Workers 'downshift' careers to pursue personal,family goals


July 24, 1991|By Jean Marbella

A caption to a photograph in the Today section yesterday misidentified Brenda Carl Bridges' children. They are Rebecca and Tommy.

They should wear bumper stickers, perhaps, to avoid being rear-ended by those who have yet to see the light. "I brake," they should warn, "for real life."

They brake to spend time with their kids rather than their clients. To work part- or flex-time rather than full- or overtime. To contribute to their families and communities rather than to their careers and corporations.


One author calls it "downshifting." One company, IBM, calls it "work and personal life balance options." Conservatives hail it as return to traditional family values; others see it as the continuing shift from me-ism to we-ism.

Whatever you call it, you probably know someone in the thick of this trend -- such as the lawyer who steps off the partner track to devote more time to raising her children, the CPA who now inks in time to volunteer in a first-grade classroom, and all those others who are finding that some of the hours previously spent at work are better devoted to the PTA, an aging relative, a community project or even planting and canning their own tomatoes.

"I did 10 years in the newsroom," said Brenda Carl Bridges, inadvertently using prison-sentence lingo in describing her TV and radio broadcasting career.

"I was reporting on other people's lives. I wanted my own life," said the 33-year-old, who quit Channel 2 nearly five years ago after finding that the morning sickness of pregnancy doesn't jive with the morning news broadcast. "You realize life does not go on forever. This is not a dress rehearsal."

The yearning for a fuller life, one defined by more than work and what it allows you to buy, is perhaps just another swing of society's pendulum. After the now much maligned 1980s, that decade of credit-happy consumption and work-as-life-itself, the '90s are shaping up as a decade that emphasizes family over job, happiness over achievement.

"There's a move from conspicuous consumption to visible virtue," said Judith Langer, a market researcher. "People are saying, 'I may not get that, my goal of being rich at 30,' but, also, they're saying that that's not gratifying anyway."

"What we're seeing is an attempt to balance things," said Susan Hayward, senior vice president of Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, a Connecticut-based market research firm. "Work is not the only source [of satisfaction]. We need kids, too. We need friends too."

Workers are increasingly dissatisfied with how their jobs put the squeeze on their personal lives, Yankelovich's annual survey of social attitudes has found. In 1990, for example, 56 percent of working women surveyed said they'd stop working permanently if they had enough money, a remarkable jump from just three years earlier when only 35 percent felt that way.

It's not just working women with children, either, although perhaps they feel most strongly this tug of war between work and personal life. Single women and men are also expressing similar dissatisfaction.

"It almost feels like a cry for relief," Ms. Hayward said of the survey results. "It was extremely dramatic, a release of pent-up pressure. . . . They're saying, 'I need a life.' "

You see this shift in priorities throughout popular culture, as well. You see it in movies such as "Regarding Henry," in which a corporate lawyer needs a shot in the head, literally, to relearn the simple joys of children and puppies. You see it in the business world, where corporations slowly are starting to accommodate workers who want more flexible schedules to care for children or aging parents and longer personal leave time to pursue interests unrelated to their jobs. You see it, perhaps, even in celebrity lifestyles, as Sybaritic playboys like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson test out the pleasures of parenthood.

It's easy to overstate this, of course. Most people simply don't have the option of giving up full-time employment. Rather, this is a trend among those who do have that choice, usually couples for whom a second income can be sacrificed without great economic distress.

"There's not a day that goes by I don't think of how lucky I am," says Sally Millemann, 40, who gave up her job as deputy director of a legal clinic for the disabled to raise her son, Matthew, now 16 months old. "For many people, most people, to do this would be a significant hardship. For us, it's a little hardship."

Unlike previous generations of mothers who never pursued outside careers, Ms. Millemann and others say that their decision was made easier by the fact that they'd already been out there in the rat race.

"Having a career -- I've done it," said Ms. Millemann, 40, a social worker who specializes in public interest law. "I don't think I could have done this if I hadn't already had a career."

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