Downshifting: Reinventing Success on a Slower Track

DOWNSHIFTING: REINVENTING SUCCESS ON A SLOWER TRACK by Amy Saltzman. Harper Collins, 1991. 238pp., $19.95.

When CBS-TV’s “60-Minutes” correspondent Meredith Vieira told her boss that she was expecting a second child, she was given an ultimatum.

The “choice” which she ultimately found untenable: work full time or no time. “You can’t work 70, 80 hours a week, spend half your life on a plane, and still be an active parent,” she said.

While Vieira should be on the money here, bosses in the last two decades have come to expect those in their employ to work increasingly long hours, foregoing weekend play and even summer vacations for the good of the company. According to Amy Saltzman, author of Downshifting—which is a look at how individuals can balance work, recreation and family without selling their souls to the marketplace—a 1988 poll revealed that the average American work week jumped from under 41 hours in 1973, to almost 47 hours in 1988. Professionals currently put in an average of 52 hours, she says. Worse still, leisure time took a severe beating, down 37 percent over the 15 years studied.

The ideology, says Saltzman, goes something like this. “If we weren’t always moving ahead and aiming for something higher and more impressive, if we didn’t have the look of constantly being busy and in motion, we were somehow boring or losers.”

What many have lost, of course, is the ability to relax and appreciate the beauty and joy of an evening alone or with friends. We’ve forgotten how pleasant it can be to pore over homework with a child, or to sit on a front porch or fire escape listening to nothing at all. Countless people—and we all know them—have come to acknowledge this loss, and convey their resentment over the impossible juggling they feel forced to do. So what can be done? Saltzman outlines five “downshifting” strategies for individuals to consider— Backtracking: moving down the ladder of success, essentially settling into a self-imposed demotion; Career Shifting: taking skills learned in a high-stress job and applying them to a less competitive field; Plateauing: staying in a comfortable position or accepting only lateral moves, in order to keep tasks manageable; Self-employment: going it alone, or with like-minded colleagues, and setting your own rules; Urban escape: moving out of the city, settling into a more serene environment where the ambience dictates a less hectic way of life.

While Saltzman interviewed more than 100 people who have successfully taken these paths to saner living, the focus on individual adaptation—with nary a mention of collective strategies for changing how we organize and view work—makes Downshifting somewhat incomplete. Furthermore, in failing to mention the down side (these strategies can fail), Saltzman oversimplifies a complex problem.

One need only remember that Meredith Vieira, attempting to backtrack, was sacked by CBS. Similarly, would-be entrepreneurs often fail, and end up navigating the bankruptcy courts. And barely middle-class families cannot always forego the wage hikes a promised promotion will bring when facing elder care, college tuition and day-care costs.

Nonetheless, there is much of value in Saltzman’s book. Downshifting will resonate long after it is read, making us question our work styles and work ethics. Its basic premise—that workers can say no to demands or expectations they deem unreasonable—empowers and inspires. So does its belief that work needs to take its place as part of life, not as the be-all and end-all of human existence. Unions, staff associations and people who care about the quality of work-life will find Downshifting hearty food for creative and urgently needed thought and debate.

Eleanor J. Bader is a writer, teacher and editor who frequently writes for feminist and progressive publications.