Why the Anti-Work Movement is so Popular with Gen Z

Last week, we recalled the wacky series of events that transpired as a result of a Fox News interview with one of the moderators of the Anti-Work subreddit. Click here to read that post if you’re interested. It’s a doozy. Today, rather than highlight what’s so very absurd about this movement, we’re going to give them the benefit of the doubt. Why are so many young people fed up with their jobs? Why are they disillusioned with capitalism as a whole? What do they really have a problem with and what can be done to address it?

Now that it’s gone mainstream, I’m not convinced the anti-work movement is really about work at all. I think it’s filled with young adults who have a fundamentally different perspective on the world than their parents, thanks to their upbringing and personal values. The generational gap between those who run businesses and those who need jobs is greater than ever. This is the real issue at hand. At the end of the day, all the socialist policy and impossible demands are a cry for help and a signal that a new world is coming. That might not be such a bad thing. Let’s talk about why.

The New Anti-Work Movement

When the anti-work movement got started, it was fairly niche and consisted mostly of radicals who demanded universal basic income and violent reform to shift the workforce out of the hands of the rich and into a government-controlled system supposedly to support the poor and middle class (basically, a form of communism). This is where the movement got its name. It was actually about getting rid of work and creating a utopia on the backs of the wealthy. It’s safe to say that, since becoming extremely popular with young people of all backgrounds, the movement has taken on a completely new identity.

If you look into the anti-work movement today, most of what you’ll find are personal accounts of struggles people have with issues related to their jobs. Maybe their boss tried to make them work on their day off. Maybe they got a condescending email from corporate and quit their job along with several coworkers. Maybe they were ridiculed by their grandmother for not being able to afford rent. Whatever the case, these are people who are sick of modern work culture. They don’t necessarily want to overturn our entire economy so they can sit on the couch all day. They’re just tired of feeling overworked and stressed all the time. They hate the office lingo and passive aggressive communication. They want to be respected. They want security and personal fulfillment. They want fair wages. They aren’t necessarily anti-work. They just want work to be better. And yes, some of them are just lazy (as we saw last week).

This is the true face of the anti-work movement going forward. While radical communists and anarchists will always find some sanctuary in these communities, they’re not likely to get their ideas put into action any time soon (knock on wood). The real goal should be to change work culture for the better bit by bit. But what does that look like? From what I’ve observed, these are the ideas with the most consensus.

Compensation

People are getting sick of our culture’s current standards for compensation, especially in a time when inflation is getting worse. But it’s not just low wages that are the problem. There’s a significant demand for medical and dental benefits, paid time off, maternity and paternity leave, sick days, fair raises, and generous overtime/holiday pay. But we can’t just pile on more and more benefits without consequence, right? Employers neglect these things because they’re expensive, not because they hate their employees. While this is true, I posit we’ll see a shift as time goes on. Employers will have to balance their budgets towards their workforce if they want the best performance and consistency. Alternatively, we’ll start seeing lower wages accompany exceptional benefits. Supply will have to meet demand one way or another.

We’re seeing the effects of this strain right now as less and less people are working and thousands of businesses are understaffed. While some attribute the “labor shortage” to laziness, welfare checks, or entitlement, I can tell you from personal experience that most of what’s happening is a combination of two things. First, we saw a significant number of elderly workers decide to retire early when COVID was at its peak. Second, we’re seeing a mismatch between what young people want and what businesses are willing to offer.

One of my previous bosses complained to me that new hires want unrealistically high wages these days. That company rejected plenty of applicants before hiring someone they liked. In my recent job search, I found loads of open listings and only heard back or got an interview for a handful of them. There are plenty of similar stories you can find all over the internet. This tells me that businesses aren’t yet desperate enough for workers. If they were, they would raise wages and hire more quickly. No, what we’re seeing is a stand-off between young people and businesses. Their desires are mutually exclusive and eventually someone has to give in. This is why I predict we’ll eventually see a shift in company budgets toward the workforce in an effort to keep doors open and cash flowing. It only makes sense.

