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To Downsize or Downshift?

After seeing the film Downsizing I asked a group of students what they thought the word meant. One suggested it was all about trading in a car with a big engine for one much smaller. Another thought the word for that was downshifting. So what’s the difference?

Downsize certainly means to go in for a smaller version of something. In an economic climate of financial cuts and job losses, for example, downsizing has become a choice term for management when breaking bad news. Companies no longer make job cuts, they just downsize.

Downshifting is perhaps most commonly used to describe the idea, if not the reality, of escaping the rat-race, giving up a well-paid job for a life that is less stressful and hopefully more rewarding. In American English downshift can also be used to mean shifting from a high to a low gear when driving. American English refers to a car with a manual gearbox as a shiftstick. Not so British English, which calls it a manual.

As for getting a smaller car, downsizing is the way to go.

Downsizing, the film, echoes Gulliver’s Travels, thinking big and small in the same breath. It is, of course, social satire and the title is a play on the word. Norwegian scientists have discovered how to dramatically shrink humans. In the case of leading man Matt Damon this is to around 12cm in height. Soon 3% of the world’s population see being shrunk as a solution to their problems and financial worries. The reasons and motivations for downsizing are a paradoxical combination of altruism and pure greed. On the one hand, downsizers help the planet by consuming on a much smaller scale and producing far less waste. On the other hand, once downsized, model miniaturised citizens see that their money goes much further and that they can enjoy, relatively speaking, a bigger house, more space, more leisure and more of just about everything (including cleaners). Less is more, and more is less. Great irony, indeed, especially for the USA.

The physically downsized citizens of the booming real-estate development called Leisureland in the film do aspire to a less stressful existence and, in that sense, are also downshifting. Of course, as with Gulliver’s Travels, size is not everything and in the land of the small some big problems just won’t go away.

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