Downshifting – Changing the gears

Tired of the constant pressure of corporate life Bruce decided he no longer needed this kind of life. With no dependents he and his wife sold-up house and business and moved into a rustic coastal cottage they now call home. Turning to what they love, voluntarily dabbling in a variety of ventures of their choice and simplifying their lifestyle will be the new context in which they life and work.

In different shapes and forms, thousands are doing the same. And it is not only those with the financial muscle or those close to the end of their careers who are doing so!

The business-speak for the trend is ‘downshifting’ but the reality is that it is nothing new. Downshifting is the pursuit of meaning and purpose in both the nature and expression of one’s work and then doing whatever it takes to achieve it. This often means taking a pay cut, moving to the country, getting out the rat-race and turning a hobby into a source of income. In fact people have been doing it for centuries. When the motivation for downshifting has taken some sort of spiritual context it is often easier to identify and label: The Desert Fathers, the Amish and the Quakers all being cases in point. Another expression of downshifting was the hippy movement Р‘the flower power children’ of the 1970’s where alternative lifestyles were the choice many made and in so doing created a distinct sub-culture of their own.

This not-so-new phenomena but it is happening in increasing numbers. In fact in the USA it is said that 1 in 4 have taken pay cuts in the quest for a better quality life whilst in the UK the ratio is said to be 1:8. In developing countries such as South Africa statistics are harder to come by as the nature and form of downshifting is likely to differ slightly to that of the developed countries.

As undeniable as this trend is understanding what drives it is important. At first glance the trend is paradoxical and makes little sense in the light of a consumer-capitalistic culture. Greed, dissatisfaction with what one has and the unquenchable thirst for more, are fuelled by a relentless advertising blitz that feeds this frenzy. This is partly why Sweden has now banned TV advertising to children.

Contemporary downshifting is driven by three major and inter-related change drivers. Firstly there is technology. The ability to virtual office and connect with almost anyone anywhere has lifted the restrictions on ‘where and how work gets done’. Coffee houses, the smart ones at least (Starbucks being a good example) understand they are as much an office as they are a coffee shop. The Starbuck philosophy of being the ‘third place’ away from home and the office has meant that in fact they are becoming ‘the office’ for many. Technology means that set geographic locations for work are no longer necessarywell perhaps this is not for everyone, but certainly for an increasing number of people and industries it is becoming more and more part of their reality. I am currently sitting in a coffee shop, hooked up to their power source, consuming way too much coffee (does ‘bottomless’ have a bottom?, cell / mobile phone at hand, with a gadget that tells me there is a hotspot which means I can email and am connected with the world out there and all the while writing this article. Point made I would think!

Secondly there is the change in institutions. From what we expect a company to look like to how we celebrate Christmas, institutions as we know them are changing. Traditions that are perceived as being devoid of meaning are being questioned and challenged. The status quo, the way things are done, the norms and conventions are all being scrutinised for what value they add and where such inquiry or searching is prohibited or restricted, frustrations and resentment is not hard to find. The inflexibility of adapting to the need for institutional change adds momentum to the downshifting lemming run. We know that institutions that don’t adapt, die. Where there is a refusal to adapt some are using their technology to simply by-pass, create alternatives and make bold statements through such actions.

Thirdly there is the shift in values as evidenced by a new generation making their mark in the corporate sector that is driving the downshifting trend. A new set of questions are being asked by Xers (Generation X: mid-teens to mid-thirties) in the workplace. Recently I was chatting to the person who oversees the development of the ‚ÄòBright Young Things‚Äô in an international and Fortune 500 company. He was contrasting on the questions that Boomers (those between 35 and 55) used to ask compared to those being asked by the Xers. “Boomers,” he said, “would ask questions such as: What will my package be? How quickly can I get ahead here? What‚Äôs my career path? Now I am asked a whole different set of questions – questions such as what does this company stand for and what value does it add? If I work here will I also be able to have a life?” Then after a pause and with a slightly exasperated look he added, “Why, the other day I was even asked: can I bring my dog to work?”