Business As Usual?: Gen Z’s Ambivalent Relationship With Work As We Know It

Truman Rae
July 27, 2022

A Work-Free Life

r/antiwork is a lot of things to a lot of different people. Most use it to share in the catharsis of a good quitting story, or to roast an abusive manager’s power trip; others contribute with a more ambitious intention of reforming work as we know it. But at the bottom of all of the memes, quitting fantasies, and shitposts, r/antiwork is fundamentally a philosophical interrogation of capitalism: if work is the cause of most suffering, why work? Why is our survival tied to our ability to punch in and punch out eight hours later? Despite technological advancements, why are we working more hours on average than ever before? As COVID and inflation increased housing prices and homelessness, why were billionaires doubling their wealth? What does a work-free society even look like? 

These questions don’t have simple answers, but they’re important to ask, whether you agree with the movement’s perspective or not. In fact, A subreddit survey of r/antiwork found that the user base was predominantly Millennial and Gen Z, suggesting that younger generations are becoming increasingly fed up with business-as-usual. And as Gen Zs continue to enter the workforce, their workplace expectations will only become more difficult for company leaders to placate or ignore entirely. Corporate literature espousing “We’re a family here” is worth about as much as the new hire orientation packet it’s printed on, and it won’t fly with Gen Z. We reached out to Gen Zs to take their temperature on the movement, and sure enough, our respondents both recognized and identified with the movement, if ambivalently. Gen Z, Asia, stated “I do agree [with the movement], but as someone that works so much, it’s hard to agree entirely.” This hesitation is likely due to r/antiwork’s more extreme history. While the community we know today is generally accessible, r/antiwork originally formed with far more ambitious goals: abolishing coercive labor and ending capitalism. Amanda, another Gen Z we interviewed, put it more bluntly: “Some [users] are for better working conditions, and others are for no work.” As the past few months of r/antiwork demonstrate, this isn’t a leap all Gen Zs are willing to take.

Gen Z’s apparent hesitation with work abolition didn’t stop them from joining the subreddit en masse throughout 2021. With widespread worry over the pandemic, an uncertain economy, and an influx of furloughed workers, a lot of Gen Z and Millennials’ futures were put on hold, or disappeared entirely. r/antiwork offered a place to vent over unfair labor and hiring practices, and its popularity with Gen Z suggests our generation’s growing disillusionment with the “American Dream.” Amanda put it bluntly: “The sentiment of finding your dream job is dead.” 

As the subreddit ballooned, its implicit goal shifted to reflect a broader and more palatable range of views. While there was brief aberrant beauty in seeing users from varying (sometimes directly opposing) points of view unify behind labor rights, it didn’t take long for infighting to begin. The subreddit feed more frequently featured meta posts that would call for a discussion on the community’s apparent lack of coherent identity. This internal confusion and conflict was largely because the movement lacks an actual manifesto of core beliefs, or a political leader to rally behind. The closest you get is a variety of dense reading materials couched in the sidebar that gather virtual dust. Consequently, r/antiwork was whatever each individual user wanted it to be. Ultimately, the internal subreddit drama felt overblown – until it nearly destroyed the community itself. 

Laziness is a Virtue

r/antiwork’s popularity wasn’t unnoticed by mainstream media sources, but the fragile subreddit wasn’t ready for the attention. Back in January, Fox News reached out to interview one of the moderators (an unelected position). The result was this infamous interview that feels so much longer than it actually is. In a little over three minutes, Fox News effectively torpedoed r/antiwork. Because the community didn’t have a uniform thesis statement or touchstone, it was light work for the news anchor to mischaracterize the community’s more nuanced takes. Instead, the subreddit fell into disarray, with existing users brutally criticizing the interview appearance and new users brigading the community amidst the chaos. The result was a wave of bans, and eventually, the subreddit went private (preventing anyone other than moderators from accessing it). After months of exponential growth and building momentum, users understandably felt deflated. For skeptics, r/antiwork remained just a forum for lazy people to make friends with other lazy people.

