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Getting off the fast track: the benefits of downshifting

Downshifting our lives – and working less – could benefit the environment without harming the economy.

Eric Kemp-Benedict / Published on 26 March 2018

To those that live to work, I have a suggestion: Slow down. You could help the planet and your fellow worker.

While the ability to work less is a luxury, the environment is not. At the end of the day, it’s the only thing that keeps us alive, and we’re asking too much of it. The damage is piling up.

That damage is tied more to money than people. The more money spent, the bigger the environmental footprint. And much of that money is spent at the top: what I call the high-income fast-track, where a few of us earn a lot and work to earn a lot more.

What if these relatively wealthy households “downshifted,” reducing their work hours and their spending? Could downshifting be a viable strategy to preserve the environment while offering good jobs that let people afford a decent life?

A colleague and I set out to address this question. In a recent paper, we considered the economic and environmental effects of two strategies. In one, someone who can afford to do so keeps their job but spends less. In the second – the downshifting option – that same person reduces their hours at work, switches to a low-pressure job with shorter hours or leaves their job entirely to live on their partner’s income.

With the use of a simulation model, we got a few tentative answers. The first strategy might decrease our environmental footprint, but it could also mean increased unemployment. If people drop their consumption slightly, the result is a short-run slump that soon recovers. If people drop their consumption a lot, the economy suffers a deep slump.

The downshifting strategy, however, provides an initial economic boom that doesn’t overwhelm the reduced consumption by downshifters. The net effect is less economic activity, which suggests a smaller environmental impact, but also a tight labor market that pushes wages and productivity upward.

Downshifting, at least in this model, threads the needle: those in the labor pool get higher wages, but in total there is less pressure on the environment.

What will happen in reality? We don’t know for certain. Downshifting is still a fringe movement – though one that has only continued to gain attention, with a slew of books and articles after Amy Salzman wrote Down-Shifting in 1991. And different models often conflict, so the savvy consumer compares results from several models and the assumptions they’re based on.

The lesson I draw from our model is this: Downshift if you can. It is likely to improve your quality of life and potentially decrease your consumption, reducing pressure on the planet. It can even give a boost to those who don’t have the luxury of downshifting themselves.

Written by

Eric Kemp-Benedict
Eric Kemp-Benedict

SEI Affiliated Researcher


Topics and subtopics
Economy : Sustainable lifestyles
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