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Downshifting, a Social and Economic Phenomena

YOWUSA.COM, 8-September-00
Constance Finch

The numbers are in -- we're making more money by working longer hours. Precious, irretrievable hours that we should be spending with our children. Consequently, there's a new trend on the horizon called  downshifting. It is also known as voluntary simplicity, economizing or simply just "getting a life". But whatever its called, it is a growing social phenomenon where people are choosing to taking less so as to have more quality in their lives.

A recent article in The New York Times describes this way of life: "Choosing to buy and earn less--to give up income and fast-track success for more free time and a lower-stress life--involves a quiet personal revolt against the dominant culture of getting and spending."

This sort of "downshifting" is termed a "major and growing trend of the '90s," one that "shows signs of going broadly mainstream, across age groups and class lines."

In short, it's making a simple, deliberate decision to work less and spend less. It also involves taking a reduction in hours, pay and/or perks to improve the quality of life. The Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, New York says voluntary simplicity is one of the top trends of the '90's. Experts say it's probably the most fundamental shift in lifestyles since the depression.

The "Who" Of Downshifting

Believe it or not, there are some people who actually aren't worried about losing their jobs. In fact, some of them aren't particularly worried about having jobs, lots of money or even having ties to the civilized world. They're a new breed of workers who are neither mommy-trackers, daddy-trackers nor fast-trackers.

These people are the downshifters. They want to slow down at work, so they can upshift in other areas of their lives. It's not the same old workers just trying to juggle an increasingly heavier load--it's actually a group of people who want to bring the whole race at work down to a slower speed, so they don't have to "get a life." They want to enjoy the ones they already have--at home and in the community.

"I know some people who actually are saying, 'I'm not going to work for a Fortune 500. I'm not going to get into that,'" says Andrea Saveri, a research director specializing in workplace issues and technology for the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, California.

There is a growing voice in favor of a more forgiving workplace that can allow people to give their non-working lives more of a priority. Men -particularly fathers - have joined the chorus of complaints against the ever-longer working hours that seem to be the price of career advancement or of being able simply to stand still and avoid redundancy.

One telling statistic is that a third of fathers of young children work more than 50 hours a week. Downshifting also offers opportunities to groups to whom the workplace has been inflexible. Women returning to employment, people with caring responsibilities for children or elderly relatives, older workers and people with disabilities might all benefit from a move away from the traditional model of full-time work, which conventional downsizing has tended to reassert.

There have always been those who've looked with skepticism on the tradeoffs involved in upward mobility. Working mothers, for instance, have long sought part-time or flexible jobs to spend more time with their children. But experts such as Gerald Celente, who heads the New York-based Trends Research Institute, a market researching firm, who called downshifting a leading trend and believes the ranks will grow as younger generations join boomers in yearning for something deeper.

A large national study by the Merck Family Fund in 1995 found 62 percent of surveyed adults agreeing with the statement, "I would like to simplify my life."  A British poll determined that 6% of the population took a voluntary cut in income during 1996, and 6% more intended to do so in 1997. Last year, 49% of adults surveyed by U.S. News & World Report said society puts too much emphasis on work.

Why It Happened

The emphasis on work, with the accompanying high stress, long hours and huge layoffs has led some hard-charging professionals to question the corporate climb. It started with the economic downturn of the late 1980s and early '90s and is gaining momentum as the huge baby boomer population enters its 40s and 50s. Mr. Celente states:

"They're previewing their mortality in the illness and death of their parents. They're saying, 'I'm 50 years old, I have another 20 good years . . . and I'm going to start doing what I want to do,'"

In short, we are experiencing a revolution in the workplace. Delayering, downsizing, redundancies, cutbacks - all have left companies heading for corporate anorexia. The few employees left behind are overworked and discontented, fearful for their jobs. They feel little love for employers: survivors wonder when will the reaper take them out. Just when everyone needs to pull together, when loyalty is at a premium, employees are disgruntled, upset and looking for other options.

