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Downshifting: voluntary simplicity

From Thoreau to ’60s hippies, there is nothing new about those who give up worldly goods and try to live off the land, but today’s new wave of followers of the voluntary simplicity movement are radical in well, their lack of radicalness.

By Kirsten Dirksen

They’re not dropping out of society and it’s not even really a movement, but more and more people are choosing to “downshift”; instead of giving up cars, work and city living for a life of country farming (though some are), today’s downshifters are simply trying to fight the mainstream plague of overconsumption and debt that has forced so many in the western world into living overworked lives by reclaiming their time.

When a flat screen tv becomes a “necessity”

When a car, home air conditioning a cell phone and a flat screen tv have become “necessities” for living (according to 91%, 70%, 49% and 5% of Americans polled, respectively) and a vacation home and a pool are considered necessary to live the “good life” (according to about a third of those polled), it’s not difficult to understand why working hours continue to rise.

This isn’t new information, but in just the past decade it’s only gotten worse; between 1970 and 2002, Americans increased their working hours by 20% and in the past decade the percentage of Americans who consider a microwave a necessity has doubled to 68%. Not to mention that poor group of slaves to work, who consider a flat screen TV and an iPod necessities (5% and 3%, respectively).

The more we make, the more we need

Even as our income rise, there is always something more we need. Although Britons are about three times better off than their parents, about 60% of those surveyed– and about half of those in the highest income groups- claim they can’t afford to buy all that they need. In Australia, despite also being three times better off than their parents, two-thirds say the same.

If we make it we spend it

A study by the US census group found that the more we make the more we spend: those making less than $70,000 spend an average of $31,737, while those making $150,000- and-over spend an average of $118,674. “In dollar amounts, the $150,000-and-over group spent more for every item examined than did the less-than-$70,000 group.”

While nearly 3 out of 4 Americans polled say they feel pressure to spend too much, more than half said they would be willing to trade a day off per week for a day’s pay. And many are actually doing it.

Downshifting to less money and more time

In the past, the reaction to this state of overwork has been to “drop out”, to quit the “rat race” altogether, but today, instead of drastically changing their lives by moving to the country or living off the land, this newest group of life simplifiers have found a less radical option: downshifting their workload.

Whether they leave their current job for one with less hours or simply renegotiate with their current employer, it’s estimated that there are around 12 million downshifters in Europe, another million in Australia and several million in the US. Most commonly they are reducing their hours for less pay, but there are other methods to downshift, including:

  • Flexible working locations – a mix of telecommuting and working from the office.
  • Flexible hours – often tailoring workdays to better match those of children or spouses.
  • Compressed hours – working a regular number of work hours over a shorter number days.
  • Annualised hours – working a total number of hours over a year, rather than over a week.
  • Shifting to part-time work.
  • Job sharing – sharing a job normally done by one person and dividing the pay, vacation time and other benefits.
  • Demoting yourself by asking for a lower-level job with less hours and less pay.

A new social class

Over a quarter of British adults aged 30-59 have chosen to move to a lower paid job in order to spend more time with their families. Clive Hamilton, the author of this study claims his research points to a new social class who “consciously reject consumerism and material aspirations.”

According to his research, about 60% of downshifters have young children and most are motivated by a desire to take control of their time. “They do it because the excessive pursuit of money and materialism comes at a substantial cost to their own lives and those of their families.”

Are you ready to downshift?

One of the most vocal figures in this non-movement is Britain Tracey Smith, organizer of National Downshifting Week and a downshifter herself doesn’t advocate this change for everyone. “The ‘why’ should not be simply a way out from something but a positive move toward something. Bit like an election where we vote for a particular political party, not because we want that particular party to win, but simply to get the existing one out.” 

Before making any radical changes she suggests asking yourself these questions:

  • What is my main purpose in life?
  • Do material things really matter to me?
  • What will I achieve through doing this?
  • Have I an alternative plan should it not work out?

Can you afford it?

The basic principle is to reduce your working hours along with your consumption, but for many this is an abstract idea. The idea has become mainstream enough that even the financial services company Prudential has created a “Downshift Calculator“. They ask their clients to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 questions like:

  • Do you have a skill that would make self-employment an easy option?
  • Do you have any financial commitments that mean you could not live on a lower income?
  • Do you have a shortlist of ideas that you might be able to turn into a money making proposition?

Downshift for one week

Since the big work/life questions might be intimidating to ponder all at once, for those who’d rather take a baby-step, there’s National Downshifting Week. Organizer Tracey Smith calls it an opportunity to “‘dip your toes’ into a lifestyle with a slower pace”. The Downshifting Week website offers tips for how to “Slow down and green up” targeting schools, individuals and companies.

Activities for individuals include:

  • Book a half-day off work to spend entirely with someone you love.
  • Cut up a credit card.
  • Eliminate 3 non-essential purchases this week.
  • Cook a meal from scratch, using locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, preferably organic.
  • Plant something in the garden you can cultivate and eat and start a compost heap.

Activities for Companies include:

  • Implement suggestions from The Carbon Trust; make huge savings for your firm and the planet.
  • Organise and implement a travel plan and car share scheme.
  • Source local suppliers of ecofriendly paper, office supplies and cleaning products.

It’s simply about slowing down

Though it can mean large changes in individual lives, there’s really nothing new or groundbreaking about downshifting. It’s simply a modification of simplicity trends and in some ways the other face of the more recent Slow Movement.

Slow advocate Carl Honoré makes the connection: “These days more and more of us understand that living in fast-forward is not really living at all… But thankfully there is an alternative to living like a roadrunner. It’s called downshifting. Putting on the brakes is the best way to reclaim your life and reconnect with the people around you that matter most. Downshifting can help you eat, work, play and live better.”