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Downshifting is a social behavior or trend in which individuals live simpler lives to escape from what critics call the rat race of obsessive materialism and to reduce the “stress, overtime, and psychological expense that may accompany it”. It emphasizes finding an improved balance between leisure and work and focusing life goals on personal fulfilment and building relationships instead of the all-consuming pursuit of economic success. The term also refers to the act of reducing the gear of a motor vehicle while driving a manual transmission.
Downshifting, as a concept, shares many characteristics with simple living, but is distinguished, as an alternative form by its focus on moderate change and concentration on an individual comfort level, a gradual approach. In the 1990s this new form of simple living began appearing in the mainstream media and has continually grown in popularity among populations living in industrial societies, especially the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia.
Values and motives
Slowing down the pace of life and spending time meaningfully while not spending money wastefully are principle values of downshifting. Another main tenet is enjoying leisure time in the company of others, especially loved ones, and shunning self-absorption because it resists the normality of individualism and isolation of post-modern society.
The primary motivations for downshifting are gaining leisure time, escaping from work-and-spend cycle, and removing the clutter of unnecessary possessions that are accrued while existing in those societies with the highest standards of living and levels of production. The personal goals of downshifting are simple: To reach a holistic self-understanding and satisfying meaning in life.
Because of its personalized nature and emphasis on many minor changes rather than complete lifestyle overhaul, it attracts downshifters or participants across the socioeconomic spectrum. An intrinsic consequence of downshifting is increased time for non-work-related activities which, combined with the diverse demographics of downshifters, cultivates higher levels of civic engagement and social interaction.
The scope of participation is limitless because all members of society, adults, children, businesses, institutions, organizations, and governments are able to downshift.
In practice, downshifting involves a variety of behavioral and lifestyle changes. The majority of these downshifts are voluntary choices, but natural, life course events, such as the loss of a job or birth of a child, can prompt involuntary downshifting. There is also a temporal dimension because a downshift could be either temporary or permanent.
Work and income
Because downshifting is fundamentally based on dissatisfaction with the conditions and consequences of the workplace environment, the most common form of downshifting is work (or income) downshifting. The philosophy of work-to-live replaces the dominant social ideology of live-to-work. Reorienting economic priorities shifts the work–life balance away from the workplace.
Economically, work downshifts are defined in terms of reductions in either actual or potential income, work hours, and spending levels. Following a path of earnings that is lower than the established market path is a downshift in potential earnings in favor of gaining other non-material benefits.
On an individual level, work downshifting is a voluntary reduction in annual income. Downshifters desire meaning in life outside of work and, therefore, will opt to decrease the amount of time spent at work or work hours. Reducing the number of hours of work, consequently, lowers the amount earned. Simply not working overtime or taking a half-day a week for leisure time, are work downshifts.
Career downshifts are another way of downshifting economically and entail lowering previous aspirations of wealth, a promotion or higher social status. Quitting a job to work locally in the community, from home or to start a business are examples of career downshifts. Although more radical, these changes do not mean stopping work altogether.
Many reasons are cited by workers for this choice and usually center on a personal cost–benefit analysis of current working situations and the quality extracurricular activities. High stress, pressure from employers to increase productivity, and long commutes are the costs of a job. If the downshifter wants more non-material benefits like leisure time, a healthy family life, or personal freedom, then, switching jobs could be a desirable option.
Another aspect of downshifting is being a conscious consumer or actively practicing alternative forms of consumption. Proponents of downshifting point to consumerism as a primary source of stress and dissatisfaction because it creates a society of individualistic consumers who measure both social status and general happiness by an unattainable quantity of material possessions. Instead of buying goods for personal satisfaction, consumption downshifting, purchasing only the necessities, is a way to focus on quality of life rather than quantity.
This realignment of spending priorities promotes the functional utility of goods over their ability to convey status which is evident in downshifters being, in general, less brand-conscious. These consumption habits also facilitate the option of working and earning less because annual spending is proportionally lower. Reducing spending is less demanding than more extreme downshifts in other areas, like employment, as it requires only minor lifestyle changes.
Policies that enable downshifting
Changes to public policy can make downshifting a more realistic option for a greater number of citizens. Universal healthcare and secure pension systems free people from the burden of accumulating wealth in order to build individual safety nets. Unions, business, and governments can implement more flexible working hours, part-time work, and other non-traditional work arrangements that enable people to work less, while still maintaining employment.
