The great resignation

The Reddit antiwork saga - and whether there’s really a world without jobs

US workers are quitting in droves amid the ‘Great Resignation’ – and a growing movement is antiwork altogether, Sheila Flynn writes

Thursday 27 January 2022 17:51 GMT
<p>A subreddit focused on leaving unsatisfying jobs has boomed in popularity in recent months. </p>

A subreddit focused on leaving unsatisfying jobs has boomed in popularity in recent months.

With next to no warning, the coronavirus pandemic changed the face of American work life in 2020 – most likely forever. Commutes all but disappeared for anyone not deemed an essential worker as employers shifted to digital operations. Most offices and companies have yet to bring all staff back on site. “Hybrid” work has become the new buzzword and, it would seem, the new normal going forward.

But what about no work at all?

An “antiwork” subreddit is one of the fastest growing threads on the popular discussion site. By November, the r/antiwork subreddit had seen a 172 per cent year-on-year increase in subscribers, a 244 per cent increase in posts and comments and a 282 per cent increase in views, a Reddit spokesperson told The Independent.

Begun in 2013, the subreddit - whose slogan is “Unemployment for all, not just the rich!” - boasts more than 1.7 million users.

And there are reasons for that – from pandemic panic and shifting perspectives about work to individual personalities, moderator Doreen Ford told The Independent in November. She’s now departed the group, however, after a controversial television interview this week and user infighting. The turmoil and “brigading,” which refers to a coordinated effort from one group to disrupt another’s work on the site, even forced the temporary lockdown of r/antiwork.

The antiwork movement “attracts all kinds of people in all sorts of ways for all different kinds of reasons – maybe their relationships to themselves, with work ... a lot of people derive their life’s meaning from their work, from their jobs,” the now-departed moderator told The Independent last year.

“So people think, ‘Oh, if I don’t have a job, I’m not a human being.’ That’s a bit of an extreme, but some people really do feel like that – or they feel they’re less of a person because they don’t have a job. They struggle with purpose or meaning in their life ... and I think that’s something the anti-work movement can really speak to: It’s not the only thing.

“And I think anti-work is a philosophy that is a radical one, that tries to strike at the systemic issues within capitalism – but I think that intuitive thing, where a lot of people are trying to do work-life balance, a lot of people are quitting their jobs, a lot of people are fed up with how their companies may been handling Covid and stuff like that” are contributing to the swell in online anti-work engagement, she said.

Members of the antiwork subreddit post everything from questions about work in different places to cautionary tales

The anti-work concept builds upon what’s being called the “Great Resignation” – a term coined by Texas A&M management professor Anthony Klotz.

Millions of Americans have quit their jobs or switched roles since the pandemic began. According to a survey released last fall by job search site Joblist, nearly three-quarters of workers still employed were considering leaving.

“When we come into contact with life-threatening events, we tend to reflect on death and consider whether we are happy with our lives or whether we would like to make changes to them,” Prof Klotz told CNBC last year. “The pandemic forced [people] to take stock of their lives and gave them the opportunity to reimagine it.”

But the roots of the anti-work movement lie much further in the past than Covid’s ugly 2020 US appearance – with ideologies stemming from Marxism, socialism and other political philosophies. It’s often been referred to as “refusal of work”, as well.

Kathi Weeks, associate professor of women’s studies at Duke University, published a book 10 years ago titled The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries.

“I borrow the concept from the autonomous Marxist tradition,” Prof Weeks said in a 2017 interview.

“As I understand it, the refusal of work is directed against the system of (re)production organised around, but not limited to, the wage system.

“There are three points worth emphasising here. One is that the refusal is directed not to this or to that job, but to the larger system of economic cooperation that is designed to produce capital accumulation for the few and waged work that is supposed to support the rest of us.

“Most individuals as such are not able to simply walk away from employment, so that is not what we are talking about.”

The anti-work subreddit describes itself as being “for those who want to end work, are curious about ending work, want to get the most out of a work-free life, want more information on anti-work ideas and want personal help with their own jobs/work-related struggles.”

There had been a huge uptick in online engagement over the past two years or so, particularly during the pandemic - though it’s sometimes difficult to tell which posts are legitimate and which are tongue-in-cheek. It has become extremely popular, for example, for workers to post outrageous tales of quitting jobs, with “outrageous” being the key adjective. Multiple screenshots of text feuds with bosses or resignations have gone viral.

One member posted a quitting exchange with a boss last fall, writing: 'Quit my job last night, it was nice to be home to make the kids breakfast and take them to school today! Off to hunt for a new opportunity, wish me luck :)’

One subredditer, for example, wrote a post titled “I feel like I’ve wasted my life. Please learn from my mistake.”

In it, the 41-year-old poster detailed coming out of school in 1999, getting work as a programmer and working diligently for decades, including overtime.

“All it cost me was my hobbies ... My relationships,” the subredditer writes. “I’m single at 41 with aging parents and a sister on another continent. I live in a s****y one bedroom flat ... I lost my hair due to stress.”

The post continued: “Please don’t make my mistakes. Don’t sacrifice everything for an employer who doesn’t care. Don’t give upon the things you love because you think answering emails at 10 at night will somehow convinced a distant and indifferent corporate body that you’re worthwhile.”

That subredditer has since transitioned to a “job that doesn’t demand too much,” as have many other posters. Another parent posted a text exchange with the boss in which the employee quits with the cheeky signoff: “Have a good life.”

Even Ms Ford conceded, before her departure, that some of the more dramatic stories seem a bit far-fetched. But she insisted there was dedicated sincerity behind many people truly hoping to change the meaning of work in modern life. There is debate about what antiwork even means; despite the term, many online proponents are simply proposing a better work-life balance rather than widespread, long-term unemployment.

