When Down Leads to Up

Downshifting Brings Upsurge in Quality of Life

DownshiftingWhile most drivers leave gear choice to their automatic transmission, some prefer the control offered by shifting their own gears. Similarly, choosing a gear for career development—determining speed, effort, energy output—is a key to happiness, says Ellen Ernst Kossek ’79, author of CEO of Me: Creating a Life That Works in the Flexible Job Age.

In fact, a national poll by the Center for a New American Dream shows that 48 percent of Americans have opted to make less money to get more time and a more balanced lifestyle. Mount Holyoke alumnae are certainly among them, making adjustments within their careers, downshifting briefly to rev up again later, or starting over in a new business or field.

Downshifting the Mount Holyoke way rarely involves less effort—just a change in how and where the effort is used. Cori Ashworth, the Alumnae Association’s alumnae career and professional consultant, says that in her experience counseling Mount Holyoke women, downshifting has negative connotations, and she’d rather call it refocusing or re-energizing. Both Kossek and Ashworth assert that such a shift can be made in almost any field with careful planning and negotiation.

The term downshifting has been around at least fifteen years, since Amy Saltzman published Downshifting: Reinventing Success on a Slower Track. But what was once a marginal movement is becoming mainstream. Kossek, whose doctorate is in organizational behavior, says American companies are realizing that to retain their high-talent individuals they have to start using “underutilized tools”—such as reduced hours or flexible schedules—in managing these individuals. And, she emphasizes, research shows that these arrangements serve employers and employees equally well. “The benefits of employing downshifters need more PR based on the sound research,” Kossek notes.

Increasingly, says Ashworth, these high-talent individuals are women, many of whom seek flexibility and work/ life balance. While flexible jobs were once seen as a mommy-track aberration, now, Kossek says, businesses are realizing “flex life is work life.” It is significant that the Wharton School of business published her book, since not all managers are ready for downshifters, she days. Since work life lasts longer for baby boomers than for earlier generations, we now have more time for “second acts,” as columnist Ellen Goodman calls them. Our working life is “not a sprint but a marathon,” says Kossek, and employers and employees need to work together to craft a course that keeps passion and endurance alive.

Mount Holyoke Women Downshift

Mount Holyoke alumnae have taken this trend in their own remarkable directions, for a variety of reasons. Whether composing a life around changes and crises or following a dream, these alumnae were ahead of the curve as they downshifted into self-crafted work lives.

“In 2000, I had a heart attack from stress and very nearly died,” says Chris Bryce Sass ’77. As a highly paid corporate software saleswoman, Sass had been needing pep talks from her husband to stay with her job despite the pressure. After the heart attack, she had to reduce stress, and this led her to create her own business, a now thriving online and brick-and-mortar quilt fabric store (quiltfabric.com). A different physical crisis, infertility, led Stephanie Ward Chiari ’95 to redesign her career while staying in her chosen profession of teaching. To accommodate the rigorous regimen of infertility treatments, she downshifted to teaching assistant, giving her more time and less stress—and twins in 2004!

Sometimes the spur to downshift is a company’s downsizing. Job loss put Elizabeth B. McDermott ’80 in a position to choose what came next, a situation she now describes as “not a crisis but an opportunity.” She moved from a career in the software industry into library science, and is pursuing a degree in that field. McDermott notes, “leaving the salaried job is difficult—until you get pushed.”

Sometimes a change starts a chain reaction. For Sue Fitzgerald ’84, divorce and a move to a small town inspired her to give up the practice of law to teach part-time at two community colleges. “I’d rather be able to go for a walk in the afternoon or volunteer at the community center than worry about billable hours,” she says. Marcia Weed Heath ’74 left a marketing job with an “obscene salary for someone with a B.A. in English” after her divorce, to make “a relative pittance” at her own agency. “I learned how much I enjoyed having no boss,” she says. Kossek cites the birth of a second child as another frequent motivator for career rewiring.

For many, neither crisis nor change prompts their downshift. It’s a personal choice, one at which they arrive many different ways. Penny Fillios Billings ’77 turned fifty and realized, “if I did not take the plunge then, I probably never would.” She dove into a professional career as a full-time artist after twenty-five years as a trial attorney, including fifteen as a federal prosecutor, and particularly values the ability to control her own schedule.

Edana A. Kleinhans ’03 left New York publishing to teach in Germany. She reconnected with an experience she had really enjoyed—mentoring at MHC’s Speaking, Arguing, and Writing Program—and, with help from the Career Development Center’s Katya King, got a Fulbright scholarship to teach in Germany. She’s now in her second year as a teaching assistant there, and is working toward her master’s in education. Finding she needed to see more than a blur of traders’ faces at the New York Stock Exchange, Jennifer Whyman ’84 switched the trading bell for the school bell to teach at a public school in Harlem where she meets “chess champions, musicians, writers, scientists, and mathematicians,” and finds herself “ecstatic” at her good fortune.

A Rigorous Process

Feeling fortunate can be one result of downshifting, but it’s not easy. Elizabeth McDermott cites lack of health insurance as a major negative. Penny Billings remarks on the solitude of the artist’s life, the lack of collegial interaction. And a change in schedule can bring conflict with a spouse in trying to reconfigure family time, says Chris Sass. Some alumnae encountered incredulity and even resistance from family and colleagues.

These difficulties make it important to do some hard thinking and planning before making the change. It’s not always easy to figure out why a particular job or career isn’t making one happy. “You need some data about yourself,” says Ellen Kossek. “Talk to those who love and know you best” about your dissatisfaction. Is it the career itself, or the spot you’re in? Is your job or personal life lacking something you need?

If, after some soul-searching, you find that you want to stay where you are but to control your schedule more, your most important tool will be negotiating, Kossek and Ashworth agree. “Women are apt to be scared to negotiate,” says Ashworth, but setting your proposal up as a win/win for you and the employer will help. Kossek’s research has shown that companies get the same amount of work for less money when they let employees reduce th
eir hours, so there are clear advantages for the organization. Setting communication boundaries, such as when and how often you can be contacted, can also play into negotiations. “Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want,” says Kossek. This goes for your role in family life as well.

If your self-assessment points toward a career change, “identify your greatest fear and make a plan to neutralize that obstacle,” suggests Melissa A. West ’80, who left Web work for artwork. Save up for a safety net, research healthcare, and build support from your family and friends.

Starting a career change by working with the Alumnae Association’s alumnae career and professional consultant is efficient and practical. Cori Ashworth uses traditional self-assessment instruments such as the Myers-Briggs personality typology, and also serves as a resource and sounding board, and even as a coach. Having her services available through Mount Holyoke allows alumnae to explore possibilities in a safe and comfortable way. To make an appointment with Ashworth, visit alumnae.mtholyoke.edu/programs/career/index.php or call 413-538-2080.

The immense variety in alumnae career paths demonstrates that practically anything is possible for those searching for fulfillment in work and life. Downshifting can increase the quality of your own life, and help nudge society to create a workforce encouraged to have both a fulfilling career and a satisfying personal life.

By Emily Dietrich ’85

Emily Dietrich ’85 is a freelance writer based in Redmond, Washington. This article appeared in the summer 2008 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.

DownshiftingTime Out to Figure It Out

Earning a six-figure salary as a negotiator for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, M. E. O. ’02 found it easy to think the long hours and corporate politics were worth handling. But she “felt something was missing,” and downshifted to take time to figure out what her high-powered life lacked.

She resigned and went to Lake Tahoe, where she taught three- to five-year-olds skiing and snowboarding. Earning $8 an hour with benefits including free hot chocolate, M. E. found “balance and peace.” The sunshine, mountains, and children brought her “tremendous clarity and a fresh perspective.”

She’s on the on-ramp again now, working toward becoming a master of traditional Chinese medicine, which includes acupuncture and herbalism. (In her school—Five Branches Institute in Santa Cruz, California—she shares classes with Jessica L. Russell ’05.) She admits that doing without the money was an adjustment, but says, “I am learning how to be happy with less, and that’s a different kind of freedom.” Some family members consider her career change from corporate finance to Eastern medicine—going from stiff suits to flip-flops—“completely ludicrous.” But, M.E. says, “I am inspired every day.” Instead of making a huge bank richer, her best efforts will now “make someone’s life better.”

DownshiftingFrom Web Design to Artistic Expression

Downshifting from Webmaster for Peet’s Coffee and Tea to artist was a slow process for Melissa A. West ’80. The hardest part, says West, “was just doing it.” She weaned herself from her full-time job over three years, adding safeguards along the way. West continues to work part-time to maintain health benefits, but the majority of her time is spent painting and printmaking.

She also followed a dream, one begun in an art-history course at MHC, to walk an ancient pilgrimage route from France to Spain. The trip gave rise to a series of woodcuts, and West says, “I am beginning to feel like I understand and am meeting my artistic vision.” West’s change in lifestyle brought approval and support from many in her life. She even believes many “wish they had the option to step outside of the mainstream as well.” Her downshift has not resulted in less work. On the contrary, she says, “I have never worked harder in my life, but just about every minute of it is a pleasure.” See Melissa’s work at www.mswest.com.

At left: Melissa West depicts the end of her walk across Spain in Following in the Footsteps of Generations, surrounded by the ghosts of previous pilgrims.


Horses No Longer a Hobby

DownshiftingHilary K. Moore ’04 worked full-time for the Washington Post Corporation before leaving her newspaper career for a complete change in lifestyle and to follow her dream—being on the Olympic equestrian team. Far from a reduction of hours, Hilary’s change demands a seven-day workweek. She is training and teaching six days a week, with chairing fundraising events and freelance writing filling the rest of the hours. Although Hilary had to leave behind an excellent healthcare-benefits package, she says “I am outdoors, enjoying the fresh air, moving around all day. Not only have I never been more fit in my life, but I no longer have chronic back problems or frequent colds.”

The benefits of doing what she loves are balanced with the discovery that competitive riders can be brutal as they vie for students and recognition. “There is no human resources [department] in the equestrian world,” she says, which leaves professionals to navigate the waters of ethics and standards on their own.

Hilary recommends saving enough money for a safety net in case your change doesn’t work out. Downshifters also need to cultivate support, Moore says. The more your family and friends understand your goals and motivations, she says, “the more they can help support you when the road to your goals gets bumpy.”


Learn More: Resources for Downshifters

General Information


  • Work/Life Balance: Ellen Ernst Kossek’s (MHC ’79) site explores research on work/life balance and contains many resources. Has a lot of research on new ways of working, including a study funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foun
    dation on reduced load work.
  • Choosing a Simple Life:  connects downshifting with sustainable, green living.
  • The Slow Movement
  • The “New Retirement”: An article about downshifting as an alternative to retirement.
  • Quitting the Rat Race”: An article from Human Resources magazine that explores origins of downshifting terminology and corporate responses.
  • Women for Hire: The company helps leading employers connect with top-notch professional women in all fields.


  • The Opt-Out Revolt: Why People Are Leaving Companies to Create Kaleidoscope Careers by Lisa Mainiero and Sherry Sullivan Davis (Black Publishing, 2006)
  • Downshift to the Good Life: Scale It Down and Live It Up. 52 Brilliant Ideas by Lynn Huggins-Cooper (Infinite Ideas Limited, 2005)
  • Downshifting: A Guide to Simpler Happier Living by Polly Ghazi and Judy Jones, (Hodder and Stoughton, 2004)
  • Downshifting: How to Work Less and Enjoy Life More by John Drake (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2001)
  • Downshifting: Reinventing Success on a Slower Track by Amy Saltzman (Perennial, 1992)
  • CEO of Me: Creating a Life that Works in the Flexible Job Age by Ellen Ernst Kossek ’77 and Brenda A. Lautsch, (Wharton School Publishing, 2008)

Expert Advice

  • Visits by Cori Ashworth, director of alumnae career services, to Mount Holyoke alumnae clubs can be arranged. She also does in-person and long-distance counseling for alumnae. To make an appointment with Ashworth, visit our Web site or call 413-538-2080.
  • Ellen Ernst Kossek ’79, author of CEO of Me: Creating a Life That Works in the Flexible Job Age, speaks to national and international audiences from women’s groups to human-resources and management professional groups to business corporations, book groups, and retiree groups. She will waive her speaking fee for groups with an MHC connection (if the group covers transportation and purchases books for participants).

