Intro — Geraldine Doogue:
Hello and welcome to Compass. I’m Geraldine Doogue. Tonight a look at a shift in values that’s having a profound impact on the lives of many ordinary Australians. It’s called ‘downshifting’ or ‘voluntary simplicity’, where people choose to live on less income, to live more simply. A survey released last year by the Australia Institute in Canberra indicates 23% of Australian adults have chosen to downshift in the last 10 years. That’s almost a quarter of the population, and they’re not just drop-outs who’ve decided to quit mainstream society — it’s a movement across the board, representing the full range of age, income and social background. Tonight we meet some downshifters, and academics who are studying these quiet revolutionaries who are rejecting a frantic consumerist lifestyle.
Narr:Clive Hamilton commissioned The Australia Institute Survey Into Downshifting. He found 35% of downshifters said lack of time with family was why they decided to change their lives. They recognize that overwork and absentee parents have caused a neglect of children. They don’t want to miss out on their children growing up. This was by far the most common reason for downshifting.
Jim McKnight, Head of Psychology Dept, Uni of Western Sydney:One of the main reasons for being downshifted is most people would suddenly discover the value of friends or family. So a very big motivation is to regain somehow a sense of community with the family, friends and neighbours and broader community.
Dick Newman: When I was a banker I didn’t have sufficient time to be with the boys. Mondays to Fridays hardly saw them. And on the weekends I didn’t feel like doing too much. The weekend was required to relax. And much as you may love small children it’s difficult to relax with them, and it’s difficult to enjoy them.
Narr:When Dick Newman quit the bank the family moved to Maleny, an hour north of Brisbane, where he used to work. Now Debby works two days at the pub’s bottle shop, Dick does tutoring and other volunteer work at his sons’ school, and picks them up every afternoon.
Dick Newman:If you’re going to drop your income to about 25% of what you were earning, you obviously have to accept that consumerism is a thing of the past. You can’t obviously escape consumerism totally, but the ability to just go out and buy bright shiny objects when you feel like it, that had to go. And that suited me anyway.
Clive Hamilton:Well, many downshifters have been through a period where they question at quite a deep level the purpose of their lives. I mean it’s a crisis of meaning for many people. There’s something missing, there’s some emptiness inside.
James Arvanitakis:My life before was very different to what it is now. An average day was a 12 hour day. And it was a very sort of macho driven lifestyle where it was all about trying to make as much money as you could.
Narr:Till his big change five years ago, James Arvanitakis was on a six figure salary in the finance industry. But gradually he developed a deep sense of dissatisfaction.
James Arvanitakis: I think first of all there was a sense that even though I was very successful materialistically and financially and career wise, I had this empty feeling inside me. I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what it was. The second thing that happened was I actually decided that I needed a bit of a break from work because it was so highly stressed. So I ended taking a year off and doing a bit of travelling.
Narr:While overseas James decided to leave the finance industry. When he returned he did voluntary work for a number of community organizations, and he had to move his beautiful house overlooking the beach.
James Arvanitakis: I’m actually earning about 20% of what I did. I can’t go to extravagant restaurants now. But I can have a great bowl of noodles for like $6 or $7 and be happy. I think you can still have all these, you don’t have to give up everything to have a simpler life. It’s about what’s important and try and balance that a lot more.
My life now is a lot more balanced in the things that I do. So I actually take time to make sure that I stay healthy that includes spending time down at the beach running and swimming. I spend more time with friends and family. But I still work hard. It’s not walking away from society. It’s about actually looking at society in a different way. So in many ways what drives my life at the moment is balance, it’s not just work and success and material gain.
Narr:For a few years James was director of Aidwatch, a nonprofit watchdog on Australia’s overseas aid. He still does volunteer work for Aidwatch. He also has a scholarship to do his doctorate and he tutors part time.
James Arvanitakis:In contrast now I have this really strong sense of fulfillment with what I do. And it’s not necessarily a vow of poverty. The work that I do now is based around issues of human rights both in Australia and internationally. I worked on indigenous issues, on promoting refugee rights. That is about the promotion of issues of hope and a sense of community and dignity. They’re the issues that we need balance in our lives and our society and get rid of that sense of emptiness.
Clive Hamilton:Quite a substantial proportion of the downshifters said I did it for my health. And sometimes it’s a chronic condition such as stress or tension or depression that they’re trying to overcome. A smallish proportion of people gave as their reason for downshifting a desire to live a less materialistic lifestyle or a desire to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. And we’ve lumped these together and called these people post materialists. They are the people who are most likely to do the seachange.
Jim McKnight:One of the big themes of voluntary simplicity is where it intersects with the alternative lifestyles and making a light footprint on the planet. And it’s very important for a lot of people that they live lives that are not going to ruin their grandchildren’s future.
Narr:After the Harwoods left the Philippines, where Andrew worked in the mining industry, they came back to Maleny in Queensland. Andrew grew up here on a dairy farm, and since his return, they’ve become involved in sustainable timber production.
Andrew Harwood:This area was originally a rainforest and probably about a hundred years ago or so the area was cleared for dairy farming. Since then we’ve had two or three owners. My grandfather picked the property up about 80 years ago. And I’ve got seven acres of plantation trees here. When growing plantation trees you have to be thinking a long-term strategy, but I’m happy to wait for the benefits.
Sharon Harwood:My whole life now is very simple, and it’s less focused on myself and more about embracing others and about learning about myself and how I can be a better contributor in my community, and of course in my family. My family is just so much more important to me than I could ever imagine.
Narr:The question for the future is how far the downshifting movement will grow, or whether it’ll remain just a sizeable minority who seek a more balanced life.
James Arvanitakis: First of all I’d like to say that the word downshifting indicates that you’re going down. I think it should actually be right shifting, it’s about trying to find that balance. I think this trend is going to grow. People just need a little bit more confidence to go down that path.
Clive Hamilton:And so in a way these people are quite revolutionaries because whilst they often don’t see themselves that way, they really are challenging the fundamental principles of consumer capitalism. I think that downshifting represents a really fundamental social change. I mean if only two or three per cent of people were doing it, it would be a fringe activity. But when a quarter of the Australian population is doing it and there are similar figures for the US and some European countries, I think this represents something really quite radical.
Geraldine Doogue: Yes maybe quite radical. The Australia Institute research faced some controversy when it was first released particularly around the issue of how downshifters funded themselves and whether they were bludgers on society. Indeed the Institute has just completed a follow up report and it’s due to be released in a week’s time. So look out for those results.
Adaptedfrom ABC in house
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