Over the past few months, I’ve been reading articles on the concept of “downward mobility.” I’m fascinated by the different perspectives because it’s a term my husband, Andy, and I have increasingly come to use to describe our own lifestyle.
But what does it really mean? Does it mean that the houses we live in have to get smaller over time rather than bigger? If so, how do you fit children in?
Does it mean I have to be earning less in 20 years’ time than I’m earning now? Do I need to avoid being promoted (should it ever happen)?
The first article in the series on “downward mobility” used this definition: “the movement of an individual, social group or class to a lower status.”
The art of purposefully becoming less. Less what? Less powerful, less rich, less influential?
As an ideal, it stands in sharp contrast to pretty much everything for which I was educated – improvement, success, progression, promotion, self-sufficiency and financial security. Onward and upward!
When I think about my own family, I know that I have benefited hugely from the “upward mobility” for which my mom fought when it came to her own education and career, and then the opportunities that my brother and I probably took for granted.
Some days it feels like a rude and ungrateful desire to throw that back and try to go the other way. And for what? It’s not like “downward mobility” is a clarion call across the globe.
I work in the development sector for Tearfund, which is seeking to raise the standards of living of the poorest people on the planet. Upward mobility has become a pretty fundamental goal for them.
Yet, this work is done in the context of the certain knowledge that the planet can’t support the lifestyles of the most “developed” nations much longer, let alone the whole world adopting our way of living, and so something has to change.
Universal upward mobility (in the current models) will kill us all in the end. But if some people need a better standard of living, it begs the question – who should be moving up, who should be moving down and who gets to decide?
Pragmatically, it seems that most Westerners should be on the “moving down” side of things, if we’re trying to look after the planet. The argument isn’t proving compelling for most of us, though, is it?
There are plenty of practical reasons beyond creation care that support the need for voluntary downward mobility.
Our society is more unequal than it has ever been, which research has shown to make everyone more fearful, resentful and unhappy. Past a certain point that most of us are definitely past, more money and stuff doesn’t even make us happier, experts claim repeatedly.
Maybe we would all be happier and safer if the gap were smaller. But at the same time, who wants to give up their hard-fought-for place in the race of life? Who wants to choose something “less” for their kids?
There are many times when these issues feel too complicated and messy to understand. There are no easy answers and certainly no blueprints.
For example, there is no prescribed salary or square footage that can be set forth as the ideal standard.
But here’s where our questions and reflections have led my husband and me.
- We try to live a life characterized more by simplicity than luxury – and that’s something I’m learning how to do in tiny, probably laughable, steps.
- We try to make decisions that don’t just serve ourselves, but which we think will serve others around us, especially those who have had what my husband calls “a reverse head-start.”
- We aren’t martyrs, we have a pretty inconsistent record and we don’t do it to make life purposefully hard for ourselves or for our (future) kids. We actually think we’re choosing something better for them.
- At the core of our efforts is our faith and our faltering attempts to follow a God who came and lived as part of an oppressed people in first-century Palestine.
We think he was probably on to something, and that maybe “life in all its fullness” has little to do with amassing wealth, power and big houses, and more about friendship, service and simplicity.
It probably has less to do with chasing our own dreams, and more about investing in other people.
There’s a lot to learn, but at least we’ve set some kind of trajectory now. Not “downward mobility” for its own sake, but moving down toward someone who has a better idea where he’s going than we do.
Jenny Flannagan is part-actress, part-writer, part-filmmaker and part-Tearfund employee. She lives in South London with her husband, Andy, and blogs at JennyFromTheBlock, where a version of this article first appeared.