Like many new graduates, Suzy Parker postponed job-hunting to travel after university, visiting New Zealand, Fiji and Australia, working in bars and hostels and generally having the time of her life.
For most, the gap year ends there, with new friends, enviable photo albums and probably – in the current jobs climate at least – a weary lurch toward the first rung of some kind of career ladder.
However a decade later, at the age of 31, Parker is still backpacking – country-hopping, working minimum-wage jobs to fund the next plane ticket and with no immediate plans to ‘settle down’ like many of her peers.
Living the dream thus far has involved living and working in Thailand, Greece, Croatia, Spain, London and Newquay.
With no career ladder to worry about, Parker's had the freedom to simply quit jobs in the past to take spur-of-the-moment trips to destinations such as Panama, Beijing, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Las Vegas and New York. If there’s a festival she fancies, she’ll work it in exchange for free tickets and accommodation.
“It wasn’t that I planned to have a particular lifestyle. I'm happy with my life, so I guess I just do what makes me happy,” she explains.
“The only way I think of it is that I'm lucky enough to have this freedom to move around and take opportunities when they arise. Many of my friends travel a lot too, so there’s always somewhere to go.”
It’s a forever-holiday lifestyle plenty of us view with envy. To abandon promotion chasing, leave the desk and stick a pin in a map.
What stops the rest of us doing it? The flipside is Parker sometimes lives with her parents when back in the UK to save up for the next trip – something a few people would struggle to do post-25 – and we equate mortgages and steady jobs with security.
But as huge numbers of us struggle to see raises in line with inflation, work for free in creative industries and chase contracts dangled tantalisingly throughout depressing intern years – never mind the difficulties of the property ladder – Parker doesn’t feel left behind or worse off than her peers.
“To be honest, I know plenty of people who had to move in with their parents at this age anyway because they're saving for a wedding, or they can't afford a deposit or even rent in this climate,” she says.
“No, I don't need my degree to work minimum-wage jobs, but I'm not convinced I'd be any better off going down the 'normal' route after seeing friends and family really struggling to get on the property ladder or even just pay their bills.
“I do want the stability of a house and a career at some point, but I really don't think there's any rush. I might as well do what I enjoy – seeing the world and living in some incredible places.”
She adds: “As for living with my parents, I’ve never been anything other than happy to see them for a few months.
“I know I won't ever stop travelling and having new experiences, but there will of course be a point where I am more settled and will move my career in the direction I want. I just don't think there should be a pressure to do that until you are ready.”
The financial reality of living such a life is saving hard between trips, which sometimes means actively cutting back socially. While a few nights in in exchange for a beach in Bali somehow feels doable, living on a shoestring also means inventive accommodation.
Parker house-shares with strangers, sets up beds in her car boot, stays in hostels, on sofas and in tents (setting up on a Spanish nudist beach one memorable week) and once slept in a converted ambulance for months. All of which would appeal to some, and be a nightmare for others.
It also means taking jobs when and where they come up. Having worked in bars, hostels, hotels, cleaning companies and nurseries, as a dental nurse and a teaching assistant, Parker’s CV means she can turn her hand to several types of work, and furthermore, usually with the kind of employers used to a high turnover of temporary staff – so flitting off for a few months with little notice rarely burns any bridges.
“I don't necessarily plan what I'm going to do, I take it all as it comes. I regularly live and work in Newquay – a lot of the jobs there are seasonal, though I’ve also made use of my teaching assistant qualification there on temporary contracts.
“I save up as much as I can and I’m lucky enough to be able to return to many of the jobs I've worked at.”
Does she ever feel judged by those pursuing a more traditional route? “Some people seem to judge the way I live, but I think it stems from a lack of understanding and maybe from an old-fashioned outlook that says we should live our lives routinely; get a career and ‘settle down’.
“Most people are happy for me – older people tend to agree and say, ‘Travel while you’re young!’ and lots of people say they wish they had or could.
“I think the world is changing. Now there are so many more possibilities for people to choose different life paths.”
And it’s true. There’s a wealth of stories out there these days, of family gap years, grown-up gap years, sabbaticals and career overhauls – people following their hearts, making big changes and trying a leap into the unknown.
Choosing a career and building a home makes plenty of people happy, and so it should: it’s not the dull, dreary option for most people, it’s the exciting, fulfilling one.
But if you’re reading this with itchy feet, at the desk of a job you hate but feel stuck with, really consider what’s stopping you doing the same thing – is it just the idea of what you’re supposed to doing? She's just returned from New Zealand, via Australia and Bali, and is currently enjoying a month in Sri Lanka. Where would you rather be right now?
Images: Suzy Parker