Jeff Jung had big ambitions. He planned to go places. He aspired to learn new skills -- snow skiing, for example, which always looked so beautiful and thrilling. He wanted to become fluent in Spanish.
Step one was quitting his job. The former marketing director, who had been toiling long hours for a medical manufacturing company in San Antonio, Texas, was nearing 40 when he wiped his calendar clean.
He awarded himself at least a year -- he would end up taking more -- to accomplish his goals. He traveled, roaming South America and parts of Europe. He hit the slopes, first for a week of lessons in Breckenridge, Colo., then for a full month of skiing in the mountains of Argentina. Finally, he enrolled in Spanish classes in Buenos Aires and, over much of a year in Ecuador, Colombia, and elsewhere, he became as fluent as a native speaker.
Along the way, Jung (right) also became a self-taught expert in another subject: the midlife career break, also known as a "gap year." It's an unfettered period that many people are seizing in their 40s and 50s -- a chance to reflect and plan new directions. The freedom of a gap year enables a burned-out former accountant to attend art school, for example, or write a novel, or hike the Appalachian Trail, before going back to work in a wildlife sanctuary -- or opening a bakery.
Anything goes. The point is to find a better path, to try the untried. A lot of people travel because the time off gives them such a rare chance to explore the world, or at least part of it.
"But not everyone wants to travel," says Jung, who, at 41, has settled in Bogota, Colombia, where he markets instructional videos for people preparing for career breaks and blogs for his own website. "Even if they're not traveling, people are leaving their jobs for a while, and they really want to make it count. There are really three things people seem to want to do. Volunteering is very, very popular. The second thing is focusing on a hobby or learning a new skill. It could be sailing; it could be a cooking class."
No. 3 is a different sort of travel -- more like local exploring, Jung says. People might take day trips or travel in some specialized way. One man took a long paragliding trip. Couples spend time on a riverboat.
"People from all walks of life are doing this," Jung says. "It's not just the corporate executive taking time off. It's the nurse, it's the teacher, it's the social worker, the salesman. They come from all backgrounds."
Civic Ventures, a nonprofit think tank for baby boomers, helps people explore so-called encore careers, a concept that is gaining importance as lifespans expand. The organization released new research in March suggesting that it takes an average of 18 months to transition from one job to another -- a period that often occurs after a retirement or a layoff in the form of a gap year, says Marci Alboher, vice president of the organization.
"Taking time to get reacquainted with yourself and what's going on in the world is pretty useful," she says. "You can catch your breath and do some preparing -- figure out if you should go back to school, get some retraining. Ask yourself 'What do I want?'"
[Related: 10 Insightful Books for Career Changers]
No hard numbers give shape to the trend, but books, newspapers and magazines are giving more attention to gap years, and more midlifers seem to be making time to try the concept, Alboher says. "The idea," she says, "is to reinvent ourselves in the years when we used to be winding down."
Experts agree that the employer-employee relationship has radically changed. The thought of working in the same place for 40 years and leaving with a gold watch seems hopelessly quaint. Companies slash their payrolls. Employees job-hop for advancement -- or because of corporate downsizing and layoffs. The trend is toward greater individualism, says Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University who wrote the book The Narcissism Epidemic.
Twenge, who studies cultural differences across generations, says the upshot is a shift in priorities -- a heightened willingness to leave a job. "The idea of having time off, having flexibility, not wanting to work overtime" is important to people now, Twenge says. "How central is work to your life? The trend is toward work not being as central."
Even when a job loss is traumatic, a long break often results in a new purpose and renewed sense of bliss after six months or so, says psychologist Nancy K. Schlossberg, who has studied laid-off aerospace workers.
"Taking a break can refresh you, reinvigorate you, revitalize you," says Schlossberg, author of Retire Smart, Retire Happy and Revitalizing Retirement. In a lot of cases, she says, including her own son's, a gap year affords time to try out a new place to live.
Mark Schlossberg, who is 44, recently sold a children's learning center and reached a deal in March to rent out his house in Bethesda, Md. He, his wife and 1-year-old daughter are moving into a rental home near his mother in Sarasota, Fla.
"We've always loved Sarasota," despite concerns about the hot summers, the younger Schlossberg says. "People are friendly. It's a laid-back environment, not the hyper-competitive rat race that Bethesda is. I thought 'Why not try it for a year?'"
During that time, Schlossberg and his wife, Michele, are planning to launch two web-based companies that they can run from anywhere. We just want to be careful before making a big commitment," he says of their move.
The internet has helped enormously in making gap years more popular, some experts believe. Personal stories circulate constantly by means of travel blogs, Facebook and Twitter. One moment, a baby boomer might know nothing of the gap-year concept; the next, he is reading a detailed account of a year spent volunteering at an orphanage in Africa or bicycling across America.
Websites like Jung's have sprung up, offering tips on what to try, where to go and how to plan for it. David and Carol Porter (top and left), who sold a mortgage company in Michigan when they reached their 50s, traveled extensively during their own career break, and finally settled in Scottsdale, Ariz. There, newly concerned about how long their money would last, they launched a second-act career helping others take vacations.
The Roaming Boomers, as they call themselves, try out novel adventures -- a train trip across Canada, a helicopter flight over a fiery lava flow -- and post photos and recommendations online.
Sherry Ott, another internet entrepreneur, blogs at Ottsworld.com, and is a co-founder of Meet, Plan, Go!, a group organized specifically to help people prepare for the most daunting type of gap year -- the extended overseas trip.
In 2010, its first year, Meet, Plan, Go! staged seminars in 11 cities and attracted 800 would-be travelers, Ott says. Last year, the organization expanded to 17 cities and drew 1,200 people. "We're creating the movement," Ott says.
Career breaks are still alien to many people "because we're taught, 'Work, work, work. Then you get to retire,'" Ott says. However, far more information is available now than even a few years ago. In 2006, when she was a burned-out information technology worker in New York City, Ott scoured the internet looking for tips and found a useful book, Susan Griffith's Gap Years for Grown Ups, which was reissued in 2011.
Faced with opposition from her parents and friends, Ott left anyway, learning on her own as she explored 23 countries in 16 months. In India, she joined the relief organization Cross-Cultural Solutions, volunteering time to teach English and tech skills to the poor in Delhi.
"That whole experience was life-changing," says Ott, who is 42. She discovered that she has a strong interest in developing nations -- "the grittier, the better. That's when I first realized that I didn't want to go back home, and I had to come up with a solution to stay on the road."
With modest income from her blog, which attracts advertising, and from doing photography and running Meet, Plan, Go!, Ott now lives as a nomad, connecting from afar by means of Skype and her laptop.
Plenty of gap-year veterans are happy after deciding to be volunteers, whether at home or abroad, says Jung, the Texan who learned skiing and Spanish in Latin America.
"They seem to get more out of it than the people they're helping," Jung says. "Especially if they come from a corporate world, where they're putting in a lot of time and effort and don't feel good afterward, it's a chance to see the impact of their work."
As a bonus, the experience looks great on that next job resume, Jung adds.
"It shows the employer that you did something besides sit on the couch."
This is the first installment of a SecondAct.com series on Midlife Gap Years: