UPDATED BY
Brennan Whitfield | May 08, 2023

The antiwork movement holds that modern work and working conditions tend to be meaningless and degrading, and that we should question the role work plays in our lives. Proposed solutions range from arguing that people should not have to work, to a belief that employees should only do as much work as needed to support themselves, rather than work tirelessly to make more money for their employers.

While antiwork’s popularity grew sharply starting in 2020, it has been a movement steadily brewing for decades.

What Is the Antiwork Movement?

The antiwork movement seeks to question and critique the role of work in our lives, arguing that the majority of modern work is unnecessary and unfulfilling. Antiwork often advocates for labor rights, unionization and a shift toward meaningful, voluntary work.

 

What Is the Antiwork Movement?

The antiwork movement rejects unnecessary, compulsory labor and believes the work we do today has reached a point of near toxicity and unsustainability. As a concept, antiwork emphasizes support for labor rights and the critique of current economic systems. Followers of the movement prioritize personal well-being and autonomy at work, advocating for conditions like increased wages, work-life balance and, for some, not working at all. 

Matthew Call, assistant professor in the management department at Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, said the movement questions the way work and self worth are tied together.

“I think there is this assumption in American life that we work hard and we get ahead,” Call told Built In. “I think the antiwork movement shatters this assumption. People are asking, ‘Why would I want to work so hard? Why would that be something I would want to do? Maybe I would rather not work.’”

“I think there is this assumption in American life that we work hard and we get ahead. I think the antiwork movement shatters this assumption.”

The sentiment is proliferating on online discussion boards: The r/antiwork subreddit, a Reddit community designated for followers of the antiwork movement, has amassed over 2.6 million Reddit users since its launch in 2013 and grown nearly tenfold since 2021. This jump came as employees all over the world faced new workplace and home-life realities brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, causing widespread burnout and mental health issues in response.

Reddit’s r/antiwork community lays out its call to action in its headline “antiwork: Unemployment for all, not just the rich!” The r/antiwork subreddit’s bio states it’s designed for people who want to, or are curious about, ending work, as well as those who are seeking information and ideas about a work-free life and coping with their own work-related challenges. Job rants, memes and text message threads declaring quits can be found within the subreddit, making for a dense discussion board about the nature of work and working culture.  

 

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Antiwork vs. the Great Resignation vs. Quiet Quitting

The antiwork movement is different from the Great Resignation movement. While the Great Resignation saw people quitting their jobs to look for better opportunities, the antiwork movement often leads to people finding ways to make just enough money to get by so they will have more leisure time, rather than working long hours to earn more money.

Another popular term, quiet quitting, has garnered a negative connotation associated with the antiwork movement, but is in reality a misunderstood buzzword, according to antiwork followers. 

As quiet quitting is seen by some as a way for workers to take advantage of their employers, members of the r/antiwork subreddit note that the practice is instead about only fulfilling the work necessary on the job and setting healthy work boundaries. In defense of performing just as much as is required at work, this gave way to other antiwork concepts such as “acting your wage,” as well as quiet quitting in response to quiet firing and toxic work culture.

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Where Did the Antiwork Movement Originate?

The antiwork movement began approximately a decade ago, when the hustle culture of 2010 began to fall out of step, experts said. This hustle culture called for going full bore at work following the downturns of the Great Recession, leading to workers grinding it out and taking on more stretch assignments in their jobs.

“That’s when people really began to question the definition and purpose of work, with many starting to believe work does not provide any benefit or meaning to one’s life,” Deniece Maston, an HR knowledge advisor with the Society of Human Resource Management, told Built In. 

The r/antiwork subreddit was launched in 2013, the same year people quitting their jobs accounted for more than 50 percent of total separations for the first time since 2009, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Layoffs and discharges accounted for the remaining portion of total separations. 

Since 2013, quitting workers have risen from 52.2 percent of total separations to a whopping 70 percent in 2022, the largest slice ever recorded, according to the BLS. 

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What’s Fueling the Antiwork Movement?

A lot of the antiwork discussion today is led by Gen Z and Millennial workers.

“The r/antiwork subreddit is particularly important to young Americans who are taking a different approach to navigating adulthood than previous generations before them,” Rob Gaige, director of global insights for Reddit, told Built In. 

Much of the year-over-year growth in the r/antiwork subreddit came from Gen Z members, Gaige added. And he said the combination of being equipped with digital devices and living in a time of economic turmoil prompts Gen Z r/antiwork members to get advice from their peers on sensitive topics, such as re-evaluating what a healthy work life balance means to them.

What exactly is causing young adult employees to feel these concerns come down to a few different reasons.

 

Workers Are Sick of High Inflation, Low Wages

U.S. inflation began steadily rising in 2020, with 2022 bringing the largest annual increase in U.S. inflation since 1981. This has raised prices for needs like food, gasoline and electricity, but at the same time, wages have failed to keep up.

Workers have noticed this difference, as members of the r/antiwork community discuss their struggles of living paycheck to paycheck, lack of livable wages and growing doubts of buying a future home in light of inflation.

 

Workers Are Upset About Income Inequality

The richest families in the U.S. have experienced the largest gains in wealth compared to other U.S. families since the 1980s, with upper-income families accounting for 79 percent of aggregate wealth as of 2016, and lower-income families accounting for only 4 percent that same year.

Those in the top percent of upper-income households, specifically billionaires, who choose not to redistribute their earnings to struggling employees, frequently come under antiwork’s fire. Income inequality remains a hot topic of discussion among the r/antiwork community, especially during periods of layoffs at large-sized companies.

 

Workers Spread the Word on Social Media 

The antiwork movement has found supporters on social platforms like TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, in addition to Reddit.

TikTok in particular became a hub for antiwork content throughout the pandemic, with videos ranging from work from home “hacks” that help fake online activity, to full-on work dissatisfaction rants criticizing the unfairness of modern work. One quote tossed around repeatedly in the antiwork community — “I have no dream job, I do not dream of labor” — also increased in popularity due to TikTok, as a viral audio citing the phrase has been used on over 51,000 TikTok videos as of 2023. 

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What Can Companies Learn From the Antiwork Movement?

Employees who are sympathetic to the antiwork movement may begin to question the need to do as much work as employers expect them to, or even question the purpose of their jobs or your company. That, in turn, could increase disengagement and lead to absenteeism, low productivity and a lack of motivation, said Call, the business school professor.

“I think those are some of the things that employers should be recognizing from the movement and how it originated,” SHRM’s Maston told Built In. “People have worked themselves to the bone during the pandemic and are now searching for a change of lifestyle and a healthier and happier way of working for a living.”

“People have worked themselves to the bone during the pandemic and are now searching for a change of lifestyle and a healthier and happier way of working for a living.”

 

Let Employees Be Heard 

The most important lesson employers can learn from the antiwork movement is to treat employees with respect and let them be heard, Maston said.

Re-engaging employees involves paying attention to their comments during one-on-one sessions with managers and exit interviews and taking steps to address those concerns, she added. 

 

Show Care Toward Employees

Another lesson learned as a result of the antiwork movement is the importance of affective commitment, which is when an employee feels their organization cares about them and what they care about, according to Anita Williams Woolley, associate dean of research and a professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business

To foster an affective commitment with your employees, Woolley advises companies to begin by taking frequent pulse surveys to learn where they can bolster your support for their workers. Promoting a social network among employees also helps to build connections at work and can reduce the odds that people will leave.

“It’s one of the ways that organizations can use to help communicate concern about the things that are important to the people who work for them,” Wooley said.

 

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