Honesty and Listed Pay

In addition to compensation, there’s a massive push in my generation for employers to be more honest with their employees regarding the jobs being offered. The most common demand I’ve seen is for all job listings to specify the wage up front. After all, there’s nothing more frustrating than wasting your time applying for a job, getting a screen call, scheduling an interview, arriving on time, and shaking the hands of three different people only to be seated in front of someone asking you to work for half of what your bottom line is. In today’s fast-moving world, we’re running out of patience for this kind of thing.

But don’t get me wrong. Businesses aren’t purposefully wasting time. I believe the reason this practice exists stems from jobs where the salary is negotiable. There are many potential candidates for any given position who will take much lower wages than what’s competitive. By refusing to list an up-front wage, employers are saving money by letting people sell themselves short voluntarily. If a lower wage than the industry standard was listed, they would miss out on lots of potential interviews with people willing to eventually settle during the hiring process. If they listed a higher wage, they would waste money on people who would gladly take less. By keeping things vague and negotiable, they’re able to pay most of their workforce lower wages and only cave to higher wages for their most valuable and/or dominant employees.

I think we’ll see future employers start to list up-front wages more often for at least the low-level jobs where pay isn’t negotiable. We’re already starting to see ranges listed on more job ads. This at least gives a ballpark for a potential wage and avoids wasting time on interviews where neither party will come out remotely satisfied. But ultimately, this tactic is motivated by money and will only evolve enough to keep the next generation coming in for more interviews. This isn’t about honesty, per se. It’s just a disconnect in perspective.

Respect

Another significant desire I’ve seen in my generation is for mutual respect in the workplace. It’s a simple thing, but it’s all too uncommon. I remember feeling the effects of this in some of my previous jobs. People in managerial positions sometimes develop a superiority complex of sorts. They aren’t just okay with bossing others around; they love it. They love finding wrongs to right and problems to solve, even where none exist. I’ve been on the receiving end of a few power trips in my time. Whether I misunderstood an assignment or missed a deadline, my superior didn’t seem interested in helping me do better or accepting my apology. The important thing was that I was a terrible person who committed a grave sin. It’s awfully reminiscent of poor parenting tactics.

Now, a desire for mutual respect and doing away with the toxic components of hierarchies is wonderful, but I can already hear the boomers complaining. “Kids these days have no respect.” “Prideful little know-it-alls.” I hear you. It’s true that younger folk tend to think of themselves rather highly and take respect much more often than they dish it out. But remember that key word: mutual. I’m not proposing we go easy on everyone. I’m proposing we get rid of the idiotic idea that people who are young in years or lower in a hierarchy aren’t worth listening to or treating as fellow human beings. We should still give them a fighting chance to prove themselves. I think you’d see a lot more happy, successful, valuable workers coming out of my generation if you expected greatness from them and pushed them to be better. People tend to rise to exactly the expectations you set for them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Flexibility

One important part of work is the time you spend away from it. I think a major difference between older generations and my own is how we think of work as it relates to our “real” lives. And that’s just it. I think of my real life as separate from my work life. Many people believe they are one in the same. Workaholics tend to focus entirely on their vocation and neglect family, friends, and God alike as they pour their lives into climbing the ladder. Many very successful and rich people are addicted to work in this way, but few of them are truly happy. My generation grew up seeing this firsthand. Lots of our parents came out of a world that told them to “man up” and “get their act together.” They listened. They pulled up their bootstraps and got to work. And boy, did they work. Some of them worked so hard, and still are to this day, that their bodies are just about to give out. Some were away from their families most of the time. Some sacrificed their hobbies and their aspirations. Part of this is noble and honorable. Part of it is unhealthy at best and tragic at worst.

The difference between healthy work and unhealthy work is often murky. Of course, there are obvious situations like the ones I brought up where a person prioritizes work above everything else. That’s never good. But what about a dad who gives up his desires for fame and fortune so he can make sure his wife and kids always have food on the table? That’s a great thing to see. The difficulty comes between these, where a father might be away working for months at a time. Is his lack of presence in his family’s life worth the paycheck? Should he pursue a career where he can see his kids more often? Is it too risky and irresponsible to attempt that? What about the single mother who pays to have her kids taken care of while she’s away working a high-paying job? Is that a healthy relationship with work? A lot of these situations come down to judgment calls and individual circumstances. Life is hard. A healthy approach to work that fits your lifestyle is too often forgotten in the midst of survival or immediate desire.