The movement is “very serious about changing our perspective on [and] our relationship to work as we know it, especially as it relates to ... capitalism and its systemic exploitation of workers,” Ms Ford The Independent. “So, yeah, there’s always going to be people who are poking fun at it or making fun of it or thinking it’s not serious. There’s also going to be people who are sharing silly memes and images and stuff like that.”

But “there’s very serious intent behind it as well, trying to create a better world for people where ... our lives are not defined by our jobs,” she said. “They’re defined by what we get to do in our free time.”

That level of gravity, however, can also lead to some serious abuse and vitriol. Ms Ford experienced it herself this week after giving an interview to Fox News anchor Jesse Watters, who at times seemed contemptuous as the moderator described antiwork advocates.

“There are some misconceptions about the movement,” Ms Ford told Mr Watters. “We want to still put in effort. We want to put in labor, but we don’t want to necessarily be in a position where we feel trapped.

“I think laziness is a virtue in a society where people constantly want you to be productive 24/7. And it’s good to have rest.”

Mr Watters then asked what Ms Ford considered a solid work day, and she replied: “Whatever people want”.

The Fox anchor then laughed in the segment titled “The War Against Working”. He said: “I would love to take your class. Not everything is free, but it is a free country.”

After the interview the /r/antiwork subreddit was made private with a message reading: “We’re closed while we deal with the clean-up from ongoing brigading, and will be back soon. (You don’t need to request to join. We’ll be back real soon. I promise.)”

As of Thursday morning, the page appeared to be back online and public with an extensive statement outlining what steps would be taken following the Fox News interview.

In an archived post, another person identifying themselves as an r/antiwork wrote that, “We’re under heavy fire by brigaders - “new” users that never participated in /r/antiwork,” adding that these “bad actors” showed why “we will outright decline right-wing media like Fox News from now on.”

A Reddit user named Luciagrace posted earlier in the day that, “Came on there this morning and it looks like a dumpster fire of locked posts and comments. Apparently people are getting banned left, right and centre for discussing the interview, why?”

Despite the swirling debate within r/antiwork this week, however, there’s another huge question mark hanging over the whole movement: Is anyone actually following through with the rhetoric?

Professor Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, called the predictions of resignations “overblown”.

The quit rate is “not that much higher than it was before the pandemic,” Prof Cappelli told The Independent. “There is also an assumption that people who are quitting their jobs are quitting work, and there is zero evidence for that. Most everyone who quits is going to another job elsewhere.”

When it comes to anti-work, he said his researchers have not seen that trend actually happening in real life, either.

“For low-level jobs, especially restaurant work, there was a lot of sense that people didn’t want to do that again,” he told The Independent. “But people who have been out of work for a year found ways to adapt. They haven’t been sitting by the phone waiting for their boss to offer their job back.”

Amy Zimmerman, an Atlanta-based careers coach and chief people officer of Relay Payments, said she was “super skeptical” of the antiwork movement’s actual realisation.

“It makes no sense that somebody would be able to afford to quit a job and never work again,” she told The Independent. “I think the government has been relatively helpful for [people] in need, but I certainly don’t think that’s going to be an ongoing type of mechanism. People are going to have to work.”

“People are looking for flexibility. I think the pandemic absolutely permanently changed the way people think about work, and for companies that aren’t willing to be flexible, they’re going to lose people There’s no question about it.”

There’s been plenty of debate about how to combat the anticipated “Great Resignation” and retain employees, but less discussion about the possibility of swathes of the workforce who may choose to simply avoid employment altogether.

What’s not up for debate, however, is the fact that American work patterns have definitely changed. It’s a pattern Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley had identified years ago and was in the process of writing about when Covid hit. Her book, Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding From Anywhere, was published last year.

Job openings have surged across the US.

“Operational costs have gone down; bloated travel budgets no longer seem necessary; hiring and retaining employees without asking them to move is actually a special thing that we’ve been seeing in Boston when it comes to identifying and attracting diverse candidates,” she told corporate values forum From Day One last summer. 

“So it’s been great to see this untapped labor pool for many companies. Astronomical real estate no longer seems important ... The numbers are staggering when we look at how many people want to retain some form of remote work in their professional arrangements.”

“One of the most important things that I see, and the failure points that I’m worried about, is around this entire mindset shift that needs to take place. Leaders of organisations are still stuck with the idea that we’re going back to something.”

That’s exactly what the antiwork movement is trying to avoid, Ms Ford told The Independent, quoting Marx and waxing lyrical about possibilities of hunting and fishing during the day while enjoying great conversations with friends at night.

“The main goal of the anti-work movement is just to abolish work, but what that ends up looking like is very different, depending on who you ask,” Ms Ford said, while reiterating the diverse array of sub-redditors - just months before she’d be essentially forced out.

“We have people who are anarchists, people who are Communists, people who are social Democrats, people who like Bernie, people who like Andrew Yang ... there’s lots of different kinds of leftists.”

Predictably, the movement has been the target of hate from the right. It’s also seen a backlash from some radical leftists who think it’s too moderate.

In Ms Ford’s ideal world, she envisions a “varied life where you can do one thing, but it doesn’t define you, then you can do another.

“You can have a lot of experiences in a community with all the bells and whistles of modern world and enjoy yourself in life. For me, anyway, anti-work doesn’t mean, ‘Oh, well, people don’t necessarily have jobs.’ If people want to contribute to the community, I think that’s great; I think they should do that.”

The then-moderator told The Independent she dreams of a world where most jobs are automated and, for positions where automation is unfeasible, the work is “collectively shared, rotated so that nobody feels overly burdened by it” – leaving most people free to pursue their passions and contribute to society in other ways.

The movement, she said, is “against work – it’s not against effort.”

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