Is escaping the rat race a step back for your career?


What?! You gave up a leadership position and a better salary just to relax more at work? Not everyone understands the reasons for what’s known as downshifting. — dpa

Faster, higher, further? That doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Not everyone wants to climb the career ladder, with some taking a shorter career path and even accepting a loss of salary – voluntarily.

This is called downshifting – and can mean, for example, giving up a management position or switching from full-time to part-time.

Often, however, taking a decision like this is initially looked at as unusual. Training, qualifications, certificates – everything you’ve achieved in your career through time and effort – sometimes loses its value completely, as labour specialist Julia Gruhlich explains.

Related to working conditionsWhy do people decide to downshift?

Gruhlich, an industrial sociologist, also asked this question and conducted 23 open interviews for a qualitative in-depth study with people who have downshifted professionally in various ways.

“As a sociologist specialising in work, I was of course primarily interested in: Is this related to working conditions and if so, how?”

In the answers to the open questions, all respondents spoke about working conditions of their own accord.

“Changes in work are the main trigger, ” Gruhlich found out. “The concentration of work, i.e. high workload, the lack of boundaries and demand for flexibility, and also the increasing economisation and alienation of work are problematic.”

She has identified three main reasons why people decide to shift down a gear or two:

> Work-life balance: People go part-time or quit their jobs altogether to have more time for their families.

> Self-care: People plan on taking a shorter break due to stress-related illnesses or burnout, but end up sticking with it.

> Search for meaning: Some people are still looking for the right job and some can no longer do their work the way they see best, for example because economic aspects are more important to employers. According to Gruhlich, this is the case in nursing and health professions, among others.

Less income, fewer career options?

More time for family and leisure, less stress, pursuing one’s own interests and projects – that’s probably what many hope for when taking a step back from the rat race.

However, what difficulties do you have to reckon with when you take off your rose-tinted glasses?

“The loss of income can be immense, ” says career expert and writer Jochen Mai.

Career options also decrease. “Those who shift down a gear are often no longer eligible for promotions, ” points out Mai, who is also the founder of a career advice website.

Taking such a step needs to be discussed and agreed on.

“Your manager needs to be OK with it, ” says Mai. “After all, your employment contract is still valid. Basically, you negotiate a change to the contract and both parties have to agree to it.”

It’s a little different if you’re handing in your notice: “That’s a unilateral decision and it doesn’t need the manager’s approval, ” says Mai. Whatever you decide to do, it’s a good idea not to burn your bridges.

Response to structural problems

Industrial sociologist Gruhlich spoke to her 23 interviewees again at different points after they had downshifted. “All of them were relieved, ” she sums up. “They regained a sense of agency.”

The reactions to downshifting varied widely: some experienced admiration from their friends and family. Sometimes the reactions were less positive, says Gruhlich: “The people I spoke to said they were met with incomprehension and sometimes even contempt.”

The researcher emphasises: “Downshifting is not solely a value-driven decision. It often goes hand-in-hand with psychological stress, above all due to changes in the world of work. And these people find individual solutions to what is actually a structural problem.” – dpa/Elena Zelle

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