Some years ago, I became friends with a woman who had a lot of ideas about work that struck me as incredibly novel. “Use all your vacation days!” she’d say. “Leave work right on time!” “Always ask for more money!”
If your boss asks you to take on a task you don’t want to do, she advised, you simply say no. If you are stressed and overworked, you don’t need to ask permission to start cutting back; you just do it.
All this came as quite a shock. I’d spent most of my career thinking that work was far more powerful than I. The way I saw it, work was an omnipotent deity that demanded sacrifices from me and piled on ever-increasing responsibilities in return.
Before I met this friend, I hadn’t spent much time considering what this mindset was doing to my mental health, or what employers might owe me beyond a paycheck. It’s not an overstatement to say her perspective changed my life.
Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to befriend someone dedicated to spreading the good word of worker empowerment. But in a year characterized by high-profile strikes, record quitting rates in the US, and China’s “lying flat” movement, such ideas are gaining a lot of cultural traction. And anyone starting to question the role that work plays in their lives may now find a sense of community among the 1.4 million people eager to puncture the dictates of hustle culture over at the Reddit forum r/antiwork.
What does it mean to be antiwork?
The influential sub-Reddit’s explosive growth—it had about 150,000 users last fall—had a lot to do with the pandemic, “because people for the first time couldn’t go to work and realized just how much the world kept turning without the amount that we were working,” according to one of the forum’s moderators, an engineer based in West Virginia who goes by the Reddit username rockcellist.
The group has made headlines in recent months for coordinating efforts on everything from a Black Friday boycott to overwhelming Kellogg’s jobs website with fake applications in order to make it harder for the company to replace striking workers. In another sign of the Reddit community’s influence, Goldman Sachs cited the sub in a recent research note on how the broader antiwork movement could lead to decreased labor force participation in the long term.
The most common issues that members raise on the sub, says rockcellist, are “stagnation of wages, overworking, being expected to be on call on and off the clock.” Overall, he says, “we see a lot of people in the sub who are just frustrated with the hierarchical structures at work and how they’re treated.”
But what does being antiwork actually mean? The answers are as varied as the members of the group.
“There’s no particular political ideology that any of us follow,” rockcellist says. The posts on the forum are windows into “how every individual views their labor, their contributions to society, how they’re compensated.”
The unifying power of antiwork
In some ways, the antiwork community might be seen as a successor to Occupy Wall Street—a large, dispersed movement without leaders or clear-cut demands, but with an appetite for major change at the societal level. “A lot of antiwork ideology goes hand-in-hand with changing the social structure of society, such that you know that your housing situation, your food situation, your general well-being isn’t tied to work,” rockcellist says.
But unlike Occupy, the appeal of the antiwork movement transcends political identifications. In a recent internal survey of 1,592 sub members, about half the members of the sub self-identified as socialists. But a significant portion (about 15%) said they don’t identify as leftists of any kind.
“I’m encouraged by that because, you know, work sucks for everybody, conservative to progressive,” rockcellist says. And the bigger the antiwork tent, the greater the chances are that a culture that all too frequently demands that people put their employers’ desires ahead of their own needs may finally start to change.
While the forum is careful to let users define what being antiwork means for them, there are a few general principles that most members can get behind—and which may offer food for thought to the many people reexamining social expectations around work.
Don’t go “above and beyond”
One important principle of the antiwork movement, rockcellist says, is to resist the pressure to go above and beyond in your job duties.
“My dad was a big proponent of [the idea that] you’ve got to do more than you’re asked to do,” he says. “And then his company just cut him. So he spent hours of extra effort and labor. In the end, that amounted to nothing.”
For many people, rockcellist says, limiting themselves to the responsibilities in their job description can be a stepping stone into an antiwork lifestyle.
“It creates the situation where you realize like, Oh my gosh, I’m doing more than I have to,” he says. “My boss is only paying me to do this. Why was I doing all of those extra things?”
What’s more, he says, “you realize that if you stop doing the things, nothing happens. Or your boss just has to hire another employee to take over that extra work.”
The antiwork sub also holds that when workers stop pushing themselves to be the best employee ever, they’re helping out their colleagues in the process. “Try not to compete with your co-workers,” one popular post recommends. “Don’t work faster than the average, try to work a bit slower and give more time to your fellow humans.”
Good riddance, 9 to 5
The history of the eight-hour workday dates back to the industrial revolution, when it was introduced as a way to protect factory workers from the exhaustion and strain of extra-long shifts. The antiwork movement pushes back against the idea that workers need to be at their jobs for a full eight hours if they can fulfill their responsibilities in a shorter amount of time.
“There are some people who show up to work and do nothing and they just get a paycheck,” says rockcellist. “But sometimes they feel bad, like, Oh, I go to the office from 9 to 5. I maybe do one thing, but I’m paid for the full eight hours.”
The antiwork position is that an employee in this situation isn’t slacking off or “stealing” company time (as Better.com’s CEO recently said of hundreds of employees he’d laid off in a Zoom call). Rather, rockcellist says, “if you make a big enough impact to get paid for 9 to 5 labor, but all you have to do is work for 15 minutes, then why do we spend eight hours of our day there?”
Rockcellist offers up his own work-life balance as an example of what an alternative might look like. He balances three jobs (with NASA, at a university, and his own research work), and has no compunctions about taking a break in the afternoon to go for a run or completing his work in a couple hours and going for a hike for the rest of the day.
“If I work 9 to 5, that would be me in the car during my commute when it’s dark and then I wouldn’t be home until it was dark again,” he says. “And then I’d enjoy none of the day, none of the beauty that we have that exists around us.” This, he says, is how society should operate: “I produced labor, I got paid for it, and now I get to just enjoy my day.”
Antiwork isn’t anti-labor
One of the most common objections that posters on the Reddit sub raise about antiwork is the argument that if everyone stops working, society will collapse. But being antiwork doesn’t mean getting rid of teachers and doctors and postal workers and garbage collectors.
Rather, rockcellist says, “our viewpoint is that the current way that labor is viewed in society and the current way that labor supports the upper class in society is not fairly distributed.” This attitude is summed up in the group’s tagline: “Unemployment for all, not just the rich!”
Quartz at Work is available as a newsletter. Sign up here to get ‘The Memo’ delivered directly to your inbox.