Downshifting: Life in the (Slightly Slower) Lane

We often think that careers must progress to higher, more demanding and more lucrative positions. For some, however, “downshifting” careers for family reasons, to reduce work stress or to transition to more psychologically rewarding work is worth it. Here are 5 ways some have downshifted.

Amy Salzman in her fantastic book, “Downshifting: Reinventing Success on a Slower Track”, identified five common types of downshifters:

1.     Back-Trackers

2.     Plateauers

3.     Career Shifters

4.     Self-Employers

5.     Urban Escapees

Back-Trackers actively choose self-demotion or self-firing in order to pursue other goals or open more time for family. For example, my mother stepped down from a long career as an elementary school teacher and became the most overqualified teacher’s aide in the Albany, NY school district. She told me the main reasons for her choice were to reduce her outside-the-classroom time demands and to avoid the stress associated with the responsibilities of running the classroom/dealing with parents.

Plateauers don’t self-demote, but rather choose to stay in place by turning down promotions and opportunities for advancement. This is probably the most common way to downshift. Many middle managers and successful professionals decide not to pursue careers in upper management because they’ve reached a level in which they are financially comfortable and perfectly happy with their level of responsibility and the work they do. Even better, plateauers don’t have to seek out different employers or careers, and have often built up a comfortable social situation with their coworkers. However, there is a risk in being labeled as a slacker or as insufficiently dedicated to your company or career.

Career Shifters make seemingly small changes to their career trajectories or employers that make a huge difference in lifestyle- as opposed to moving to an entirely different career. For example, many accountants at Big 4 firms escape their intense work pressures and time demands by taking internal accounting positions at client companies. These positions are still financially rewarding and prestigious, but tend to have more regular hours.

I have a lawyer friend who left a prestigious clerkship to become in-house counsel for a NY State agency. This is still a good, demanding job, but with more reasonable hours and less work stress. These are not demotions or new careers, rather shifts that opened up more time for family and life.

Self-Employers choose to get off a corporate track and go into business for themselves. This process isn’t easy, and involves a lot of financial risk. But if you become your own boss without letting your business take over your life, self-employment can give you the autonomy to lead a better work-life balance.

Urban Escapees leave expensive metropolitan areas for less expensive places to live- even if this means taking a lower-paying or slower-track job to do so. Sometimes, escapees can even keep their existing jobs by working remotely through telework. And you can see why- $900k buys a one-bedroom apartment in NYC, but $200k can buy a beautiful house in many other parts of the country. Moving out of the city and then taking a similar but less stressful/lower paying job in a more affordable area can even be a financial net positive.

Of course, there are financial consequences to downshifting. You’ll earn less and you have to be sure your family will still be ok. You need to be conservative with your finances, have clear financial priorities and almost certainly will have to cut back and simplify. The first step is fully discussing career and financial tradeoffs with your spouse.

Finally, society sends many repeated signals that more is better, and that a successful career is defined by constant progress. It takes a strong sense of self to turn away from more. Swimming against the tide isn’t easy, but it might be worth it.

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