So where does my generation come into all this? Well, we’re sick and tired of jobs being purely about survival. We’ve seen our parents work themselves nearly to death for companies that don’t care for their wellbeing one bit. We’ve seen our peers get sucked into work culture and come out shells of their former selves. We don’t want any part of it. We want work to be a place where we do a good job, get a fair paycheck, and go home. We want to be there as infrequently as possible, in some cases. Whether that’s out of a desire to spend more time nurturing a family, promoting a good cause, or feeding a selfish addiction depends on the person, of course.

Where older generations looked down on people who weren’t as invested in their jobs, my generation looks up at those who are able to hold their job at arm’s length and still keep up with house payments. We want a balance where we feel that we’re able to live life as it ought to be, away from the cubicle and the email inbox. This manifests itself in many ways. One of those is a demand for more PTO and holidays. Another is a mutual understanding with one’s boss that personal matters come before work. Another is the ability to do things like take breaks, get haircuts, or pick up kids on company time, sometimes because there is no other time to do those things. Employers who recognize the demand for this approach to work will attract my generation. Those who do not are in for a hard time finding people to be their “wage slaves,” as the anti-work movement so tactfully puts it.

The Growing Problem of Tempered Laziness

Before we go, I think it’s important to address the elephant in the room. It’s more impactful than you might think. Generation Z has been called “lazy” more times than I could count. In some ways, it’s true. In others, it’s exaggerated. But one thing I’ve noticed in the anti-work community is a defeatist mentality that has begun to accept laziness as a tactic of work rather than a fault of character. Instead of working exceptionally hard in order to get a raise, feel satisfied, or serve those in need, people are intentionally minimizing their productivity in an effort to reduce stress and silently protest against their conditions. At a time when we’re seeing more and more work done in huge office buildings under massive companies, it’s become easier than ever to hide this laziness among all the bureaucracy and wasted management dollars. After all, if you’ll walk away with the same paycheck no matter what, why work any harder than you have to? At least, that’s how they see it.

This is why I’m convinced we’re on the verge of an upheaval in work productivity. Eventually, the labor bubble will burst. Companies cannot hire more and more people who do the bare minimum indefinitely. They can’t squeeze their margins so slim and pack their wallets so tight forever. The lack of productivity will catch up with them. When it does, they’ll realize there’s just not enough money to pay for enough people to get a job done when each one of them contributes less and less. Wages will plummet or there will be massive layoffs. Hard workers will be seen as extremely valuable and rewarded accordingly. There’s no other way to make sure cash flow doesn’t stop. You need real labor. It’s not a viable strategy to put up with chair warmers, at least not in the long term.

This is going to hurt badly, both for the kids who have gotten used to browsing Twitter eight hours a day and the managers who refuse to recognize something’s wrong. We’re going to see the end of businesses with horrible reputations thanks to slow, expensive work done by far too many cooks in the kitchen. We’re going to see a sharp contrast between those in my generation who refuse to work harder and those who realize they must work harder in order to stay on top. People are going to fervently lean into their side of the issue. You’ll see the “lazy” kids pushing harder than ever for free healthcare, universal basic income, and a higher minimum wage. You’ll see the “hardworking” kids embracing a new era of workaholism and ladder climbing, looking down on anyone below them with disdain. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Conclusion

When the time comes for a major shift in the job market, we’ll have to figure it out as it unfolds. But I’m letting you know in advance that my generation sees work in a fundamentally different way then those who came before us, and it’s not all to do with youthful daydreams. The new anti-work movement reflects this, albeit in an immature manner. We deserve a good licking from time to time, no doubt, but we might also have something valuable to add to society. This world will be ours soon enough, for better or for worse.

To be honest, I’m not sure what I’ll write for next week. I think I’m done talking about the anti-work movement, at least for now. It’s been loads of fun, but there’s other things I want to discuss. Enter your email below if you want to be notified when my next post goes live. Thanks for reading. It means a lot. Godspeed.

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