At the core of the movement are values. People are valuing money and possessions less, and valuing time, health and peace of mind more. Regardless of the degree to which people scale back at work, pare down their lifestyles or relax the overall pace of their lives, downshifting is about people separating what they want from what they need to be happy.

"It's happening for a number of reasons," says Ms. Saveri. "The economy, the kinds of jobs that are being created, what technology allows an organization to do, what technology allows an individual to do and all the burnout. So you get this weird kind of convergence of factors."

Part of this trend may be a subtle reaction to modem advances. Humankind has taken two giant steps forward. Down-shifters want to take a step back.

"Technology can actually be used to help people downshift," says Saveri. "Cell phones, fax machines, pagers and personal computers linked to remote networks certainly give people more options about when and where to work".

But technology can, and does, create problems. Because people can work anywhere, they are working everywhere. Worse: They're expected to work everywhere. The result is that technology itself has increased, rather than decreased, the workload and the expectations. People literally get stuck in the virtual office, from which there's no respite. People are saying: "Stop the world, I want to get off."

Companies have actually helped to create this particular breed of shuffle-footed workers. Over the past years, as Corporate America has downsized, reorganized and reshuffled itself into oblivion, it has told employees: Here are all these nice work-family benefits you can take advantage of to balance your life. On the other hand, we're going to work you so hard that they won't mean much.

What it boils down to is this: If employees are overworked, they can't balance the rest of their lives, no matter how many perks they are given. It's as if companies have said, "We'll give you a gourmet meal but no time to enjoy it."

These workers aren't exactly angry, and they don't want you to figure out the meaning of life (or at least the meaning of their lives). They just don't fit into the traditional fast-track mold anymore. They're measuring success by their own standards. And they're demanding companies be more flexible in how they deal with them--and their greatest asset: their time. It was just a matter of time before these workers started drifting out to sea and it's going to take a pretty impressive tactical net to reel them back in. Large companies are heading for big trouble unless they move fast. They are reducing their staffing to a core upon which, ironically, they are far more dependent than ever before. Yet that core has less reason than ever before to remain loyal.

Employers, beware. The tight labor market means workers are jumping jobs for even minimal pay hikes. Recruiters are finding they don't need to dangle fat pay raises to lure away workers. Many will leave for better job opportunities, location or attention to family issues. " It's amazing,'' says Judy Homer, of J.B. Homer Associates, a New York-based search firm. ``It doesn't have to be just cold, hard cash. Now it's about quality of life.' With the unemployment rate at a 28-year low of 4.3% in May, jobs are plentiful. Many workers are on the lookout because job cuts in the early '90s eroded corporate loyalty".

In a survey released in February by Chicago-based Aon Consulting, more than a quarter of more than 2,000 workers polled would switch jobs for a raise of 10% or less. Some are even willing to accept pay cuts for what they consider a better quality of life.

Keith Collins left a job as a merchandising manager with JC Penney even though it meant a $7,000 salary cut. ``It was more important to be happy,'' says Collins, 38, now an inventory placement specialist at Advance Auto Parts in Roanoke, Va.

In high-tech fields, workers will jump to startup companies that may not pay more but are on the cutting edge. "`Loyalties have shifted. There's more loyalty to coworkers than companies,''' says Jim Dutton, an executive at Activerse in Austin, Texas. Dutton has jumped between four companies in five years for what he terms `opportunity.'

Employers are taking note of the shift. Instead of offering higher wages, many are touting less-tangible perks, such as telecommuting or enhanced benefits. It seems more and more that the factor most affecting worker commitment is management's recognition of personal and family life.

How Downshifting Is Accomplished

There are two camps of downshifters: those who just want to work less (downscalers), and those who want to break out of the corporate mold--temporarily or permanently (mold melters).

For those individuals who feel burdened by the demands of working long hours just to maintain their consumption levels, the first step is to examine their spending habits and then negotiate a reduction of hours whenever possible.

