In hindsight, this is embarrassing to admit. But, pre-pandemic, I might honestly have told you that work was the most rewarding part of my life. Even as a child I couldn’t wait to get started with my “career”, rushing through school and university to get on with the main event. Through my 20s I broke up with boyfriends as soon as they started to encroach on my primary relationship: my job.
That relationship was one of the many to fall apart in lockdown, however. By forcing me into my home, freeing up every hour of my day to devote to work, the pandemic swiftly revealed it to be unsustainable, unhealthy and ultimately unrewarding. In two years, I have gone from an out-and-proud careerist to actively cultivating a mindset that might be called “anti-work”, and online I have found my community. On Reddit, the “antiwork” forum has seen enormous growth as people like me increasingly come to our senses; the number of subscribers has increased almost 400% over the past year to reach 900,000.
Reddit r/antiwork has gone vertical pic.twitter.com/OZ2nvNYrB7
— Paul Millerd ✍📖 (@p_millerd) October 23, 2021
The forum states its aim as “to start a conversation to problematise work as we know it”; to resist an approach that values “the needs and desires of managers and corporations above and beyond workers”; and to imagine a world “with unemployment for all, not just the rich!”. In its library, it shares recommended reading, such as the late anthropologist David Graeber’s indictment of “bullshit jobs”, Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay “in praise of idleness” and “fiction with anti-work themes” (including Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener). For those taking more tentative steps towards picturing a world without work, the moderators have put together anti-work quotes and a playlist (putting Dolly Parton back to back with Rage Against the Machine).
But r/antiwork’s real value might be in the support it extends to those already trapped and exploited in their jobs. Moderators are pooling knowledge and resources to back hospitality and retail workers in a planned boycott of Black Friday next month. Last week a user in the US, a bartender, shared messages from their boss, demanding that they come into work at short notice on a Saturday for what would be a ninth consecutive day. When their boss threatened to take away their company benefits, the bartender resigned.
“This [forum] gave me the motivation to finally quit my abusive job,” they posted in r/antiwork. “I may not have health insurance, but I feel so free!” Now, they said, they are in touch with a labour rights lawyer. Although, as ever with the internet, there are doubts as to the veracity of the exchange, the discussion speaks to both the erosion of workers’ rights – and people’s mounting intolerance of it.
The recent explosion in activity on r/antiwork aligns with the growth in union membership in the US and UK through the pandemic, and the “Great Resignation” as people quit their jobs or retrain. It seems to run deeper than just a desire for change, to acute dissatisfaction with the nature of work itself.
Nearly every industry is experiencing a talent shortage as people resist returning to the grind for as long as they can afford to do so. The US government puts the global shortfall at 40 million skilled workers, with forecast losses of trillions if the trend continues. Hiring managers, meanwhile, are complaining of people not showing up to scheduled interviews or even their first day on the job. As the Ask a Manager columnist Alison Green commented, the many people who have been ghosted after an interview might be permitted some schadenfreude.
So much of the societal transformation that we hoped would be precipitated by the pandemic hasn’t come about, but there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the potential for change in our approach to work. As the culture reporter Charlie Warzel has written, while the topsy-turvy job market does not make up for weakened workers’ rights, it does suggest “the beginnings of a changing power dynamic … Employees have a tiny bit of leverage right now and many are trying to use it to send a message about how the status quo of modern work feels exhausting and unsustainable.”
The key, at this crucial juncture, is for all workers to align as a class of people, and keep up the pressure on employers to make work work for us. Will the revolution begin on Reddit?
• Elle Hunt is a Guardian columnist.