The constant threat of 'downsizing' - management-speak for ruthless job cuts - has made office life more stressful than ever, adding to pressures of undermanning and lengthening hours. But now the wage slaves are fighting back. Encouraged by best- selling gurus such as Charles Handy, many of them are 'downshifting' - opting to work less, earn less, and enjoy more. Feckless optimism? Or a vision of the future that could work for you?
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Andy Blackford earned pounds 80,000 a year, ate at the best restaurants on expenses and had four new Jaguars in the space of five years. And then one day he suddenly thought: "What's the bloody point?" So last November, at the age of 46, he resigned as creative director of Britain's largest sales promotions agency. He stopped going out in the evening and spending pounds 50 plus the 20 quid cab fare home. He gave up restaurant food and takeaways. He's living on less money now, but oddly, he finds he's better off. And he's stopped working 12-hour days and taking Prozac.

This particular Tuesday afternoon, he's sitting under his apple trees in Hampstead Garden Suburb drinking wine. He and his girlfriend Sandra, who is a headhunter, used to earn a fortune but were always broke. "The life we led demanded as much and slightly more than we earned. I had a baby I only saw in the middle of the night, when she was giving me grief. I lived this frantic life of earning and consuming - I had to consume to sustain the earning - but what for? If I ever had anything to prove I've proved it in spades. It seemed meaningless."

Andy Blackford now leases his services on a project-by-project basis to a variety of customers. He makes enough money, which is not the same as making as much he possibly can. In December he visited the Grenadines to review a holiday for a diving magazine. A couple of months ago he ran 150 miles across the Sahara for charity. He's spent more time with his baby and planted some new aubretia.

Andy Blackford's revolt against meaninglessness is an increasingly common response to convulsions in the workplace. As one lot of employees are downsized and delayered, those who remain are having to work longer, more punishing hours. The old satisfaction of doing well at work is undercut by doubts about the costs, as the ethic of individual achievement seems to elevate the pursuit of personal success above pretty well everything else: responsibility, obligation, fun. Public transport systems are badly planned, public spaces are unsafe and people feel they don't see enough of their families. These things seem somehow all of a piece: lives are increasingly individualised, atomised, competitive, frayed around the edges.

Disturbingly, the many studies of quality of life undertaken both in Europe and the United States all suggest that above the poverty line - say for some 80 per cent of the population - there is no correlation between increased income and increased happiness. Expectations rapidly rise to meet incomes, and, as Andy Blackford found, it is quite easy for a couple to be earning pounds 120,000 a year and still be broke. More and more people are asking whether the glittery pleasures of the shopping mall, of beer with widgets and jeans with labels, are not more exhausting than satisfying. Why, they are beginning to ask, should they channel all their powers of analysis and intuition, of sensibility and articulacy, into companies that understand only the language of human resources, that reduce them to a commodity to be downsized?

And slowly but surely, a rather radical, subversive response is gaining ground: the idea that it might be possible to exchange some part of income for quality of life. It's called downshifting, although its supporters often dislike the term (on the grounds that they consider that they're upshifting). In the United States, where the phenomenon is more developed than here, it's also called voluntary simplicity or planned crossover. Charles Handy, the former London Business School professor who has led the popular debate about the future of work in Britain, prefers to think in terms of portfolio work. In the future, he believes, more and more individuals will place themselves outside organisations and sell their services at a pace to suit themselves.

When the Harvard academic Juliet Schor recently conducted a survey at a large American telecommunications firm, 73 per cent of those questioned thought they could spend less and live more simply. The majority believed this wouldn't affect, or would improve, the quality of their lives. And across America, but particularly in Seattle, where the voluntary simplicity movement has its roots, people are beginning to dump their Donna Karan dresses, swap the Buick for a bike, and save the carrot skins for compost.

We are in the middle of an anxious decade, characterised by millennial prophecies of the end of everything - history, work, the nation state, the western world ... you name it, some academic has probably written a book announcing its imminent collapse. Last year, in America, Jeremy Rifkin published one of the most influential of these books yet, The End of Work, a doomy treatise on the replacement of human beings by microchips. Rifkin prophesies that technology will soon replace not merely human physical functions but the human mind, which means that even as international corporations become ever more globally competitive and profitable, so they will go on announcing layoffs. The proportion of people actually employed in the global economy will be tiny. "Redefining the role of the individual in a society without mass formal work is," he concludes, "perhaps the seminal issue of the coming age."