Getting and spending have added meaning to our lives, argues Juliet Schor, in her landmark book The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer.  This is because we live in a society dominated by the Protestant work ethic, which views material success as a symbol of righteousness. Today's consumerism poses a bigger problem than it did before, she says. It's no longer about keeping up with the Joneses. It's about keeping up with Friends and impressing people at work.

In the fifties and sixties, most people lived in neighborhoods where income ranges were relatively small, and competitive consumption was not so onerous. But adults today spend less and less time interacting with their neighbors. Television and the workplace are the new neighborhood. In the modern workplace, where the power and income spread has reached unprecedented levels, maintaining appearances is an especially daunting task.

The recommendation is that as individuals we take a step back when we feel we must have a particular good that does not serve some clear and obvious need. We should ponder closely the hidden messages in the commercials. Will the new car or the new dress really help us get the mate or the promotion? And toward what other purchases will such new goods likely lead us?

Downshifters, Shor says, "go to instate camping instead of Europe. They drive a seven-year-old car or maybe take the bus to work. They stop going to first-run movies." While it might seem a hardship for some people at first, but for virtually all of them, these changes are worth it.

The next step for those in the "downscaling" camp is to renegotiate a reduction in work hours, content or responsibilities. Downshifting can be interpreted as the next level beyond work-life balancing. It requires that companies be even more creative in their concept of what jobs are and the time it takes to do them--and what it means to integrate business needs with employee motivation, talent and the pursuit of happiness.

For the "mold melters" who want to break out of the corporate straightjacket, the first step is also to examine spending, but in a much more radical light. How much are you currently spending? How much of that is related to your current work position? Next, form an extensive plan, both for your new work (whether starting your own business, becoming an artist or changing careers) and for your new downscaled lifestyle. This may take both time and extensive research. Talk with people who are living the life you envision. Read, explore and try out new ideas. Ideally, this is done while retaining your current position, although there are those hearty souls who simply go cold-turkey.

The Impact of Downshifting

Having been raised on a diet of basic fashion, basic food and back- to- basics politics, Americans are now trying to live the entire basic experience - much to the regret of the marketing departments that created the trend in the first place

"Everyone got so caught up in this whole simplicity-in-fashion and simplicity- in-food that they eventually just said, 'Hey, I want to cash in my chips and lead the whole simple experience'," says America' s most celebrated trend spotter, Faith Popcorn. "That means people are trading in everything from the big job in an ugly city and moving to a more manageable, urban center and they're taking that whole clothing rail down to the Goodwill and getting rid of all the stuff that they just don't need."

For anyone with a product to sell, this is a rather frightening trend, especially when we all have memories of past recessions and most of the downshifters are the consumers they most want to reach. "Don't think that big retailers and designers are going to go bust, " says Ken Holmes, a retail analyst on Wall Street. "All those 'Chic Simple' books that are selling thousands of copies are preaching the notion of a simple life and in the end are actually making you buy more". Mr. Holmes also states:

"I think marketing strategists have been on to this from the start and have recognized that yes, there are going to be a small handful of puritans who will use an elastic band as their wallet instead of a Hermes pocketbook, but the majority will want to just throw all their ugly stuff out and buy things that make them look like they're downshifting."

"A lot of this may be surface, but corporations should beware," says Popcorn. "Whether you're a British department store or an American supermarket, you're going to have to be on top of this movement. Of course it's not going to be for everyone and there will be those who go in the opposite direction, but the consumer is going to be wiser and more cynical because of this movement."

Even without a long dissertation on easing environmental impact, or the positive financial benefits of spending less and saving more, it's easy to see that breaking out of the fast paced work hard-spend conspicuously lifestyle will bring positive benefits to both workers and companies.  Workers will have the chance to spend their precious time doing what they value most while corporations will benefit from more loyal, creative and energetic employees.

In the long run, the downshifting trend is good for everyone if no other reason than parents will be able to spend more time with their children. What a great way to begin the new millennium!