Growing weary of the rat race, Britons 'downshift'

It was the long hours, short weekends, and grueling international travel that spurred Sorrel Newbery to radical action.

After six years as a high-powered management consultant with a six-figure salary but no time to spend it, Ms. Newbery quit. She is now training to become a schoolteacher and has totally transformed her lifestyle.

"I got to a state where I was working in Holland Monday to Friday and was so tired when I did get to go home. And I wasn't enjoying what I was doing and just couldn't see the point," she says. "I thought I could do so much more than just working all hours to change a share price by a quarter of a pence."

Britons are the workaholics of Europe, according to a new European Union study. Their average work week is 44 hours, five hours more than the average German and six more than the average French. By comparison, US workers log 43 hours a week on average.

Yet more and more Britons are leaving the rat race for simpler lives.

With TV saturated with shows depicting urbanites retreating to the country, to job trainers reporting more high-paid professionals looking for different lines of work, the idea of "downshifting" has swept England. Even two of Prime Minister Tony Blair's top aides, including his press secretary Alastair Campbell, have joined the trend.

According to Datamonitor, a business information and research company, 200,000 British workers and their families will "downshift" in 2004, bringing the total to around 3 million.

"Our research shows that an alarming number of people appear to be unhappy in their employment and unfulfilled by their work," says Roger Ramsden, marketing director at insurance company Prudential, which deduces from its own research that 1 in 14 British workers have already downshifted and that more than half a million 35- to 54-year-olds plan to join them in the next three years. "With the proper forward planning, an enhanced quality of life is something everybody can achieve."

Analysts point to a number of reasons for the trend.

First, the pressures of work and information overload are more demanding than ever before, some note, forcing many to call a timeout.

Also, people are beginning to value their time more: Many say there is no point earning a high salary for 40 years if you get few chances to enjoy it.

A third factor is that society is generally more affluent now than a generation ago, giving many people the option to forego the cash incentive for a more measured, serene existence. And some even cite Sept. 11 as a watershed that forced people to face up to what they truly value in their lives.

"The things we value are not just what we consume and own and have," says Dominik Nosalik, an analyst at Datamonitor. "It's also about the time we have and the energy we have to do things. This is becoming much more important to people.

"The bigger picture is that people want a better quality of life, spending time on the things we like and with the people we like," he adds. "A lot of downshifters have children and are reassessing their values."

Prudential, meanwhile, said in its research that people downshifted to seek a better quality of life, to spend more time with family, to use untapped skills, to seek a safer life for their children, to obviate work stress, and to avoid tiresome commutes.

For Newbery, the retreat from highly paid work into teaching has brought with it a dramatic change in lifestyle. New clothes, fashion haircuts, and Starbucks coffee are all rare treats now rather than the norm.

But these limitations are more than compensated for by her newfound freedom, she says. No longer does she have to work through weekends or miss family birthdays or make her home in foreign hotels.

"I've got more energy now and love what I do," she says. "I'm not as well off as I was, but if you don't have the latest pair of trousers or the latest haircut, does it matter?"

It's not just Britain that is downshifting. The trend is also advancing across Western Europe. Datamonitor says that there are an estimated 12 million downshifters in Europe, up from 9.3 million in 1997.

But Britain is perhaps the most fertile soil for people looking to downshift, because of the country's ingrained culture of long working hours. Britain is the only country that has opted out of European Union rules capping the legal working week at 48 hours. In theory, British firms are supposed to offer their staff a choice, but in practice most are gently cajoled into working late.

As a result, more than 3 million British men now work more than 48 hours a week. It's a trend that is ringing alarm bells in Brussels, where EU social affairs commissioner Anna Diamantopolou said that the issue of working hours needs to be addressed again amid fears that EU rules are being circumvented by bosses, particularly in Britain. Union leaders say the long-hours culture is resulting in the kind of fatigue and burn out that drives people to downshift, or worse.

"Increasing numbers of people suffer from burnout and other ailments and take long periods of sick leave and early retirement due to ill health," says Kevin Curran, general secretary of the GMB labor union.

Not everyone's a downshifter, though. Researchers say millions of people will never want to break away from the comfort zone of work or step off the career ladder. Loss of status, lack of cash, and a surfeit of free time can be terrifying for some. Some who have made the break subsequently changed back again, unable to deal with life in the slow lane.

"Compared to the broad population, the number of downshifters is still a low percentage," says Mr. Nosalik. "Most people just can't afford to, or it's too much of a risk, or their patterns of behavior are just too ingrained."

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