Individuals, then, are anxious about disappearing jobs, and, more nebulously, about a culture that encourages belief in autonomy even as the world is more and more dominated by heedless, impersonal structures. The old corporations may have seemed tyrannical, but existence without them looks free-floating, frighteningly insecure. Having to face the world on their own resources, people become prey to the certainties of militias, religious cults, or, if they are limper-wristed, to the downshifting bandwagon.

Americans looking to jump on here may turn to one of the can-do, Samuel Smiles-style guide books. Duane Elgin's bestselling Voluntary Simplicity reads like a hymnal for a rather outre cult, full of uplifting-sounding abstractions. Voluntary simplicity offers "a more authentic approach to living ... a fulfilling relationship with oneself, with others, with the earth, and with the universe". Or they can try Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin: less daft, but also determinedly optimistic. Dominguez and Robin aren't saying much more than "take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves," but they do it in the form of a nine-step addiction programme, a diet for the wallet. The tone is bouncy, the rhythms those of the self-help manual: insistent, repetitious, with jargon designed to include the intitiate ("the fulfilment curve") and tantalising promises - in this case, never having to worry about earning again.

A lot of what these bibles of downshifting are selling is fantasy. The books are escapist, purveying delicious dreams of how life could be if only life were different. Most importantly, they excuse a bit of backsliding, a lack of commitment to success, by implying that the highest goal of capitalism, making pots of money, isn't worth it.

Yet it would be misguided to write off voluntary simplicity as a West Coast fad, or even as a frantic middle-class attempt to dignify downsizing - itself an attempt to dignify sacking - by calling it downshifting. Economists are united in their conviction that technology is destroying jobs; consumption, meanwhile, is beginning to reach a point of diminishing returns. What is the point of driving a Porsche on roads so clogged you can never get above 50mph? Why go to the mall on Saturday when all the other customers are so frazzled that they're in shopping rage? The reason those West Coast manuals sell so well is that there is a genuine and heartfelt desire to strip out clutter, a belief that it must somehow be possible to buy fewer pointless gizmos and to live by different values from those imposed by the detached and disloyal corporation. There has to be, downshifters say, using their favourite word, a better balance.

IF THERE is, then Charles Handy has found it. Visibly and even affluently, his life is balanced. Some people find this irritating.

Handy and his wife Elizabeth divide their time between homes in London, Norfolk and Tuscany. I met them in Norfolk, where Handy most likes to write - in a vast, beautiful barn room, all exposed warm brickwork and blond wood, added last year to their pair of former labourers' cottages. From the long, dark and glossy table in the middle of the room, Britain's foremost business theorist can look out through a wall of window across the fields towards Suffolk. In the evenings, the wind drops and the landscape lies low and still in the golden light.

Handy does the cooking and generally takes care of domestic matters when they are in Norfolk. In London, Elizabeth does, and in Tuscany they share. In this way, they say, they contrive to have a different relationship in each place. Further, they divide their year in two: the winter months in which his work takes priority, the summer for her portrait photography. "If she wants to have an exhibition in 'my' months," he says, "or I want to do something like see you in hers, we have to get each other's permission."

As he acknowledges, this sounds yukky beyond belief. When he describes it, he becomes slightly mumbly and apologetic: "It's only a system for us ... I wouldn't advocate it ... It's only because we're in our third age [he is 63, she is 55] and I've been

Charles and Elizabeth Handy have blurred the distinctions between life and work. They use their homes as offices. When you go to interview them, they like you to come for dinner and stay the night. They tell me they were thinking of inviting to lunch a colleague of mine who recently wrote scathingly about Handy in a book review. When Handy attends functions - at the Institute of Directors, for instance - Elizabeth, as his agent, his partner in all senses, comes too. "God, but he's got a fearsome minder," one man who produces a downshifters' magazine (and had failed to get past her) said to me.

Charles Handy's central idea has always been that organisations are communities, and that efficiency and humane behaviour are complementary. In his more recent writings, he has eroded the distinctions between workplace behaviour and real life even further, talking almost confessionally about himself as a way of conveying his ideas. In his latest book, Beyond Certainty, for example, he reports that Elizabeth once said to him: "I am very glad your work is going so well. I just think you should know you have become the most boring man I know." This personal stuff can seem intrusive; it can discomfit people. And when Elizabeth insisted I stay the night before interviewing her husband, my first thought was: What are these people trying to do to me? What's the hidden agenda? The hidden agenda, I think, is that they are rightly sceptical about the brutal, transactional nature of the in-and-out, wham-bam-thankyou interview.

