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MIDCAREER CHECKUP

Dropping Out of the Rat Race

May 20, 1996|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marsha Klipp has a challenging, lucrative job at a tiny Moorpark company that routinely wins plaudits for being a great place for women to work.

So why is Klipp planning to quit?

"I've been doing accounting for 20 years now," said Klipp, 40. "I have an artist inside me, and I want to explore that."

Count Klipp among the nation's growing number of employees--most of them baby boomers--who are striving to slow down their work lives so they can spend more time enjoying families and hobbies or pursuing lifelong entrepreneurial dreams. Disillusioned with the corporations they once relied on for support and fulfillment, they are looking inward and to alternative work arrangements in an effort to achieve balance and harmony.

To be sure, some people have had this notion thrust upon them by layoffs. But many others have willingly sacrificed big incomes and corner offices for walks in the woods, T-ball coaching and free-lance work.

Calling the number its "best estimate," Trends Research Institute, a think tank in Rhinebeck, N.Y., said 3% to 5% of the nation's 76 million baby boomers have already scaled back. By 2000, the institute projects, that figure could rise to 15% of those in the baby-boomer generation and younger.

"The downshifting is part of a much bigger trend called voluntary simplicity," said Gerald Celente, director of Trends Research Institute, which looks at social, technological, political and economic trends. "These are people looking to live more and work less and spend less. For them, overconsumption has proven wasteful and unsatisfactory. It's not hip to be ostentatious. It's hip to be frugal."

Put another way, Celente noted, "it's the leading edge of baby boomers, previewing their mortality."

Celente and others who have spotted the trend point to a variety of factors that have converged to prompt workers in mid-career to reevaluate their priorities and, more cosmically, the meaning of life. One key, of course, has been the rise of the dual-income couple: It's a lot easier to consider leaving the corporate fold if a spouse is bringing home a healthy paycheck.

But perhaps the biggest force has been the job cutbacks at companies large and small--not just because pink slips have propelled tens of thousands of workers into the ranks of the unemployed or underemployed but also because the relentless waves of layoffs have made people disenchanted with corporate life. The loyalty that once kept people on the job has eroded with the shredding of the social contract.

"There's a point at which you realize the company isn't committed to you," said Mark Goulston, a Santa Monica psychiatrist who consults with executives on employment issues. "You're not as young as you once were. There are limitations to your stamina. Your children are growing up, your parents are aging."

David R. Gillespie of the San Diego County community of Bonita counts himself among the lucky ones for whom a corporate severance package made it possible to contemplate never returning to work. Gillespie, 55, worked 28 years for Pacific Bell, mostly supervising installers, repair people and line splicers. Two years ago, in one of many episodes of payroll trimming at the telephone company, Gillespie "retired."

Although he was not happy about losing his job, the package at least was generous. Gillespie was allowed to add four years to his age and four years of service to beef up his pension and severance pay.

Now a man of leisure, Gillespie has taken up bicycling and has bought a home computer. He refereed 332 soccer games last year and became president of a civic group that tackles problems with roads and flooding. He watches less television and is almost busier than when he was working.

"I'm definitely happier and more relaxed," said Gillespie, whose wife teaches school. "Intellectually, I know it's the best thing that ever happened . . . but I'll always be bitter till the day I die." Former colleagues tell him he's better off. They, on the other hand, are having to work at a torrid pace and never know who might be the next to go.

Sometimes couples realize that the second income--what little is left after paying for child care, clothing, dry cleaning and commuting--isn't worth the wear and tear on the family.

Ellen Hart, a management consultant in Morristown, N.J., encouraged her 43-year-old husband to stay at home with their son and give up his high-pressure job selling municipal bonds on Wall Street. Her husband, Tom McDonough, relishes his "house-husband" role, particularly the part about playing golf more often.

Their female friends have declared him "the man of the '90s," and male friends have also been supportive, Hart said. "It's made our lives so much nicer."

Much of what this fledgling movement is about is gaining greater control over one's time. As companies have discarded employees over the years, those workers remaining have bridled at the reality of working harder for no extra reward and precious little job security.

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