What is downshifting? And 10 reasons you should do it!
A lot of people talk about “retiring early” when what they really are referring to is “downshifting.” Downshifting is the act of simplifying one’s life and moving away from materialism so one can spend less time on paid work and more time on activities, relationships, or projects that have a more intrinsic motivation. In fact, many of the financial bloggers get in trouble because they tout their “early retirement” while they’re still working quite hard. The difference in this case is that they are working for themselves on projects that are extremely engaging because they are spontaneously, or intrinsically, motivated. Said another way, they are doing exactly what they want to be doing, and they just may happen to be paid for it.
I truly believe that downshifting – finding a way to step off the treadmill or out of the rat race – is one of the keys to human joy and peace. Here are ten reasons why I think downshifting can benefit almost everyone.
1) We are all dying
From the moment we are born, we are starting to die. This simple statement makes life very concrete, and if we meditate on it a bit, we realize just how precious our time is. If we’re at a point where our work is distracting us from more important parts of life, our own impending deaths are certainly a motivator to make a change. Downshifting recognizes that we can rarely make a living doing our true passions, so the downshifting strategy reduces the need for paid work to free time for all of the other joys of life to make the most of our precious time.
2) Working on relationships
Relationships with lovers, family, and friends take a lot of effort. Like all things, we only get out of our relationships what we put in, and sadly work life often leaves too little time and emotional energy to commit to the nurturing and sometimes healing of these relationships. Also, sometimes “professional relationships” which may be expedient but lacking in real connection may distract from those that are truly important – those with lovers, true friends and family.
In our modern workforce where many back-breaking tasks are mechanized or automated, many people underestmate the health toll than work life still takes on workers. While we are past the days when many workers would need to retire at 62 because they were so physically worn-out that they had no choice, even office life takes a physical toll. The number of accountants, programmers, and other desk professionals with back problems speaks to one of the health tolls of sitting for most of one’s life. The adverse effects of stress caused by deadlines and other tribulations of work life on the cardiovasular system are also well documented.
Alternatively, a downshifted life can provide time for sufficient exercise, less stress, and fewer marathon duration sits at a desk each day.
Creativy at its core is about using our skills to express our own original ideas and communicate them to the outside world. A key to authentic creativity is autonomy. Even for “creative professionals,” the coerricive nature of paid employment forces many would-be artists to suffice as simple craftsmen – creating content that sells rather than their true, original vision. Said another way, we need more creative work that has no commercial value, and downshifting can allow more of us to explore our creative tendencies without regard for their commerical viability.
5) Unemployment and underemployment
The current model of employment tends towards “hoarding work,” particularly among the professional classes. Despite high levels of unemployment or at least underemployment, many of those who are employed are over-worked and over-stressed. Rather than cutting the work week and increasing worker training to distribute the workload more broadly, it is more profitable for employers to over-work their existing employees. Downshifting provides the alternative for workers to need less wage income, so they work fewer hours on average and provide more opportunities for other workers who are unemployed or underemployed.
In my opinion, one of the most under-rated joys of life is self-care. When given sufficient time and energy, most people truly enjoy caring for their homes and families. Cooking from scratch, growing one’s own food in a garden, and cleaning and maintaining one’s home are creative, problem-solving activites that tap into our core, autonomous work drive. These are examples of joyful work that many who are over-worked in their wage jobs unfortnately have to outsource to prepared foods, grocery stores, cleaning services, and handymen. Downshifting can provide more time for these activities that are both fulfilling and that safe money.
8) Intellectual curiousity
Years ago I had a certain job that cited “intellectual curiousity” as a key attribute of a good employee. I think that employer was serious, but unfortunately the job required about 50% of the typical employee’s intellectual capacity. While many people cite their work as intellectually engaging, I think much real intellectual development may be hindered by our single-minded social focus on paid work. To really understand the human condition and the human cultural cannon takes years on the sofa or chair – reading the classics, American literature, Russian literature, history, various philosophies, film, theater, economics, sociology, math, astrophysics, etc. While the socially-approved intellectualism approves of hyper-specialization (the PhD), the sort of intellectual development that I’m referring to is more akin to 20 bachelor’s degrees, but is more affordably achieved with a library card and years of free time.
Many of us cite community as something that is personally important, and recent social research reiterates the role that community engagement plays for a life well lived. Community engagement ecompasses civic life and engagement with local politics, volunteer work, supporting local businesses and above all just knowing your neighbors. Unfortunately, in our long work hours culture, these values often take a back seat to really knowing the place that we live. Down shifting can tip the balance in the favor of community.
10) Environmental Sustainability
For those of us who are concerned with the environment, our personal carbon footprints often keep us up at night. For those who aren’t, it might be time to consider what Noam Chomsky cites as the impending crisis that may very well destroy our own human species. Down shifting our lives can save carbon emissions numerous ways. By spending and consuming less, we are not promoting the overproduction of consumer goods that require significant energy and carbon emissions to produce and transport. And when we slow our consumption, we need to work less (or not at all if early retirement is possible). That means fewer commuting miles, lower use of air conditioned office space, and perhaps even reducing the emissions that the products of our employment create. On a broader policy basis, I believe the true solution to the environmental crisis entails increasing efficiency of production, lowering employment, and providing a guaranteed income for purchasing basic commodities. Since the probability of that happening is near zero, those who can may want to consider taking matters into their own hands, particularly given how serious the threat of climate change is to our species.
Down shifting is a movement that is growing all over the industrial world. People who have met their basic needs (and beyond) are beginning to question whether continuing on their same grinding path is the path to fulfillment, or whether they need to shift slightly away from their professional work to focus on more meaningful areas of life. Down shifting is not about retiring, giving up, or “hanging it up.” Rather, downshifting is about growing, actualizing, and being excited again about our productive work whether it pays less, or even nothing at all.