The Handys' house in Norfolk is not a trophy house. They bought it when it was half-derelict, and their children, now 27 and 30, were tiny. They have done it up slowly, and extended it as they have grown more affluent. It is a house invested with memories and effort. And the house, I think, is indicative: Handy is not a smug person. He is messianic, though he insists (not quite convincingly) that he no longer has any desire to change the world; but he is also self-knowing, and not at all arrogant. When I suggest that my colleague the reviewer might partly have taken against the soundbite quality of his prose, he seizes on the point. "That's absolutely right. I use what I call these low-definition concepts and they do mean that I am not taken seriously by the academ- ic elite." This clearly troubles him.

Handy is probably most famous for popularising the idea of the portfolio career, individuals selling their services to a range of customers. This may well involve downshifting, though, in his own case, it has proved to be a most lucrative way of working. In the unofficial table of earners on the international conference circuit, where the stars earn millions, Handy is in the premier league. If he doesn't make a fortune, it is only because he chooses to do so little of it. Eleven of his 12 books are still in print; the more recent have all been bestsellers.

He remains modest about his contribution to the debate on the future of work. "A South African summed it up wonderfully in a review of The Empty Raincoat. He said: 'There is nothing in this book that has not been said before. But it has never been read before.' For example, one of my major contributions is the shamrock theory [the idea that companies will increasingly consist of a small full-time core, aided by part-timers and freelances], which is a quite blatant description of work that's been going on at Sussex University. I mention them and all that stuff, but they describe it in such an extraordinarily boring way that nobody notices. But I make it colourful, and now we've met organisations in America that actually call themselves Shamrock."

Handy is also good at transposing ideas from one arena to another. He won a prize last year for an essay on federalist companies, stealing a political idea for commerce. But it is his application of values - civilised, humanist, religious, call them what you will - to the discussion of business that most distinguishes him. He insists that to be on the side of the workers is to be on the side of the organisation's future. He is, for example, particularly interested at present in the American fashion for zero-dividend companies, in which shareholders get their kicks from seeing the business grow. His ideas of the company as a community have influenced the Blairite notion of the stakeholder economy. And his new book, The Hungry Spirit, which is scheduled to come out before the general election, will ask nothing less than what capitalism is for. "What interests me now," Handy says, "is how we spend the money we earn: what kind of society do we want? Why do we work so hard, why are we educating people, for what sort of world, for what purpose? That brings you to values ..."

There are two possible gut responses to the imminent arrival of the Microsoft world economy, increasingly profitable even as it employs ever fewer people. One is the pessimism Jeremy Rifkin evidently feels (he offers the hope in The End Of Work that people will begin to find meaning to their lives through voluntary work, but it comes across thinly, as a bit of an afterthought). The other is the optimism of Charles Handy.

Handy claims he has tempered his enthusiasm since his first really successful book, The Age of Unreason (1989), "because it was counterproductive. People said, 'It's all very well for you, Charles Handy'." But he refuses to be cast into despair by the possibility of a two-tier world, a few international rich at the top, a mass of disenfranchised, disaffected unemployed beneath. He insists that in the coming "knowledge economy" - in which information is the crucial tradeable commodity, "intelligence isn't rationed, and education doesn't have to be. We can create wealth for everybody." He thinks it isn't helpful to be too pessimistic (and of course, if you are in the business of selling books, what people want is solutions). But actually, he can't help looking for the potential: "It's partly my education and background."

Handy was born in Kildare in 1932, the son of a Church of Ireland vicar whose thoroughly downshifted life ("meat once a week, a vicarage we couldn't afford to heat") convinced him he wanted lots of money and no religion. He joined Shell after Oxford and was sent to the Far East, where "the first thing they gave me was the pension book. I was so pleased. But what I'd actually done was to hand my life over, and my success." There he met Elizabeth, an army officer's daughter working at the British embassy in Kuala Lumpur, who made plain her distaste for being an expat company wife. So Handy joined the one-year MBA course at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, set up something similar at the fledgling London Business School and in 1972 became a full professor. And then his father died. Handy had been "disappointed" in his father, a man who had lived very quietly. It was only when he saw how deeply he was mourned that he began to acknowledge for himself (of course, he understood these things in theory) other definitions of success. He took a job running St George's House, Windsor, a centre funded by the Anglican church to bring together all sorts of people to discuss social issues. And four years later, having written The Age Of Unreason, he left to live according to the principles he was advocating for others, relying on his skills rather than the security of a job.