In the interview’s wake, access to r/antiwork was eventually restored, but the community performed a strange mitosis. A huge migration of redditors (350k+ users) moved to a new subreddit, r/WorkReform, whose only difference was a sharper focus on work reformation (as opposed to complete abolition). Notably, r/WorkReform prominently displays the subreddit’s core beliefs and goals in the sidebar, an action r/antiwork still refuses to take to this day. Despite their stated difference in goals, I’d argue that the Venn Diagram representing users from r/antiwork and r/WorkReform is essentially a perfect circle. And for all of the overblown drama of January and February, things have settled down for the most part as new, more pressing anxieties dominate the Gen Z psyche, like the fight for women’s right to choose and common sense gun control measures. Still, posts from both r/antiwork and r/WorkReform regularly make the front page of Reddit with tens of thousands of upvotes, signaling that the push for more robust worker’s rights (and/or abolition) hasn’t left and isn’t going anywhere. 

Starbucks Workers Take to TikTok to Publicize Their Unionization Efforts

Unify or Die?

It’s trite but true: social media platforms allow Gen Zs to remain more connected to the social causes they care about than ever before. Whether it’s the front page of Reddit, Twitter’s trending page, or TikTok commentators and aesthetically-pleasing infographics on IG Stories, never has a generation been exposed to such an overwhelming tide of information. On a surface level, it’s empowering to have this level of access to virtually any cause or community we identify with. Ironically, this level of power is often paralyzing. Gen Z, Asia, remarked: “I was really political when I was younger, but nowadays I get personally sad if I’m too involved. As an anxious person, [social justice issues] are always present.” Even in those cases where we’re comfortable engaging with social justice movements on social media platforms, how effective are they really? They certainly help build awareness and, on some level, education, but Gen Z is skeptical if it results in tangible action. Asia saw limited efficacy via social media: “When people share on social media, it’s nice but what are they actually doing beyond that?” After all, is solidarity on social media in the form of likes or comments any different from unspoken support? How much are people in power actually taking note of a subreddit? 

In r/antiwork’s case, though it was great for building community and sharing entertaining quitting stories, the platform rarely mobilized beyond online petitions. Our Gen Z interviewees recommended looking to your local community, both virtually and geographically. This sounds daunting, but it’s as simple as calling your local representative, attending nearby protests and gatherings, volunteering at organizations that represent your cause, and even signing petitions. Maybe r/antiwork could have avoided months of needless Reddit drama (which is about as irrelevant as drama comes) if they committed to a concrete list of values and actionable goals. Instead, it became a group of 2 million+ that recognized there were systemic labor rights issues worldwide, then proceeded to argue for a year about how to best solve it. This isn’t to say that Gen Z doesn’t find online political communities useful – they do. But the need for internal structuring and organization is more crucial than ever, with Amanda saying that “having a clear plan and really identifying the problem” was essential. Asia even weighed organization higher than virality: “Not going for virality is key, when it gets too viral, content gets too saturated and people stop listening. You need to prioritize actual change.” As we saw with r/antiwork, when a social cause goes viral, the stakes get higher, and the movement runs the risk of losing itself in the chaos. 

One lingering question still remains unanswered, though: what’s the cost of unity? This past year r/antiwork struggled with conflicting priorities; while some users longed for a return to the community’s anarchist roots, many saw strength in numbers despite their differences. In delaying to answer the question, the conflict literally tore the movement in two. These same calls for unity exist throughout politics, with Gen Zs often expected to vote along party lines, even if a candidate doesn’t fully reflect their ideals. This sentiment was strong during our last presidential election when Gen Z progressives, skeptical of establishment democrats, were expected to vote for Joe Biden anyway. While this thankfully worked to keep Trump out of office, how long will our generation be expected to postpone our priorities (namely climate change, abortion rights, gun control, worker’s rights, police reform) to babysit the country?