The catch-phrase of International Downshifting Week is "Slow Down and Green Up". Whether intentional or unintentional, generally, the choices and practices of downshifters nurture environmental health because they reject the fast-paced lifestyle fuelled by fossil fuels and adopt more sustainable lifestyles. The latent function of consumption downshifting is to reduce, to some degree, the carbon footprint of the individual downshifter. An example is to shift from a corporate to a small farming lifestyle.
As a response the hectic pace of life and stresses in urban areas, downshifting geographically is a relocation to a smaller, rural, or more slow-paced community. This is a more drastic change, but because the access to the internet is widespread and possible, downshifting geographically does not bring total removal from mainstream culture.
Although downshifting is primarily motivated by personal desire and not by a conscious political stance, it does define societal overconsumption as the source of much personal discontent. By redefining life satisfaction in non-material terms, downshifters assume an alternative lifestyle but continue to coexist in a society and political system preoccupied with the economy. In general, downshifters are politically apathetic because mainstream politicians mobilize voters through the hip-pocket nerve, proposing governmental solutions to periods of financial hardship and economic recessions. This economic rhetoric is meaningless to downshifters who have forgone worrying about money.
Although consumers do hold the majority in the United States, the UK, and Australia, a significant minority, approximately 20 to 25 percent, of these countries' citizens identify themselves in some respect as downshifters. Downshifting is not an isolated or unusual choice. Politics still centers around consumerism and unrestricted growth, but downshifting value, such as family priorities and workplace regulation, are appearing in political debates and campaigns.
Like downshifters, the Cultural Creatives is another social movement whose ideology and practices diverge from mainstream consumerism and according to Paul Ray, are followed by at least a quarter of U.S. citizens.
The emergence of a large and diverse class of downshifters challenges the economically bias ideas for improving society. Downshifting and similar, post-materialist ideologies are rising in popularity, but as a result of their grassroots nature, and relatively inconspicuous, non-confrontational subcultures, they represent unorganized social movements without political aspirations or motivating grievances.
- Nelson 2007, p. 141
- Juniu 2000, p. 69
- Tracey Smith, 2008
- Schor 1998, p. 67;
- Levy 2005, p.176
- Both of Hamilton's case studies in 2003
- Nelson 2007, p. 142
- Schor 1998, p. 68
- Schor 1998, p. 66
- Schor 1998, pps. 66-69
- Juniu 2000, p. 3-4
- Nelson 2007, p. 145
- Zehner, Ozzie (2012). Green Illusions. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.
- The Ultimate Growth Business; Many corporate refugees think green acres are the place to be. How do they make the transition? October 12, 2012 Wall Street Journal
- Hamilton Jan. 2003, pps. 11-12
- Hamilton, Both 2003 Studies
- Hamilton Nov. 2003, 14
- Hamilton Nov. 2003, pps. 35-37
- Blanchard, Elisa A. (1994). Beyond Consumer Culture: A Study of Revaluation and Voluntary Action. Unpublished thesis, Tufts University.
- Bull, Andy. (1998). Downshifting: The Ultimate Handbook. London: Thorsons
- Etziomi, Amitai. (1998). Voluntary simplicity: Characterization, select psychological implications, and societal consequences. Journal of Economic Psychology 19:619-43.
- Hamilton, Clive (November 2003). Downshifting in Britain: A sea-change in the pursuit of happiness. The Australia Institute Discussion Paper No. 58. 42p.  ISSN 1322-5421
- Hamilton, C., Mail, E. (January 2003). Downshifting in Australia: A sea-change in the pursuit of happiness. The Australia Institute Discussion Paper No. 50. 12p. ISSN 1322-5421
- Hampson, Jo & Perkins, Georgina. http://www.steppingoff.co.uk/index.html A good site for testimonials about and advice for downshifting.
- Juniu, Susana (2000). Downshifting: Regaining the Essence of Leisure, Journal of Leisure Research, 1st Quarter, Vol. 32 Issue 1, p69, 5p.
- Levy, Neil (2005). Downshifting and Meaning in Life, Ratio, Vol. 18, Issue 2, 176-189.
- Mazza, P. (1997). Keeping it simple. Reflections 36 (March): 10-12.
- Nelson, Michelle R., Paek, Hye-Jin, Rademacher, Mark A. (2007). Downshifting Consumer = Upshifting Citizen?: An Examination of a Local Freecycle Community. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 141-156.
- Saltzman, Amy. (1991). Downshifting: Reinventing Success on a Slower Track. New York: Harper Collins.
- Schor, Juliet B (1998). Voluntary Downshifting in the 1990s. In E. Houston, J. Stanford, & L. Taylor (Eds.), Power, Employment, and Accumulation: Social Structures in Economic Theory and Practice (pp. 66–79). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2003. Text from University of Chapel Hill Library Collections.