Handy's appeal is that he offers a capitalist's critique of capitalism. At a time when we seem to be stuck with market economics, a man who has spent his whole life improving companies confronts the brutality of the system. "I write about business as if human beings mattered," he says. "That value stuff doesn't appeal to everybody, but it's why my books have been read outside the business community." Although not formally religious, Handy has a sense of the numinousness of things. And in a culture in which people are increasingly impatient of each other for not working as fast as computers, and in which there's increasingly little time for friendship except with those who are useful, his sense that "there's a force for good in all of us and also a force for evil, which doesn't mean there's a supreme being, only that I'm capable of being more than I'm being" is consolation of a kind.

He can sometimes seem to be generalising from excitement about his own situation. His critics often argue that it's one thing for him to advocate this kind of life; quite another for an unemployed steelworker to try it. Handy replies that electricians and plumbers have always been portfolio workers - and that while it is necessary to have a skill, skills can be acquired. He has tried to persuade trade union leaders that their current business, protecting people with jobs, is a diminishing market, and they would be better off repositioning themselves as agents (rather like the agency that now leases out Andy Blackford's services), negotiating contracts, helping workers position themselves in the market. "They don't disagree, but they don't do anything about it."

He and Elizabeth meanwhile have what they call a doctrine of enough, an essential requirement for any downshifter. They sit down at the beginning of the year, decide how much they need to earn and how to do it, then turn down everything beyond that.

On his desk, Handy keeps a piece of paper on which is printed a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson. "To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and to endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you lived; this is to have succeeded." This could seem sentimental, if not allied with a tough intelligence. But Handy believes that if he could get most people alone in his barn-room, being honest, then they would acknowledge the truth of its sentiments. "If that sort of thing wasn't seen as wimpish or pathetic or religious or something, if that was the general ethic in society, it would be a better place." It's what all the downshifters are saying.

CONSUMPTION was once a word with only negative connotations, used until the 1920s to describe tuberculosis, the most deadly disease of the day. But by 1929, all that had changed. That was the year Charles Kettering of General Motors announced that "the key to economic prosperity is the organised creation of dissatisfaction." Today the average American consumes twice as much as he or she did at the end of World War II, and knows deep down that much consumption is surrogate fulfilment. As one convert to voluntary simplicity wrote recently in the San Francisco Chronicle: "When advertisements try to get you to buy something, they connect their products with people falling in love, having sex, driving in the desert - all things that are satisfying to the soul. They try to trick us into buying things that can't be purchased. The person who goes directly to what is not purchasable is on the right track."

The revolt of the middle classes against consumption is partly a reaction against the designer-everything excesses of the Eighties. But it is driven by deeper economic trends: insecurity about unemployment, and a sense that employers have reneged on a contract. Companies now talk about "employability", and recognise no obligation beyond offering their staff opportunities to upgrade their skills. Working for a corporation has become a precarious business, in which individuals may at any time be found wanting. Meanwhile, most of those who remain aren't even benefiting from improved results. The economist Edward Luttwak, writing about America in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, claimed that the top two per cent of all households had been the only beneficiaries of all the economic growth during the past quarter of a century.

So there are signs of a change of mood, even if there has been, as yet, no great change in behaviour. Ian Christie of the Henley Centre For Forecasting, who has carried out the most extensive (unpublished) survey of downshifting in Britain, says there is a great tendency by optimists and pessimists alike to overstate the speed of the process. He disputes Duane Elgin's contention that 20 million Americans have downshifted, and even Juliet Schor's suggestion that 28 per cent of Americans have exchanged income for time. In one often-quoted survey, by Time magazine and CNN, 69 per cent of Americans said they would like to slow down and live a more relaxed life; but this is a motherhood-and-apple-pie question, revealing very little. Meanwhile, it is obviously easier for rich Americans to downshift, and accept the standard of living of, say, an Italian, than it is for relatively poor Europeans.

All the same, there's a consensus that the era of full employment is over. Charles Handy believes the economy will expand outside, as much as inside, companies. William Bridges argues along similar lines in his 1994 book Jobshift: everyone will become a contingent worker, in the sense that even those inside organisations will be dependent on the results of their group, and individuals outside organisations will constantly have to sell themselves and invent new relationships with employers.

