Disillusioned high-flyers exit fast lane

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Philip Ells is one of a growing number of professionals seeking alternatives to the 'work, buy, consume, die' culture of the Square Mile.

The commercial litigation specialist with DJ Freeman was so jaded with the fast-lane lifestyle that he packed the job in, gave away his car, rented out his flat and went to help the needy on the island of Tuvalu.

He found himself dealing with pig thefts, bicycles being ridden without lights and wayward judges in his new role. He has gone on to work with Voluntary Service Overseas in the Solomon Islands and Bosnia as well.

'Money isn't the be-all-and-end-all of everything,' says 38-year-old Ells. 'Colleagues thought I was having a mental breakdown when I decided to quit but many of them were also dissatisfied and just lacked the energy to change.

'There is a big, wide, challenging world out there with very different values from the City. Working in it is much more satisfying than just trying to improve your salary. There is life beyond the gym club, the scooter and the Rolls.'

Ells has written a book, People's Lawyer (Virgin Publishing) about his change in lifestyle and discontent with City life. He is not alone. A Citibank account manager left his six figure salary behind to join the Church of England on 16,000 a year. Other rat-race refugees are swapping high salaried careers to work with charities such as Raleigh International, Community Service Volunteers and Voluntary Service Overseas and the numbers are growing.

A recent VSO report on the 'have-it-all culture' revealed a 61% increase in applications from business and management professionals to become volunteers abroad. The report included an NOP survey showing 94% of those surveyed thought Britain was becoming more materialistic and 81% said however much they earned it never seemed to be enough.

The report prompted psychologist and broadcaster Oliver James to launch a scathing attack on money-orientated culture. 'What good does it do you to be living in a flash flat in Notting Hill or dining at posh restaurants every night if you feel empty, fat, failing or angry for most of the time?' he comments.

'Compared with 1950, despite being much richer, we are about 10 times more depressed, 40 times more violent and many times more likely to suffer compulsions, such as alcoholism and drug abuse,' he adds. 'Wealth and success are no protection against these problems, in fact, in some cases they are the cause.'

Corporate financier Lucy Varcoe, 34, was working for Goldman Sachs when she felt hungry for change. 'It was an incredible lifestyle,' she says. 'Keeping a passport and a clean shirt in your bag to fly off at a moment's notice. Wining and dining in some of the world's best restaurants. Then there was a death in my family and it made me wonder if, on my death bed, I would be proud of what I'd done with my life. I took a step back and thought about what I really wanted to achieve. Some colleagues thought I was crazy when I resigned.'

Varcoe now works with Raleigh International as communications director. 'I'm earning a lot less,' she says. 'There is still a lot of pressure, challenge and stress about the job but it's satisfying.

'Raleigh take teams of young people off to work on projects in poverty-stricken parts of the Third World. One of the great rewards is in seeing how the experience can change their lives. It inspires them to broaden their horizons and to create change in their own communities when they return home. I have no regrets about quitting the rat-race at all and I'd encourage others to do the same.'

Citibank Eurobond dealer Ross Garner was on a six-figure salary when he quit to find something more fulfilling. 'I became more interested in the Kingdom of God than Mammon,' says Garner who, at 41, is now the priest in charge of the parish of Bredbury, near Stockport, Greater Manchester.

'Sometimes I miss the skiing holidays and the status-symbol cars,' he says. 'But I wouldn't go back. There is an unreal quality to working in the City, the pace of life is so silly. I feel now that I'm making a lasting difference to people's lives.

'I think we'll see a shift away from materialism in the future as people take a more holistic approach and seek more meaning in their lives.' City recruitment consultant Meeta Mahtani felt her job was isolated and meaningless. 'There never seemed to be any time or chance to assess the finished product or what you had achieved,' she says.

Meeta, 25, resigned and joined Community Service Volunteers - the sister organisation to VSO, working with the deprived in the UK. She has found herself living and working alongside young offenders in London's East End, being paid subsistence money but feeling more purposeful. 'I feel like I'm achieving something worthwhile now,' she says.

'Consumerism and shopping just lost its appeal for me. Money doesn't drive me the same way as tackling poverty and the real problems people face in their lives.'

Of course not every rat-race refugee has found satisfaction working with charities or the church.

One City worker quit to run a guest house on a beach in North Cornwall with his partner and two children.

'We've escaped all that frantic race to earn money we've already spent,' said 31-year-old Stephen White. 'The pace of life is completely different here. There's time to smell the roses and talk to people, get to know them.

'We're running a guest house for the first time which is a gamble as well. Life is full of risks but this just seems like a more enjoyable one.'

For more information: www.raleigh.org.uk www.csv.org.uk www.vso.org.uk

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