Downshifting: 5 Ways to Slow Down Your Career for Family

“Downshifters” are those who eschew the career ladder and choose alternative paths that open up more time for family or other pursuits. For many, the trade-off is more than worth it. This article discusses 5 common types of downshifting.

“The problem with winning the rat race is… you’re still a rat” –Lily Tomlin

For me, plateauing my career opens up more time for family.

When we think about career paths, we often think about climbing the ladder- stepping up our career one rung at a time to positions of greater status, demands, responsibilities and financial rewards. Career advancement is great, but it often comes at a cost- to mental and physical health and especially to time spent with family.

Perhaps there’s another way. A way that opens up time for a more well-rounded life.

Life in the (slightly slower) Lane

Several writers and researchers have identified “downshifting” as an increasingly common choice of people in high-powered careers who changed gears to better accommodate family needs or pursue other life goals. here are four types of downshifters (these categories were identified by Amy Salzman in her fantastic book):

  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, one of my best friends left a highly successful 18 year corporate career and became a stay-at-home dad when their first child arrived (see here for his guest post about it). My mother stepped down from a long career as an elementary school teacher and became the most overqualified teacher’s aide in the Albany 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.

In some ways, I’d be considered a plateauer. I was department chair several years ago and filled in as temporary chair last semester- and both times was happy to leave this position of more responsibility, prestige and money to return to faculty status. I did this despite the fact that many, including my bosses and those in upper leadership, encouraged me to stay on and even consider higher positions in the future.

I love teaching and writing, but never liked administrative work. If I were a full-time academic administrator, I’d be a constant ball of stress. Being a faculty member gives me the time and place flexibility (plus summers off) to spend more time with my family, work my schedule around Amy’s, and pursue other professional goals on my own terms (e.g., this blog, my book proposal*). I heart my plateau.

In his guest post, Brian Shields described how he became an entrepreneur to better balance work and family
In his guest post, Brian Shields described how he became an entrepreneur to better balance work and family

Career Shifters

… make a seemingly small change to their career trajectory or employer that often makes a huge difference in lifestyle- as opposed to moving to an entirely different career (so lawyer-turned-novelist John Grisham doesn’t count, but a lawyer-turned-mediator would).

Shifting careers is more common than you’d think. 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. This guest post described how, for family reasons, a lawyer left a prestigious clerkship to become in-house counsel for a NY State agency- again, still a good gig, but with more reasonable hours and work stress. Neither of these situations would be described as demotions or new careers, rather shifts that opened up more time for family and life.

Self-Employers

Many folks 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 (see this guest post by an old high-school buddy about how he successfully navigated this route to work-family balance)

Urban Escapees

The cost of living in the orbit of large affluent coastal US cities pretty much precludes downshifting. $900k can get you a one-bedroom apartment in NYC, but $200k can buy you a beautiful house in many other parts of the country. Lots of people who can work remotely, or have shifted their careers to be more flexible, have chosen to move out of the city to where the lifestyle is slower and more affordable. Moving out of the city and then taking a similar but less stressful/lower paying job in a more affordable area can also be a financial net positive. As Billy Joel once sang, “Good luck moving up, cuz’ I’m moving out”.

I love NY, but would agree that "the rent is too damn high" to easily allow for downshifting
I love NY, but would agree that “the rent is too damn high” to easily allow for downshifting

Saying “No” To More

Of course, there are financial consequences to downshifting. You’ll earn less and you have to be sure your family will still be ok. In the case of my plateauing, my plateau still pays pretty well, Amy and I have been very conservative with our finances, and I am blessed to have a wife who shares my priorities and life goals. Not everyone is so lucky. Financial prioritization and simplification are key.