There is, however, a more radical view, that the only possibilities for the majority of the workforce will be beyond the global economy, in parallel local economic systems. Everyone accepts the need to avoid what economists call the lump of labour fallacy - the idea that there's only a certain amount of work to be shared out. Quite clearly, work exists that needs doing. The question is how to generate the demand that translates into jobs. Handy and Bridges believe economic growth can include everyone, though few will be employed in the traditional sense. The New Economics Foundation, which has led the radical arguments in Britain, takes the view that the minority of extremely rich people involved in the global economy will be loath to spread their wealth around. Ed Mayo, its director, insists that for the rest of us, it will be necessary to find ways of acknowledging and rewarding work that doesn't fit into conventional commercial frameworks. "Enclosure of work as 'employment' has meant that the labour market exclusively defines how we organise and validate work within society (where those out of work are dismissed as 'economically inactive'). The results? We have twin evils - mass unemployment on the one hand and a large amount of socially useful work remaining undone on the other. It is hard to imagine a worse outcome."

Richard Douthwaite is the founder of a community economy, designed to "pay" for work that needs doing, and also the author of an excellent theoretical and practical account of barter schemes, local banks and other ways of managing parallel economies, Short Circuit, published by Green Books next month. A former government economist in the West Indies, Douthwaite downshifted in 1974 with his wife Mary and their three children, then aged nine, seven and six months. Looking for land, they settled on Westport, Co Mayo, Ireland, partly because it was cheap (partly because, though they almost forget to mention this now, it is astonishingly beautiful). They paid pounds 6,500 for an exposed, empty and uncultivated 30-acre hillside, with fine, ever- changing views over an Atlantic bay scattered with islands and drumlins, the fingers of land that reach into the sea off the west coast of Ireland.

They cut a road up the hillside, the last part of which is still impassable to anything other than a Land-Rover. Mary got a job as an occupational therapist, and with pounds l,500 savings and a dribble of income from a business they'd started, supplying leather kits to the NHS for occupational therapy, they gradually built their own house. (They had watched a house being built for them in Jamaica, and Richard had done a year of a civil engineering degree before becoming a development economist.) They planted trees to screen the building from the Atlantic winds. For many years they had no electricity, and because they refuse to have a transformer outside their front door, they still can't have an electric kettle.

"We were influenced by ideas of self-sufficiency," Richard says. "We've had at various times ducks, goats, cows, horses and chickens. We've grown soft fruit and tree fruit. But it fairly soon became apparent that trying to be self-sufficient on the basis of a nuclear family is ridiculous." He is obviously right - five people are too few for the sums to add up - although in their case there may also have been a contributary lack of ruthlessness. The leather business eventually failed (although in its most successful phase it was turning over pounds 150,000 a year and employing 14 people) because Richard accepted a government loan to build a factory and then couldn't bring himself to sack anyone when orders started drying up because of NHS cutbacks in the 1980s. Similarly, their own finances were organised on what Mary calls the Fatima principle of economics - Fatima being their arthritic goat, who looked so pathetic that Mary used to give her milk straight back to her to drink.

Several years ago, however, Richard took the first step towards community self-sufficiency by setting up a LETS (Local Exchange Trading Scheme) in Westport. For a unit of currency called a reek (the nickname of the mountain that overlooks the town) members of the scheme offer one another goods and services, which are published in a directory. "A reek is roughly equivalent to a minute's work, so for sitting on a committee or babysitting, you might charge 60 reeks an hour." Services on offer include rag-rolling and marbling, 200 reeks an hour; clinical psychology and psychotherapy, 500 reeks an hour; places at a private school, 5,000 reeks a term; Rhode Island Red eggs, 20 reeks a dozen. A stall in the market, supplying cheese and bread, operates entirely in reeks. The number of reeks in circulation is infinite: it is possible, even encouraged, to go into debt, but then "there is social pressure to earn the reeks you've spent, which is why you wouldn't want more than about 250 people in a scheme." One interesting, and rather appealing, aspect of the scheme is that "it completely changes the way you look at your skills." In the wider economy, Richard, as a writer of books and articles, probably has more earning potential and more status than Mary. In the LETS economy, her skills, growing trees from seed, supplying soft fruit and jams, are worth more than his.

