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Downsizing, downshifting, downunder

By Alison Sweeney - posted Tuesday, 5 July 2005


Life used to be simple. We went to work, we had a family, we bought a home, and then retired. Times have changed. There is no longer a clear delineation between work and life. “Work and career” used to be just one part of our life, neat and compartmentalised. But the workplace has changed. As has the way we view work and the role it plays in our lives.

It will come as no surprise to you that we are working longer hours than ever before. According to recent research from the International Labour Organisation, Australians put in longer hours at work than almost any other nationality. An increasing proportion of people are working very long hours. Around 20 per cent of Australia's full-time employees are on the job for at least 50 hours each week, substantially boosting the overtime total from previous research that showed 40 per cent of us putting in more than the standard 38 hours a week.

Technology has changed the way we work. Once hailed as the saviour of the worker, designed to increase our leisure time, technology has ensured we are forever shackled to our jobs. Email, laptops, mobile phones, Blackberries - we are never far away from the action. It seems to have happened overnight but we truly do live in a global village. We no longer question what is asked of us. Seven am conference calls with overseas colleagues can become part of a normal routine. The “working week” can no longer be defined as Monday to Friday. The concept of working from home is not the godsend it was meant to be. It just means we can continue to work when we’re not physically in the office. The “virtual office” is alive and well and online.

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The ubiquitous banner of flexible working hours has produced some worthwhile benefits for the average worker. Job-sharing, part-time work, and flexi-time are all key developments and provide some flexibility for employees in accordance with their personal needs. However, the increasing casualisation of the workforce has seen a lot of workers missing out on important employee entitlements. It is clear companies need to do much more in this area to cater for the needs of the family unit especially when both parents are in full-time employment, something which is now commonplace.

Even our holidays have been affected. We no longer take the long summer holidays so treasured in our childhoods, perhaps due to increasing work pressure, preferring instead to take shorter breaks - armed no doubt with our mobile phones and laptops.

The baby boomer generation climbed the corporate ladder, reaped the rewards and in return promised long-term commitment and loyalty to their jobs and companies. Subsequent generations like Generations X and Y want diversity and challenge, and the thought of spending more than three years with one employer is abhorrent. Work is important to these generations but no longer all-consuming. They have too many other things in their lives to do and achieve.

Stress and “work intensification” has become one of the most serious occupational health and safety issues of our time.  According to the ACTU, workplace stress costs Australia up to $1.2 billion a year. An article in HR Monthly cited a study showing that more than 25 per cent of Australian managers feel some degree of stress as the result of information overload, office politics, loss of job satisfaction, or simply too much work. Is it any wonder that people are re-thinking their choices? The way forward is clear, the concept of a “work-life balance” needs to be given more than lip service by both employers and workers. It needs to be openly accepted and managed as part of how we live our lives. Whoever coined the concept “work-life balance” has a lot to answer for: why was “work” put before “life”?

Affluenza by Clive Hamilton showed an Australian society addicted to over consumption. Overworked and battling to keep up with the Joneses, it did not paint a pretty picture. But more and more Australians are reducing their consumer spending, questioning their work choices and recapturing their time for the things that really matter. This trend, known as “downshifting”, has become a phenomenon on its own. According to “Downshifting Downunder”, a new organisation designed to facilitate and co-ordinate the downshifting movement in Australia, in the last decade at least 20 per cent of the Australian population has downshifted. That is, they have voluntarily decided to change their lives in ways that mean they earn less and consume less.

At one time people who made a decision to swap high paying careers for something else and downshift would have been derided. They are not dropping out as once perceived, they are just choosing to live their life differently. At Sydney dinner parties (the ultimate social indicator) they are spoken about with a degree of envy.

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There may be other reasons for re-thinking our choices. The government wants us to work longer, so we want to be sure we’re doing something we really like. A desire to do something for the greater good of the world rather than the fattening of the corporate wallet may also be driving our choices. Terrorism on our front door may have prompted us to consider what is really important in our lives.

Work has always given us a lot to think about - never more so than now.

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Article edited by Betsy Fysh.
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About the Author

Alison Sweeney is a Professional Human Resources consultant. Writing is her hobby and keeps her sane in a sometimes mad and frenzied corporate world. She has previously been published in the Heckler column in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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