A New Way of Life

According to Social Demographer Bernard Salt the Australian population of early baby boomers, those in their 40s and 50s, are on the move. 4.1 million of us are down shifting, sea changing or packing up everything to hit the road and become middle aged grey nomads.

Priorities have changed as people reject being ‘time poor’, and choose to become ‘time rich’. For some this means shifting career direction, moving to a less demanding job, or changing hours with this chosen voluntary simplicity creating a new found peace of mind.

The choice to turn away from a seemingly stressful life style chasing the almighty dollar means there is more time available to find out what you and your partner really want. This means spending time with the most important people in your life, rather than the most demanding ones, and developing interests that seem to have been permanently put ‘on hold’.

As a sex and relationship therapist I was interested to find out how these lifestyle changes influence our most intimate relationships.

I recently attended a downshifting conference organized by Dr Clive Hamilton (www.downshifting.net.au) whose research found that 92% of people were happy with their downshifting decision. This had a flow-on effect to their primary relationship. As people felt more balanced in their life overall their intimate relationships blossomed.

At the conference I met Diane, who had been a high-flying advertising executive on $200,000.00 a year. For her the decision to change her life style coincided with her marriage breakup. She began to recognize that her values had changed after her daughter was born, a situation that was building up prior to the birth, but escalated afterward.

She dreaded the thought of returning to full-time work, re-establishing herself on the corporate ladder and re-introducing competitive stress back into her life again. As they clashed over her decision to simplify her life she and her husband grew further apart. She no longer wished to continue living a high-flying corporate life, which still had a high value to her husband.

A year ago she left the marriage and down shifted her life. She is now much happier but faced with the dilemma frequently faced by divorced parents face, co-parenting with someone whose values she no longer shares. Her husband’s secure financial status means that while she cannot buy expensive clothes and toys for her daughter, her ex-husband lavishes their child with material goods.

She does not regret the changes she has made but tells me she has put aside looking for a new partner while balancing the creative change she is still going through. She beams as she says she is more in sync with her life and values, and she now has the determination and courage not to feel like she is living a double life.

Another participant, Jessica, a financier, had a sea change five years ago when she and her husband moved from the inner city to the Gold Coast hinterland.

They were cracking under the financial pressure of a half million-dollar mortgage, expensive private school fees and the social stress of a high executive lifestyle. Both of them had had enough and this was their way out, believing that such a move would improve their family life and restore the intimacy lacking in their relationship.

For Jessica this new found financial freedom meant that her life opened up: she was able to pursue long held interests, met new people and felt unburdened out of the city rat race. While she felt her life expanding her husband David had a much more difficult transition.

In his early 50s he found it more difficult than his wife to meet new people and re-invent himself in his new lifestyle. An important part of his self-image was that he was a successful businessman, when this was gone it took a while to find a new self-image to fill this void.

Ultimately the relationship broke down. Interestingly they both now love living in their small community and have no intention of leaving, even though they are no longer a couple.

Also at the conference were Lisa and Paul, a couple who were in the process of down shifting, with Paul having made a permanent move to the country and Lisa still moving between her old city life and her new rural one.

This couple had been childhood sweethearts who re-met and re-ignited their relationship 25 years later. While Lisa was a corporate girl, Paul had already made the move to a country town and had no intention of re-joining the city chaos. Six months ago Lisa bit the bullet, packed up and moved to the bush to live with him.

While she loves her new time and space, financial reality has meant that she has had to rejoin the city workforce and a long daily commute. At this point she still feels that the new life they are building together is worth it, because every weekend feels like being on a romantic get away. But the travel is exhausting and she wonders how long she can continue this dual life.

Another way that the baby boomers are repairing their physical and spiritual wellbeing and investing in their relationships is not by re-locating to a more idyllic place, but by hitting the road.

Ian and Fay Hamilton are two of these so-called ‘grey nomads’ who went on a year’s adventure around Australia and loved it so much they decided to make it their new lifestyle. Their book about their Aussie adventures Beaches Bush Roads and Bull Ants has been a best-seller.

Together for 15 years they advise that “Couples who are envisaging this new life style should be pretty sure of their relationship before setting out on this new adventure. The confines of a motor home, caravan or campervan can be a testing scenario if the relationship is not on a sure footing.”

It is often inconceivable for younger people to imagine older people as vibrant sexual beings. But many grey nomads have recounted that their new found freedom has recharged their sexual batteries, and are delighted be back in touch with their libido.

On Australia’s highways and byways, under the stars, enjoying the wide open spaces has often had a surprising effect on long-term relationships as sex and romance re-ignites.