The Douthwaites are both 54. Today, Mary has a part-time job caring for people with learning disabilities, and Richard has an erratic income from books and journalism. Neither has any pension or savings. Richard, who wanted land in the first place because he was "worried about the long- term stability of the international economy", is not alarmed. He is still not impressed with the security of pension funds. "I suppose we're doing what people have always done, relying on family and community." He now plans to set up a community farm, along the lines of one in Hamburg that he describes in Short Circuit, in which 90 families each invest pounds 2,000 a year, and which then grows five different types of grain and supplies all their meat and vegetables. He also hopes to set up a magazine for the growing numbers of people involved in community economies. In Britain, there are 200 LETS schemes, though here, their impact is reduced by a ban on the involvement of unemployed people.

The Douthwaites get by on not very much money, but to an inner-city visitor their quality of life seems very high. Mary can spend much of the summer with her grandson on some of the finest beaches in Europe. They have a view for which many wealthy people would willingly pay hundreds of thousands of pounds; a house with six rooms downstairs, three bedrooms upstairs, a couple of other rooms and a habitable loft, plus a little house next door for their son Joe, his wife and child. The garden is chock-full of raspberries, gooseberries, blackurrants, apples and plums. Wild mushrooms grow under the trees and orchids in the garden. It would be easy to downshift here. The question really is what this model has to offer those who are getting old and have no savings, or those who are stuck in Toxteth or Tower Hamlets.

A RETURN to an Arcadian peasantry has been a potent dream since the industrial revolution, especially at times of upheaval - you only have to think of William Morris's retreat into craftwork as a response to the crudity of manufacturing. It was a minority solution then, and remains so now. There is very little possibility of our all going back to the land. What is happening, according to the sociologist Ray Pahl, is that life outside cities, in suburbs and provinces, is becoming less despised: "There is a second Britain, a slower Britain, with a less expensive lifestyle and a whole culture of folk music, country and western, easy listening, rambling, modest aspirations. Teachers, health service workers: people who work to live, go camping with their kids rather than take expensive holidays, who aren't interested in politics. They don't figure in smart newspapers, and they get ignored. But their values are being reasserted."

It may be that, as Charles Handy predicts, people will increasingly work and save very hard in their early years in order to downshift (and perhaps move to this slower Britain) in their middle and third ages. Or it may be that Pahl's view of middle England is a little patronising. The truth is that, except for the very poor, most people in Britain consume in ways that are quite astonishingly complex: eating Thai food, watching Tarantino's movies, weighing the merits of ethical shampoo against its cost, visiting, in an informed and enthusiastic manner, National Trust properties. There is great pleasure to be had from this cultural complexity; from experimenting with the multiple identities it offers, playing with the visions we wrap around our products. And there is an austerity at the heart of downshifting which may in the end impede its progress. Perhaps not so much in parts of America, which was built on Yankee traditions of puritanism and parsimony, and founded by successive waves of immigrants who were trying to build better lives for their children. But in hedonistic Europe, where cultures are older and more complicated, the lure of self-denial is limited.

A further problem with downshifting is that it is an essentially middle-class phenomenon: you have to be up in the first place if you're going to shift down. And if large numbers of middle-class professionals reduce their consumption, where does that leave those who represent the costs they will cut - their cleaners, childminders, entertainers, waiters, carpenters, house painters? These people may only have McJobs now. In the future they could have nothing.

For the time being however, the truth is that the economic landscape is changing more slowly than the futurologists claim, and the number of people voluntarily downshifting is still small. What is happening is that more people than ever before are feeling uncertain about the future, and so assessing their lives more carefully. Women who have children have always had this opportunity to consider the options; now men are experiencing more and more fateful moments when alternatives present themselves. Often, they may decide to downshift following several redundancies. The move will still be voluntary, but the decision will have a feeling of inevitability about it. And as more and more people cut back, so there will be huge knock-on effects for the rest of the economy, of a kind that most retailers haven't yet begun to grasp. More money will go into insurance against old age, and towards health care, retraining and mid-life university degrees. Holidays will be thought of in different ways: people will swap houses or stay with friends. Consumer goods will be valued for their durability, design for its classicism.

