Single poppy in wheat field

For simplicity’s sake

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

Downshifters themselves reject accusations of being dropouts; a minority receive welfare payments, and many who cease paid employment take up voluntary work in its place. A remarkably high 91% said they were happy with the change, although most of this group missed the money to some extent.


Life is full of paradoxes. While we are supposedly becoming ever busier, the average Australian adult watches more than three hours of television daily. Are people speeding up to make time for TV-watching, or are they ‘multi-tasking’ their TV diet alongside their other activities? Is it time to re-evaluate some priorities?

By taking our cues from media messages, and from other people influenced by them, as individuals we can be persuaded that items previously seen as luxuries are in fact an essential part of modern life. Symptoms of this ‘affluenza’ include the common choice to take voluntary paid overtime in addition to a full week’s work. As these trends become more pronounced, in an instinctive counter-reaction increasing numbers of people are being led towards a radical rethink of their personal goals.

Downshifting, also known as voluntary simplicity, is certainly not a new concept, having originated with Hindu and Buddhist spiritual groups in the second millennium BC. It generally indicates a conscious choice to reduce personal income in favour of non-material benefits, while usually cutting back in some areas of consumer spending.

The modern downshifting movement took shape in the late 20th century, with the publication of books such as Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin of the US-based New Road Map Foundation. This incorporates a nine-step program for taking back control of both finances and time.

Reasons for downshifting

Frequently there is a slowly growing sense, often developing over a period of years, of a hard-to-define dimension missing from life. The Australia Institute (TAI) think-tank has coined the term ‘Deferred Happiness Syndrome’ for the common scenario where an employee chooses to work long hours and endure a low quality of life in return for future economic benefits. While many people stay in unsatisfying employment, others feel willing to break out.

A Newspoll survey carried out for TAI in 2002 found that over the previous decade a surprisingly high 23% of Australian adults aged between 30 and 59 had chosen to downshift, for various motivations and goals. Some cases fall into more than one category.

  • The largest segment in the TAI survey (35%) wanted to spend more quality time with their families. In some extreme cases, overwork and absentee parents can result in child neglect.
  • A substantial group (23%) was motivated to exit the rat race by such health factors as stress, tension and depression.
  • Sometimes the move occurred suddenly as a result of a personal crisis such as illness, the death of a loved one, or a marriage breakdown.
  • Another 16% was looking for more balance in their lives.
  • 16% of respondents were searching for greater fulfilment. This might be achieved in a different type of work, or through community involvement.
  • The ‘post-materialists’ (12%) were acting in line with their values by rejecting consumerist excesses, in turn enabling them to work fewer hours. This group is aware that every product is associated with some environmental impact and is concerned about issues such as climate change and sustainability.
  • Other diverse factors came into play in 18% of cases.

In the survey, downshifting was found to be taking place across age groups, and on all income levels with the exception of the lowest. Various changes made by respondents included reducing the total number of working hours; switching from full-time to part-time employment; moving to a lower-paid job; stopping paid work; and finding a more meaningful career. Although home-based self-employment can be stressful, many have discovered that the increased personal control and autonomy it brings can significantly boost wellbeing.

Downshifters themselves reject accusations of being dropouts; a minority receive welfare payments, and many who cease paid employment take up voluntary work in its place. A remarkably high 91% said they were happy with the change, although most of this group missed the money to some extent.

Getting by on less

People who turn their backs on high-paying jobs are often regarded as ‘mad’ by friends and relatives. In 2007, as high petrol prices eat into most household budgets and the Howard Government’s new industrial relations laws continue to bite, for the majority it is inescapable that downshifting is becoming more of a challenge. In defiance of the prevailing mood of uncertainty, downshifters tend to be less concerned about security and are instead attracted by the benefits they can gain from the extra available time.

Such downshifters often transcend mainstream stereotypes; those on lower incomes often avoid comparing themselves with others, and may see their lifestyles as ‘frugal’ rather than ‘poor’. TAI identified the post-materialist sub-group as challenging the ‘aspirational’ voter stereotype courted by both major parties.

Inevitably, most downshifters have been forced to engage in some necessary belt-tightening. They often acknowledge the need to cut back on some non-essentials, focusing more on needs than wants. Conspicuous consumption and vanity usually go out of the window; many survey participants were content with their more modest requirements, and appreciated the extra free time that would otherwise have been devoted to shopping.

Fortunately for downshifters, saving money is usually easier than earning it. The many options they have located include:

  • Growing some of their own food.
  • Buying wholefoods in bulk.
  • Buying secondhand from op shops and garage sales.
  • Mending clothes and other non-electrical items as an alternative to discarding.
  • Switching to a budget phonecard for long distance phone calls.
  • Turning down the hot water thermostat to somewhere between 55º and 60°.
  • Installing compact fluorescent light bulbs.
  • Using rechargeable batteries in place of disposables.
  • Cycling or walking around their local area.
  • Trying to stay out of debt (debit cards can be used instead of credit cards for online and phone purchases).
  • Avoiding bank charges by moving to a credit union that allows a few free transactions every month.
  • Making barter arrangements, or participating in their local LETS system.
  • Joining up with Freecycle, an online marketplace where unwanted household items are offered to other members free of charge.

Seachangers and treechangers

Australian downshifting has not been spared its share of buzzwords. Immortalised by the ABC TV series, Seachangers are ‘lifestyle’-orientated downshifters who have usually traded a city life for the coast. The closely related Treechangers have opted instead for an acreage in the bush.

The UK’s National Downshifting Week website is post-materialist, emphasising the numerous environmental benefits of scaling down. Its accompanying Downshifting Manifesto is a seven-point plan for living simply, reclaiming time, building community, supporting the local economy, and helping the environment. While only around 12% of Australian downshifters fall under the category of post-materialists, many changes made by this group are a wise preparation for a future overshadowed by oil scarcity, climate change and economic uncertainty.

Through a focus on individual leisure, do Seachangers and Treechangers represent a ‘change’ within the existing socially atomised, globalised, environmentally unsustainable framework, thus failing to address the key challenges of our time? As parts of the coast fill up with development catering for Seachangers and their traffic, will it soon be time to pull up roots, and make the next migration in search of the perfect retreat?

Making a treechange

“My husband and I started this whole process about ten years ago when we started to de-clutter. We then started to drive round regional areas having a look. We were offered a place to stay in Coonabarabran in North-West NSW and it just felt right.

“Six years ago we bought 140 acres, but last year decided it was too much land to look after whilst still living in Sydney. So we sold it and as luck would have it, we were able to buy two acres that came up for sale two kilometres from town.

“Now we are looking after two orchards (one courtesy of the previous owner) and drive up from Sydney every few weeks. Two years to go until we can move there (when I turn 55.)

“We have made friends up there and try to attend as many local events as possible, as we think this is crucial to long term ‘fitting in’. We read the local paper to remain up to date with what is going on; this is important if you are considering a move to a new area.

“We spend holidays in Coonabarabran and take them at different times of the year to get a sense of the seasons. We have travelled round the area so we know what the neighbours look like and have to offer.

“When we move, our aim is to build a straw-bale house and we are about to join a group of novices to learn how to do it. If we attend all the workshops over the next two years we should have a fair chance of getting it right.

“Any change or move requires research and planning. I am constantly amazed at how many people don’t do either before they just up sticks and go. It is exciting to plan and if the opportunity comes to move earlier I am confident we have a plan in place that would enable us to do so.”



The Australia Institute
Downshifting Week (UK)
LETS in Australia
Freecycle in Australia
The Simple Living Network
Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping

About the author

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.

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