For the past few years, I’ve been a member of a subreddit called Antiwork (r/antiwork). I think I found my way there through r/PovertyFinance or r/LostGeneration, where I lurk, occasionally answering questions about surviving life in a capitalist hellscape. (Usually while on the toilet. Sorry, jut being real!)
Antiwork is a place for people to vent about their jobs, mostly through memes and frustrated rants. But instead of drawing individualistic conclusions (“this job sucks”), they take a more wholistic view. They view those negative experiences as evidence of a deeper and more systemic dysfunction of labor (“all work sucks”) that deserves serious discussion and commiseration.
The vibe is pessimistic, almost to the point of fatalism. The stories are depressing, petty, and brutal. Doesn’t sound like a fun place for people to spend social recreational time, does it? But oh, how it’s landed recently…!
I joined way back in 2018, when the subreddit had about 3,000 subscribers. Today, it has over a million—with more joining every day.
Its sudden popularity is making a lot of powerful people nervous, to which I say… AHAHAHAHA, GOOD!!
There’s so much to say about the sorry state of American inequality, I honestly don’t know where to start.
- The minimum wage should be $24/hour, but it’s $7.25/hour.
- It hasn’t risen since 2009, but life costs 25% more.
- Productivity has grown 3.5 times faster than pay.
- Billionaires go to the moon, then have the audacity to come back.
- Medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy, forcing people to work to stay insured.
- A stagnant federal poverty line weakens all the programs in the social safety net and forces disabled people to live in abject poverty.
- Women and people of color face persistent pay gaps, and stay in abusive romantic and business relationships because they can’t afford to walk away.
- Men absorb toxic cultural expectations to be providers, and suffer mentally and physically trying to meet unrealistic standards of success.
- Fewer people than ever are starting families because they can’t afford the basics like housing, tuition, and childcare.
- Slavery continues in the form of mass incarceration, creating oppressed underclasses of people trapped in a cycle of poverty and exploitation.
- Wage theft is the most common kind of theft in America, and so rarely prosecuted it’s often cheaper to knowingly violate the law.
- The planet’s on fire, and the worst polluters run TV ads being all like “guise, plz recycle.”
Given these realities, how could anyone be surprised that workers have had enough?
One in four people quit their jobs last year, and a statistically bonkers 95% are thinking about quitting right now. Given the statistics outlined above, isn’t it eminently reasonable and rational for workers to feel burnt out?
If this is our outcome… What is the point in work?
Antiwork is more universal than you realize
Although the subreddit Antiwork is dominated by Americans, it’s part of a global social movement. Honestly, some countries are like “pshh, hold my beer, America!”
One example is China. Their “996 culture” normalizes employees working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for six days every week. Much of it is unpaid and illegal overtime. Jack Ma, noted billionaire and garbage person, claimed it was “a blessing” to have the “opportunity” to submit to this crushing and dehumanizing schedule. He scolded all the “slackers” who yearned for the needless extravagances of (checks notes) uhhh sleep, socialization, romance, hygiene, exercise, mental healthcare, and the pursuit of happiness.
Much to the shocked Pikachu face of Chinese oligarchs, their greed created consequences!
China’s suicide rate is among the highest in the world. It’s the leading cause of death for teens and young adults, and is three times higher in urban centers where these brutal work/life imbalances are common. Plus there’s widespread inequality, as a privileged few feast on the grinding despair of their countrymen.
Enter a counter-cultural movement called “laying flat” (tangping, 躺平). It describes young, disillusioned people intentionally retreating from society’s oppressive expectations. They choose to live simple, frugal lives. They avoid business, society, reproduction, and consumerism in general. The movement has Chinese President Xi Jinping sweating like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Because their collective inaction has real potential to disrupt his vision of Chinese society—one he shares with the elite few who benefit from the status quo.
“The [laying flat] attitude is seen to represent a silent protest to unfairness, often the result of structural and institutional factors that can no longer be altered by personal efforts.”–Zhou Xin, South China Morning Post
Individual action, collective impact
Back in the day, most of the messages shared to Antiwork were pithy hot takes on how much work sucked. Here are a few examples:
They were clever and funny. But crucially, they were relatable. When we don’t have the words to describe a common experience, it’s hard to grasp how widely our feelings are shared by others.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the content started to shift. The posts became tireder, angrier, more desperate—and more widespread. The outrage wasn’t funny anymore. People started to share screenshots of conversations with their bosses. Sometimes, subscribers quit their jobs impulsively and posted the receipts for mass consumption.
This is an absolutely critical step that was missing before. It’s social confirmation that what’s happening to you may be common—but that does not make it acceptable.
Our culture has trained us to be silent and compliant cogs in the machinery of a productivity-oriented society. So it’s incredibly helpful to see other people modeling the behavior you thought you couldn’t possibly do. “Yes—you can tell your boss you’re not coming in tomorrow. Yes—you can say no to a recruiter who won’t reveal the salary range.”
See, collective action is almost a lost art in America. Our culture imposes feelings of secrecy, silence, and shame around money and mental health struggles. It’s really hard to jump from “my boss is kinda rude” to “let’s unionize!” There’s a step in the middle that focuses on individual action that yields collective impact. First, we need practice defining and defending boundaries. You need to reap the delicious rewards for disobedience.
Because it’s only once you’ve learned to advocate for yourself that it feels possible to take the next step and start advocating for others.
The future of antiwork
Recently, something new and verrry interesting has started to happen. The conversation is evolving even more. Antiwork is becoming a place where people talk openly and passionately about labor rights, strikes, boycotts, legal action, and other strategies for collective action.
In the past few weeks, I’ve seen Antiwork subscribers spreading the word on boycotts, organizing a Black Friday blackout, and helping to connect wronged parties with labor attorneys. This is real, meaningful labor organization. And it’s happening in this space, which—frankly—used to just be a space for venting and complaining.
I describe the evolution of Antiwork this way:
- “It sucks not to have respect. I feel alone in my despair and ashamed of my imagined failures.”
- “Wait, this is happening to other people? And they’re pushing back?! Well, I deserve respect too, so let me do what they’re doing.”
- “Everyone deserves respect. It shouldn’t be on the individual to ask for it, because the most vulnerable people will get left behind. So let’s work together to put pressure on the powerful and demand impactful change for all.”
As with most things, I come back to the sum of human wisdom: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
I smell fear
Last week, Goldman Sachs released a research report that identified a potential “long run risk to labor force participation.”
They described disengaged young people who were totally disinterested in participating in the labor market any more than they absolutely had to. Their proof? The rising popularity of r/Antiwork, which has already surpassed the market-shaking r/WallStreetBets in the number of daily comments. That means that the people reading it are engaged, fired up, and growing louder every day.
A final long-run risk to labor force participation is that some worker’s preferences and lifestyles may have shifted after a year and half out of the labor force. The best way to measure this change in taste for work is probably via social media, and as shown in Exhibit 9, Reddit’s Antiwork message board—which encourages individuals “to get the most out of a work-free life”—has surged in popularity this fall and is now even more popular than the Wallstreetbets board that drove a surge in retail trading activity earlier this year. As a result, we see some risk that some workers will elect to remain out of the labor force for longer, provided they can afford to do so.-Goldman Sachs, Why Isn’t Labor Force Participation Recovering?
You know, this is the first, last, and only time I think I’ll ever say this, but…
… Here’s hoping Goldman Sachs is right!
If y’all are in the mood for a little more of the delicious Lawry’s Seasoned Salt that is collective action, here’s a few of our articles we want to recommend.