At present, downshifting remains a fairy tale for the 1990s, an alternative vision of the good life. But that in itself is immensely significant. Capitalism's failure so far has been not to recognise that human beings are primarily social animals, who need families, friends and communities for health and happiness. In the name of the market we have allowed the interests of strong economies to prevail over those of strong societies. We have accepted consumer goods in compensation for our transformation into economic units, for the erosion of families and the moral fabric of communities. Downshifting is a middle-class anarchic response to this, patchy and uncoordinated as yet; an attempt to say enough is enough. In the long term, this must be a good thing. In the short term it is depressing that so little of the mood is percolating through into mainstream politics. The major parties talk about economic growth in exactly the same terms they always did, as if it alone will solve everything. They scarcely begin to address quality of life, and whether that may not derive from somewhere else entirely. THE GREAT ESCAPE: A GUIDE TO DOWNSHIFTING Here are some steps that can help you decide if downshifting is for you. STEP 1: Money matters

a) Look at what money means to you. Begin by doing an audit of expenditure. Looking at old bank and credit-card statements, examine how much you spent last year and what on. Organise it in categories such as transport, groceries, treats, mortgage and house maintenance, clothing etc, whatever suits your spending patterns.

b) Calculate what you are 'worth' financially. This means looking at all your assets, debts and liabilities. As well as the capital tied up in your home, to get a fuller picture, estimate the resale value of everything you own (even the things you would never sell - this is just an exercise). Don't forget to include your car, clothes etc. Subtract the debts from the assets and this will give you your net worth. It may not be good news, but at least you will now be in a position to make decisions based on some hard facts.

c) As part of this step, look at your feelings about money. What attitudes towards it have you inherited from your parents without ever questioning them? Is it somehow 'bad', or 'good'? Does your self-image depend on how much you have, or don't have? Disentangling your beliefs about money can help free you to make different choices.

STEP 2: The money/time equation

Calculate your real hourly wage. From your annual salary deduct expenditure necessary because you go out to work (home help, commuting, clothes, escape entertainment, treats because you deserve them) to get your real income. Then calculate how much time you spend earning your money. Add to your normal working hours commuting time, de-stressing time, time spent buying clothes for work, reading for work etc, to get your real hours. Divide your real income by your real hours to get your hourly wage. This calculation helps you identify how much time you have to spend in paid employment. (There will be a few extra costs if you work at home: see step 5 below.)

STEP 3: If money didn't matter

This step enables you to look at how you would spend your time if you didn't need money. What are the things that really matter to you? Which of your interests and needs are being met at work? Which aren't? How much time are you able to give to your other interests? How much more time would you like for them? It may be a bit extreme, but consider what regrets you may have on your deathbed: might you have walked in the Himalayas, or simply spent more time outdoors? Another way to consider the same question is to ask what you would do if you only had a year to live. You may not be able to change your life completely, but you may be able to incorporate more of the things you want out of life into your day- to-day existence. A wise man once said that not many people look back on their lives and wish they had spent more time at the office.

STEP 4: Conscious living

With the help of the raw data above survey your life and, for a few months, live more consciously. Record daily expenditure, with the long-term view of identifying areas of spending that might not be necessary if you were happier in what you were doing. (Some people find that they halve their expenditure just by becoming conscious of what they are spending.) Think about your attitude to your activities: your paid employment, other areas of work (voluntary, in the home etc), and your pastimes. At the end of the period, identify what adjustments you might make to change the money/time equation.

STEP 5: Research and transition

You will already have begun researching how you might spend more time being more fulfilled, if less financially rewarded. You will need to examine your options. Can you work part-time at your present job? Can you do the same work from home? Might you need re-training to do something you would find more rewarding? Having identified how you would best like to use your time, calculate how much of your work needs to be money-making. You will probably need fewer holidays, fewer treats, and could reduce job- sustaining expenditure considerably. With more time you can borrow books from libraries, and spend less on convenience foods. You will, however, have to spend more on heating and lighting. You may think you can do without child-care, but this can be just as important if you are to discipline yourself to work from home. Part of the calculation may involve equipping an office at home. You may decide to sell your home to release capital, to move to a cheaper, or larger, place. The transition period can be partly spent working in the old way (and spending less) and then building up contacts, clients, outlets etc, for your new working life. Most of the people we spoke to had either savings, a redundancy payment or an inheritance to see them through the transition period. Enough money for six months was considered prudent.

STEP 6: Make the change

This could require discipline, resilience and an ability to learn from mistakes. Or then again, it may be one long glorious ride into a glowing sunset.


Home Run, offers free fact-sheets on identifying what to do and how to start. Send large sae to Home Run (IoS), Cribau Mill, Shirenewton, Chepstow NP6 6RD. New Ways to Work offers fact-sheets on flexible working and an information line on 0171 226 4026 ( Table omitted )