MHC Discussion Group
Ellen Ernst Kossek ’79, author of CEO of Me: Creating a Life That Works in the Flexible Job Age, recently started a career discussion group on the Alumnae Association Web site. Go to alumnae.mtholyoke.edu, select “programs and services,” and then “discussion groups.” Any MHC alumna may take part.

Healthcare Insurance

Giving up employer-subsidized healthcare benefits is a major obstacle for many would-be downshifters. This information may be of help to those seeking healthcare when an employer doesn’t provide it.

Note: Thanks to Avice Meehan ’77, vice president for communications at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI); Cindy Legare, MHC Human Resources benefits specialist; and Jim Hellmuth, insurance broker for HHMI; for much of the information below. Inclusion in this list does not imply endorsement by these people, or by the Alumnae Association of Mount Holyoke College.

Healthcare Insurance Basics

  • The Medline Plus Web site, a service of the US National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, has links to health insurance basics, recent news articles about healthcare insurance, and links to dozens of related sites.
  • The Department of Labor has a robust Web site on health plans and benefits, including COBRA and a frequently asked questions section.

Health Insurance Information for Those Who Run Small Businesses

Small-business health insurance is often provided through local or regional chambers of commerce. Follow this link for a national resource.

Health Insurance Information for Self-Employed People

  • The National Writers Union provides health insurance for its members.
  • Working Today is a national nonprofit that represents the needs and concerns of the independent workforce through advocacy, information and service.
  • Fractured Atlas  provides services, resources and support, including healthcare, to independent artists and arts organizations.
  • Artists Health Insurance Resource Center is a health-insurance resource for artists and people in the entertainment industry.

Health Insurance for Massachusetts Residents

For those who cannot obtain health insurance from an employer, the state offers the “Commonwealth Connector“, which provides coverage options for individuals and some small businesses.

Continuing Your Healthcare Coverage When Leaving a Job with Employer-Sponsored Healthcare

The Department of Labor has information on COBRA, which permits people to continue for up to eighteen months coverage they had through an employer. A link to An Employee’s Guide to Health Benefits Under COBRA can be found under the “law and policy” section of this site  or at this site, under the “COBRA Continuation Health Coverage’ section.

However, most employers pay at least a portion of the premium for employees, but COBRA requires that the former employee pay the entire premium plus a 2 percent administration fee. Under MHC’s most cost effective plan, for example, the monthly family premium is $954.73. MHC pays $805.54 toward that family premium, leaving the employee with a cost of $149.19/ month. Under COBRA, an individual would pay the entire cost plus fees. That’s why the Commonwealth Connector and its partner site Commonwealth Care, which subsidizes health insurance, can really be a godsend for Massachusetts residents.

Choosing a New Healthcare Insurance Plan?

  • To obtain individual coverage, contact health insurance companies directly. Here is a long list of health insurance plans available to Americans, with links to each company’s site.
  • The options vary greatly, from full coverage to “catastrophic” coverage that provides limited coverage for serious accidents and illnesses.
  • The frequently-asked-questions section of Insurance.com’s &ldquo
    ;Health Insurance Center” addresses many issues facing those purchasing healthcare coverage independently.
  • Individuals can enter their zip code and be linked to an appropriate Blue Cross
 and Blue Shield plan by visiting their web site.
  • There are temporary major medical plans available for set timeframes 
(typically thirty to 180 days) and with little to no medical underwriting. They do this by applying a stringent preexisting condition 
limitation to any claim submitted but, if you are young and healthy and
 that is not a concern, the product works. Assurant is [HHMI’s] choice.
  • If you live in a Kaiser Permanente area, the rates are
 reasonable and the coverage is excellent if you are ok with their model.

Art Credits: Adam McCauley, Stuart Goldenberg, Melissa West

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One response to “When Down Leads to Up”

  1. Celia Moses says:

    Thought I am not literally a downshifter-I still work-full time-I have given up many voluntary projects.

    I question whether human beings were meant to multi-task an high efficiency their entire waking life.

    I know I need time to relax and unwind.

    I think American work hours have increased and become too long.

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