Cheer Up for Downshifting!


We use the term "downshifters" to refer to employees who deliberately take a step back down the career ladder. For various reasons, they want to take a couple of steps back – either because they want to take more time for other themes (family, hobbies, etc.) in their life phase or they want to make a fresh start in their life, but, unfortunately for downshifters, a fresh start is then often possible only at another employer. Very few organizations are able to enable this step for the downshifters without their losing face and suffering a career interruption.  I personally find this very unfortunate and these organizations are missing out on an important opportunity and the potential of these persons is then being lost only because the organizational flexibility is lacking.


Very often, we only then notice much too late what potential downshifters have. In modern personnel development, we should abandon the old ascent-focused career and measure the employee’s value exclusively based upon the hierarchy. We then often also observe this if we take a look at the wage systems of the organizations and the flexibility of the work models. To “downshift” in one’s career or even to voluntarily exchange the influential management position for a function without personnel responsibilities is even still today regarded at the company as being a regrettable development. I can still well remember when I changed careers many years ago. I finally wanted to do something different, to have more internationality and above all to do something which I had previously never done before in my life. In order to do this, I left a large corporation and also gave up my executive management function. Hardly anyone I knew congratulated me on this step. Many friends were very lukewarm in their reaction and, as a whole, pitied me. One’s status at the company is unfortunately still always very closely associated in one’s function at the company. Even when I changed my function once again many years later (because I wanted to), a colleague asked me “Can I congratulate you or do I have to feel sorry for you?”


As in the past, for many of us, downshifting occurs rarely and is considered suspect for employers. Whoever rejects a promotion that is offered, would like to reduce his working time without an apparent reason or even is searching for a genuine step downwards: That person is rarely asked about his true motivations for this, but rather often only regarded critically. However, we should decisively move away from the organizational career and towards the  “protean” (Hall D.T.) career – towards a career which is self-determining and much more driven by personal values than by the rewards offered by an organization and which serves the “entire” person, social networks such as the family and the “life’s purpose”. Protean careers also essentially downplay the justification concept because they define status no longer within the function, but rather within one’s own person. This creates security and the social networks which are thus strengthened and which promote inclusivity. Whenever I can once again self-determine my career, this then increases my autonomy and I will be able to perceive my professional life to be fairer. Thus, protean career models fulfil all dimensions of the SCARF Model in NeuroLeadership (Rock D.).


It is superficial and even wrong to sweepingly label downshifters as being lazy or slackers. Indeed, Bernd Slaghuis states in his blog article that precisely the opposite is the case: Whoever has clarity regarding what truly motivates him will maintain a healthy professional life in the coming years and logically base his actions on these motivations. Furthermore, in his new position, he will be far more motivated and far more productive than the vast majority of employees who helplessly sit in our offices whiling away their time and, without assuming any self-responsibility, fulfil their work duties according to rigidly-prescribed company policies.


It is high time that management, HR and also we as the company be open-minded towards a new career perspective. We must uncouple the career concept from the affiliation to a single organization. However, this requires a high degree of agility in the work models. But, in the end, there also encompasses optimally utilizing our employees’ potential – in the interest of both sides. Not only our career requirements (technological transformation, expertise development, strategy changes, etc.) have changed, but rather also our personal values and needs. However, through the flexibilization of our work model, we will then also be successful in retaining older employers – with their experience – longer in the work process. Linear models – as we still oftentimes see today at many organizations – are no solution in this regard.


Thus, we should display more courage and embrace downshifting. Only by so doing will we be successful in uncoupling the career from one-dimensional career ascent-focused mind-sets and fulfil today’s needs of employees for more flexibility, independence and self-actualization. And make employers attractive for job applicants and employees as a long-term partner supporting them. And those organizations which are the first to embark down this path will win the fight for the talents in all age groups.

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