up to ways that you find fulfilling, or are you too scared to leave the cage?

    You should also be aware that many large companies have provision for giving staff an extended leave of absense. So that’s one avenue you can explore, too.

    I once heard a monk who said “I’d like to catch the guy who said that life wasn’t supposed to be fun, and give him a good thump”. That’s something to think about! Maybe life isn’t supposed to be an endless round of drudgery, dissatisfaction and regrets. Maybe life is supposed fulfilling, fun, and filled with endless possibilities. And maybe the difference in what we utlimately experience is based on what we choose to believe.

    I wish you good look and happiness in your choices.

  48. How did I just find this post now? I’m 33 on an RTW because in my 20s I worked my butt off to jump start my career and then once I ‘made it’ I realized I no longer wanted it.

    Now I just need to figure out what I want!

  49. What a great post and so true! We dealt with the same issues before deciding to leave everything and just go travelling. We are in a very happy place right now because we have the time to do things we want, when we want. But we are also using our time to discuss, dream, and brainstorm about the future. Me and my partner are determining what is important and necessary for us to lead a more balanced life. Work is important (I am ambitious and want to achieve something) but it need’s to be combined with my personal life. How this is going to work out I don’t know, and it scares me because at one point we are probably going to return home. I do not want to work 12 hours a day and be tired on the weekends anhymore. So flexible working hours and creative jobs and maybe even multiple sources of income are things I am looking into. I hope this gives me the freedom to be comfortable in my life as a whole and not having to divide myself between work and private time.
    I loved to share thoughts on this topic….

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