The greatest barrier to downshifting, however, is often that of our own making. According to Salzman:

“Getting over the idea that they will be cast as failures is the greatest challenge facing backtrackers… stepping back is often the culmination of a painful battle between personal needs and professional expectations

Society sends many repeated signals, especially to men, that MORE success, MORE money and MORE power are the keys to being seen as a success. A man in full. Most of us have been receiving this signal for virtually our whole lives. It takes a strong sense of self to turn away from more. Swimming against the tide isn’t easy.

… But it might just be worth it.

What do you think about career success and downshifting? Any examples to share? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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* yes, I am working on a book proposal on the general topic of Work & Family for Fathers. If anyone out there has any advice or connections for me, I’d greatly appreciate it!

Sources:

23 thoughts on “Downshifting: 5 Ways to Slow Down Your Career for Family

  1. Hi Scott, If we craft our own definition of success, as you did, then these downshifting ideas are inspiring instead of limiting. I’m all for less-is-more, and slow down, so I passed your post along.

    • Hi Pat- Great to hear from you again!

      I think defining success for yourself- instead of having other define it for you, and discussing this with your spouse and planning ahead financially really are the keys to a workable work-life balance.

      Thanks for the great comment.

  2. Great quote to start the piece. I think women do this more than men. However, I wonder if it is happening more with men these days. I’d like to see the numbers.
    Either way, I completely respect it if it is the right thing for the individual/family.

    • Agreed, women do probably do this more than men- after all, financial success and conquering corporate America are not values to which society seems to force on them starting at an early age.

      For men, it takes some courage to swim against the tide and risk being seen as unmanly in some way.

      Your last sentence is perfect- if it is the right thing for the family. We need to define success and our priorities and then work towards them.

  3. Great article Scott! Anne-Marie Slaughter has been talking a lot about how we should keep in mind that life expectancy is getting longer and longer and kids born today may live well into their hundreds — as a result, it doesn’t really make sense to try to cram your career, children, etc etc into a short time frame — instead, having times where career takes a back seat (via downshifts) and then ramping up again when and if it makes sense, should be encouraged. The more men on board with this idea the better, so thanks so much for highlighting this point from your perspective!

  4. I found myself in a situation where my manager received a promotion and I was automatically promoted into his position. To cut a story short it was when the recession of 2008 kicked in which resulted in a lot of turmoil and stress, so much so that I almost walked away after several months in the post. However I was persuaded to stay reverting back to my previous role. Following this I fell into a deep depression and needed counselling, feeling I had made a big mistake and let everyone down. Ironically after I relinquished the role the problems seemed to settle and to rub salt in the wound the person who assumed the role was given an even higher promotion which would have been mine. All in all though I have came through the whole experience much stronger and realising that the most important things in life are health and happiness which money can’t buy. I am now well over it and have a much richer life as a result because stress is a killer.

    • I think you really articulated the psychological hurdles we put in our own way when considering downshifting. I’m sorry you had such a stressful time, and am glad you are now happy with your choice. Thanks for reading and your heartfelt comment.

      • Many thanks for your reply and kind words therein. The whole experience was a learning curve for me which ultimately made me focus on what was important and really mattered in my life, i.e the health and happiness of my wife and two daughters as well as myself. I now also have two beautiful Grandsons aged 5 and 3 who I adore and love to spend as much time as possible with. So all said and done in a strange way my self demotion was probably the best thing that could have happened !.

  5. I would describe myself as a plateauer at the moment not actively seeking promotion and have just turned down the opportunity to explore taking the family abroad as part of an internal job transfer. Something that has been on my list has been requesting felxible working so I can condense my hours every two weeks to take a day off to spend with the kids. Need to some up the courage to do this as I am a little scared as my boss is a work spinster with no kids and her work is her life. *note to self to get this booked in to discuss with my boss*

  6. Very interesting! I will never have to downshift because I have taken the slow route. Being self-employed and an entrepreneur has allowed me to maintain flexibility and freedom. I can work as much or as little as I want. I have virtually no commute time. I hope everyone can make choices that benefit their well-being as much as their bank account.

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