Bouncing Back From Downshifting

Taking time out, or downshifting, may soon feel stale. So how do you go about returing to the jobs market? Learning new skills or reinventing yourself is only part of the task.

Victoria Filippova
Partner, Director of the Finance and 

Audit and Hospitality Departments,


A few years ago, Oleg K., a former chief financial officer, decided to leave the world of big business, t o break free of the competitive race and become a so-called downshifter.

At the time it was a fashionable option for those who had earned a large sum of money from a successful career as a businessman, official or banker. Such people sensed that life was passing them by: their children were growing up, earning was taking priority over family, and they were repeatedly delaying holidays, personal matters and even dreams.

So it was a surprise when, about a year ago, Oleg asked for a meeting, at which he told me that he had decided to return to business. It was proving harder than he had expected. Despite his brilliant experience in the past, he found that employers were suspicious of his career break. Coming back, after the crisis, he found that business now operates by different rules. Oleg was in a state of shock and needed advice.

For many, downshifting really is the end of their career. Such former stars of finance no longer monitor the stock market or sit in traffic jams. They are listening to the waves somewhere like Bali or Mauritius.

At the same time, however, we have seen many cases where circumstances forced downshifters to return to their previous active business life. Each person's circumstances are unique but their stories have one thing in common: Downshifting turns out to be just another phase in their life. For some it is an escape from responsibility; for others it is a new stage of spiritual development. But whatever it is, it ends. The downshifter realizes that the problems of the business world are not that compelling, and that it is possible to grow spiritually while getting paid.

Alexey, a mature and wealthy CEO and the owner of a large pharmaceutical business, sold all his assets in order to reunite with his family living permanently abroad. He decided that he could never earn all the money in the world and it was not worth trying, when his son did not know what it was to go for a walk with his father.

His accumulated wealth is indeed enough to lead a comfortable life and still leave some for the heirs. After a few years, however, he found his personal goals achieved. His son grew up and went to study at Edinburgh University. He built his house, traveled the world, rested and recuperated. And, despite his age, Alexey decided to go back into business. His schedule is, once again, packed for months ahead with travel, conferences and presentations, and meetings in all time zones. Alexey does not know how long he will work like this, but while he still has energy, the will and the support of his family, he won't give up.

Many employers regard even a long maternity or parental leave as a form of downshifting.

Another story of a failed escape. The senior manager of a large oil services company had a hobby: he collected toy soldiers. He had whole armies of them, studied the history of military battles and uniforms of different eras, and meticulously painted the pieces. But his work left little time for his passion. The day began at 8:30 am with an internal meeting and ended no earlier than 22:00 with a business dinner. Boxes of cherished soldiers gathered dust in the home office. Until he took the decision to resign, move out of town and paint more than one army of soldiers. Only a few months later, however, he found his hobby did not occupy him fully. He yearned for what had previously seemed unbearable: the Moscow working rhythm.

Igor, the financial director of a large development company, did not resist his firing at the depths of the financial crisis. Generous compensation allowed him to realize his cherished dream of taking a trip around the world. As well as meeting people, learning languages and even how to dance the tango, he has studied his inner world, which led him to re-evaluate his life. He realized that in order to maintain that elusive state of inspiration and inner integrity, he must never be employed again. If he had to go back into business, it should be as the owner of his own company, built on his principles and embracing his values. But in order to roll out his business and create the company of his dreams, Igor needed money. And he went back to work in order to build the financial foundation for his plan. He thinks he will have to work as a top manager for two or three years, but mainly as a way to finance his project and to make the necessary contacts to help him later in his own business.

Getting back into business is not as easy as we might think. There are no irreplaceable people. While a downshifter is looking out for himself, someone else is working, skimping on sleep and building his career. There is no painless way to return. Many employers regard even a long maternity or parental leave as another way to downshift. So here is my general advice on a "back to the future" plan:

1. Even if you have firmly decided to have done with the job, don't burn your bridges. Continue to communicate with former colleagues, even on an informal level.

2. Plan your return in advance and talk to a headhunter. They will advise you on the market situation and what you can expect. You may have to improve your skills or change your profile a bit.

3. It is important for the employer to see that during your break you did not just lie on a sunbed. Any professional activity during your time away will play a big role. Returnees will find it useful to participate in any, albeit temporary, projects, to acquire additional education and skills or give lectures or speeches at conferences.

Research suggests that only 30 to 35 percent of downshifters are satisfied with their life changes. Whatever makes the other 65 to 70 percent return to business, financial difficulties, new obligations, recuperated health or just boredom, I would emphasize one thing: live here and now, do not postpone communication with children, favorite hobbies, the realization of your dreams or the bold ideas of youth. After all, if you expect downshifting to be a panacea for lost years you may be in for a painful disappointment.