Downshifting and the post materialists

First published October 2008, updated August 2010

While many are seeking to climb the material ladder in life, others have reached the upper rungs and found out it’s not all it’s cracked up to be; choosing to set a different course – downshifting.

Even if you haven’t reached (what is generally considered) the upper rungs to discover this, if you’re struggling in this economic climate to keep up with all the “gotta haves” that perhaps you really don’t need; step back, take a deep breath, separate from the pack and consider downshifting. The environment will certainly benefit from you doing so.

Downshifting, a term currently used most often in Australia and the UK, is the concept of living in voluntary simplicity; usually with environmental sustainability in mind although not necessarily the focus or primary motivator. People who take the downshifting route are also called “post materialists”.

While some have been making these changes for years, it’s only relatively recently that downshifting has acquired the label. An Australian Institute survey in 2004 found that nearly a quarter of Australian adults aged 30-59 have chosen to downshift over the previous 10 years.

People downshift their lives for mainly 5 reasons:

a) A desire for a more balanced life with less stress
b) Clashes between personal values and those of the workplace
c) Wanting a more fulfilling life
d) Ill health
e) Environmental concerns/rejection of consumerism

Downshifters for the most part don’t drop out of society or the workforce altogether; many high paid executives simply change their work focus from big business to lower-paying jobs in the non-profit sector. Not all downshifters are burnt-out execs though; the study found that the tendency to downshift was equally prevalent among blue collar workers as it was among white collar workers.

Downshifting challenges the concept of the very common Deferred Happiness Syndrome. This is the tendency for people to function in situations they find negative for extended periods in the hope of attaining a goal or dream; one that is often not achieved.

A lifetime of toil with the prospect for shattered materialistic dreams is a nightmare possibility, yet many of us seem to continue to fling ourselves headlong into it knowing full well the goal may never be realized.

Something that is important to remember about materialistic goals is to question them – are they truly your own goals or what marketers have told you they should be? Marketers know your pain points, how to stir up your fear and how to get you excited – the knowledge is utilized to encourage you to buy. Unlike psychologists who seek to unburden you, many marketers seek to weigh you down with trinkets and toys that you don’t really need, let alone want; and to participate in events that perhaps you don’t really want to be involved with. It’s these things you “gotta have” and “gotta do” that have played a huge role in destroying our environment.

Here’s an example of how insidious marketing is – Father’s Day. It’s “tradition” to give a gift or card on this day and if you don’t somehow observe the day some would consider this an insult or being ungrateful. However, Father’s Day is a relatively new event. The original Father’s day occurred in the early 1900’s as a memorial to men lost in a specific mining disaster in the USA. While the concept spread and evolved (or devolved perhaps) over the next couple of decades, many people laughed at the idea of a “Father’s Day” and it was only through the efforts of the Associated Men’s Wear Retailers in the 1930s that saw it becoming more widely accepted. Their motivation had nothing to do with celebrating fatherhood, but to sell stuff.

And really, why do we need a to be told a day to honor our Dads? It’s this sheep-like mentality that allows the wool to be pulled over our eyes in so many things that have a negative environmental impact.

Here’s another example; jewelry and the diamond wedding/engagement ring “tradition”. This tradition began less than a hundred years ago; sparked by a company named De Beers – diamond traders. What’s wrong with a wedding ring made of wood or another more sustainably-sourced material?

Don’t fear not having tons of stuff or stacks of money or being a social outcast by downshifting and remember there’s no hard and fast rules on how to do it. To each, his or her own. Keep what you truly want or need of what the modern world has to offer, discard the rest. Put everything to the acid test and really question the importance of whatever it is.

Many of those who downshift report that the fears they held about sustaining themselves did not materialize; they instead experience a new sense of personal freedom and renewed joy of living. They are also no longer as easily swayed by politicians or trends as their values have changed to those of the general populace. Their friendships also evolve with similarly-minded people.

Downshifters tend to reject items related to social status, plan spending carefully, eat out less and take less holidays away from home – because their current home becomes a holiday destination of sorts. Often they’ll move from their current home, choosing to purchase a house in an environment suited to their hobbies or need for peace.

In a nutshell, downshifting is about less consumption, being happier for it and the rejection of “keeping up with the Jones’s”. It’s a process that doesn’t occur overnight, but is usually refined over a number of years.

We’re being continuously warned that the environment cannot sustain our current rate of consumption, so downshifting by choice now will allow us time to get used to getting by with less, and being happy about it – which will be a hard lesson that all of us who don’t start taking action very soon will have to face in the future anyway.

For a more detailed and fascinating insight into the downshifting trend, you can download the full study, “Getting a Life – Understanding the downshifting phenomenon in Australia” by clicking here (PDF). The study is a little dated now (2004), but it’s still an interesting read.