Can a career and voluntary simplicity co-exist?

Working and Voluntary Simplicity

by Linda Breen Pierce

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From time to time, people confide to me that while the notion of simplicity is appealing, their work is more important to them at this time in their lives. The underlying assumption in this statement is that work and simplicity are somehow in conflict or not compatible. Others believe that the primary goal of those who live simply is to do as little work as possible. This is a myth. Voluntary simplicity is not an anti-work movement. To the contrary, the voluntary simplicity philosophy encourages people to engage in work (whether for compensation or as a volunteer) that uses their unique talents and skills, is in alignment with their values, and is in balance with other aspects of their lives.

Balancing our work and personal lives is perhaps one of the most challenging tasks we face as we enter the 21st century. In the last 50 years, we Americans have added a full month to our annual work hours. In 1997, we had the dubious distinction of surpassing Japan as the country with the highest annual work hours of all industrialized nations. People in most European countries work 15 to 20 percent fewer hours than Americans. A 1997 U.S. survey by the Families and Work Institute in New York found that 64% of employees would like to work fewer hours. This is up from 47% in 1992.

In fact, thousands of individuals in this country have done just that-they have restructured their lives to permit a part-time work schedule, working 20 to 30 hours a week. This schedule frees up time and energy for other high priorities in their lives, like spending time with family and friends, caring for their bodies (sufficient sleep, exercise and nutritious food), helping others, developing their spirituality, exploring a hobby, and enjoying time in nature.

The biggest hurdle we face in reducing our work hours is simply believing that it can be done without feeling deprived of our material needs and true desires. Once we realize this truth, the rest is easy-well, relatively easy. Chances are, there are people in your life right now who have already accomplished this. You can read the real life success stories of part-time workers in my book, Choosing Simplicity: Real People Finding Peace and Fulfillment in a Complex World (Gallagher Press, 2000).

To make part-time work a reality, you must do two things. First, you must reduce your living expenses to accommodate a lower income. Obviously, if you have a family, this process must be a family project. Ideally, each adult in the family would have the option to work part-time. Second, you must either persuade your current employer to allow you to work part-time, or find another employer or self-employment opportunity to permit such a schedule. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking about the possibilities in your own life:

  1. Reduce your housing expenses. Moving to smaller quarters, moving to a less expensive area of the country, and renting instead of owning your home have all helped people accomplish this goal.
  2. Reduce your transportation expenses. Locating your home close enough to work so that you can walk, ride your bicycle, car pool or take public transportation is an excellent method of achieving this goal. With a little thought, many families are able to make the transition from a two-car to a one-car family. Often, if you move to a smaller residence (see #1 above), you can also reduce your transportation costs at the same time.
  3. Calculate your true hourly wage. You need to know how much you really earn before you can determine whether a change of jobs is in order. There are books and guides to help you do this. An excellent choice is Your Money or Your Life , by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.
  4. Don't let health insurance stand in your way. Too many people say, "My job is killing me but I can't quit because I need the health insurance." What's wrong with this picture? Most people can get individual and family health coverage. Yes, it is expensive. But so are housing, food, and transportation needs. Look at health insurance as a cost of living and work on reducing your total cost of living to enable you to manage on a part-time income.
  5. You may not need to quit your current job. If you enjoy your work, but would enjoy it more if you worked fewer hours, submit a proposal to your employer to do just that. Consider the objectives of your employer and come up with a plan that will meet the company's needs as well as your own. A job share is one option. Telecommuting for part of the week will reduce commuting time. In fact, you may be more productive working at home, which in theory would allow you to do the same job in fewer hours. If your spouse has health benefits for the entire family, consider proposing that you give up your health benefits in exchange for reduced work hours.
  6. Explore entrepreneurial opportunities if you have the personality for it. Ideally, this is done while your spouse is earning a stable income, giving you the economic flexibility to build your business over time. Working from home is a lot less costly than traditional employment. At home, you will have fewer expenses for clothes, transportation, and lunches.

These are just a few avenues to explore. If you put your mind to it, you can come up with your own creative solutions. It may take time-six months, one year, even two years-to change the infrastructure of your life, but it's just a fraction of a life time spent in the alternative, working so hard and long that you have no time and energy for anything else. And if you were to say that you love your job so much that you can't think of anything you would rather do, I would ask you to consider the words of the late Anne Morrow Lindbergh, taken from her book, Gift from the Sea:

For it is only framed in space that beauty blooms. Only in space are events and objects and people unique and significant, and therefore beautiful. A tree has significance if one sees it against empty space of sky. A note in music gains significance from the silences on either side. A candle flowers in the space of night.

When we become unidimensional beings, focusing our life energy on work to the exclusion of all else, we lose the beauty and significance of our lives.

Linda Breen Pierce is the founder of The Simplicity Resource Guide and the author of Choosing Simplicity: Real People Finding Peace and Fulfillment in a Complex World (Gallagher Press, 2000). She can be reached at pierce@

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