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Laura Nilsson - Illustratorlaura.firstname.lastname@example.org
Is work necessary? How come endless hours at work are seen as the key to a “good life”? Why does work determine someone’s value and worth in society? Amidst the pandemic, a movement spurred to pose important and impactful questions - sometimes quite controversial.
To comprehend the current situation of the anti-work thought and ethos, the history of work must be understood. There needs to be a distinction between work as in labor, and work as a formal employment. People have always worked in the sense of having a relationship with labor and producing some kind of tangible thing or intangible value to oneself or others.
Today, work is usually synonymous with employment, a formal agreement between an employee, giving a portion of their skill, time and energy to produce things for the employer. The employer then converts this into productive assets, getting returns and increasing profit. Rather than the production of labor, the work as a central means from which most people gain their income, social standing and sense of worth from, is the one being criticized today.
Work has always existed, but it has dominated our lives to different extents through history. The fixation with work originates from different cultures and thinkers. One of the most famous ones being early protestantism, where working hard was seen as being virtuous. German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber wrote about the impact of protestant ethics on the emergence of modern capitalism in the early 20th century. According to the predestination doctrine, the people sent to heaven after death were already predetermined, and this anxious idea led people to accumulating wealth as a sign of being one of the chosen. At the same time, having a lavish lifestyle was seen as evil as it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Consequently, working hard was seen as a virtue which influences our society to this day.
But what has transformed work from being virtuous labor to dominating our lives and identity is consumerism. We are kept in a perpetual cycle of working and consuming. Our value is being attributed to our identity as a worker because it usually determines how much we can consume and the sort of identity we can create. Additionally, the commodification of our basic needs, such as health care, housing and food, keeps us from breaking the cycle of employment and consumption.
As the pandemic hit and working from home became a reality for many, people gained more autonomy over their time and started realizing the value of it. There are things that cannot come from the worker consumer identity, from solely working more and harder, such as self development or spending time with your family. The realization that their work is preventing them from having that essential leisure, has opened up a discussion and critique of work on internet forums, mainly Reddit.
The subreddit r/antiwork, created 2013 by former retail-worker and trans-woman Doreen Ford, has become a platform for the anti-work ethos of today. The community has grown to over 1.4 million by late 2021 and contains memes as well as personal anecdotes about the reality of the American work culture. Bullshit jobs, decreasing workers' benefits and unequal power dynamics in the work space are commonly criticized and that millions of Americans are currently quitting their jobs becomes fully comprehensible. The gap between productivity and typical workers compensation has increased dramatically since 1979, which forces people to work multiple jobs and monetize hobbies to just survive. This is not laziness. Becoming one of the largest subreddits, media coverage became inevitable. In a January issue of Dagens Nyheter, economist Susanne Spector says that the movement, to some extent, serves the role of trade unions in the US.
It was not until January 25 this year, when the subreddit moderator Ford was interviewed on the right wing Fox News, that the future of r/antiwork seemed doubtful. The audience feedback was heavily negative and Ford was ridiculed on multiple media platforms for her unkempt appearance and inarticulate responses to the news moderator’s questions. The community was depicted as the deterioration of the younger generation. As a result, the subreddit temporarily shut down and Ford was removed as moderator.
The subreddit unites people across backgrounds and classes who all question the never ending cycle of labor and consumption, united by the common understanding of the unhealthy restlessness of society. Though the platform has had its revival and significant traction, it is unclear where tomorrow's discussion of anti-work will take place. However, the struggle for change seems inevitable given the trends of the capitalist market. In one medium or another, the discussion will continue.