The world’s long-suffering workers have finally gained some measure of leverage over their bosses, and their new power is a glorious thing to behold.
In South Korea this week, tens of thousands of union members staged a one-day strike to demand better benefits and protections for temporary and contract workers. In Britain, where Brexit has contributed to severe shortages of goods and labor, Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has been taking dubious credit for what he calls a new era of higher pay.
And in the United States, a record nearly 4.3 million people quit their jobs in August, according to the Labor Department, and more than 10 million positions were vacant — slightly down from July, when about 11 million jobs needed filling. The shortage of workers has led to a growth in wages that has surpassed many economists’ expectations, and seems to have discombobulated bosses who are used to employees leaping at their every demand.
There are many potential reasons for workers’ reluctance to work terrible jobs. People who are flush with unemployment assistance and stimulus money might be holding out for better jobs to come along. Workers who spent the last year and half on the front lines of dangerous jobs in thankless industries — for instance, enforcing mask rules for belligerent customers in shops and restaurants — could be burned out by the experience. And many workers continue to fear for their health in an ongoing pandemic, while a lack of child and elder care has added costs and complications that have rendered many jobs just not worth the trouble.
All of this makes sense. But there might also be something deeper afoot. In its sudden rearrangement of daily life, the pandemic might have prompted many people to entertain a wonderfully un-American new possibility — that our society is entirely too obsessed with work, that employment is not the only avenue through which to derive meaning in life and that sometimes no job is better than a bad job.
“The pandemic gave us a kind of forced separation from work and a rare critical distance from the daily grind,” Kathi Weeks, a professor of gender, sexuality and feminist studies at Duke University, told me. “I think what you’re seeing with people refusing to go back is a kind of yearning for freedom.”
Weeks, the author of “The Problem With Work,” is among a handful of scholars who have been pushing for a wholesale reappraisal of the role that work plays in wealthy societies. Their ideas have been dubbed “post-work” or “antiwork,” and although they share goals with other players in the labor market — among them labor unions and advocates for higher minimum wages and a stronger social safety net — these scholars are calling for something even grander than improved benefits.
They’re questioning some of the bedrock ideas in modern life, especially life in America: What if paid work is not the only worthwhile use of one’s time? What if crushing it in your career is not the only way to attain status and significance in society? What if electing to live a life that is not driven by the neuroses and obsessions of paid employment is considered a perfectly fine and reasonable way to live?
Evidence for such a reappraisal is, admittedly, more anecdotal than rigorous. It might well be that as soon as labor markets loosen up, workers will again answer to their bosses’ every beck and call.
But David Frayne, a sociologist who is the author of “The Refusal of Work,” noted that traumatic events often cause people to reassess their lives and goals.
“The pandemic has had the potential to create that kind of disruption on a mass scale,” Frayne told me, and the disruption has created new political opportunities for regulating labor markets in a way that favors workers. He pointed out that in Britain, where he lives, politicians have begun to entertain the idea of a four-day workweek, a plan that was long considered a no-go.
In the United States, the Biden administration’s huge social policy legislation — now stalled in Congress — was also conceived in part as a way to address the kind of problems working people experienced during the pandemic. And the pandemic cracked open space to discuss more far-flung ideas for a society that is no longer centered on work — especially a universal basic income, a policy that is being tested in pilot programs across the country.
You can get a peek of a post-job world at /antiwork, a Reddit forum “for those who want to end work” that has gone viral in recent months, with hundreds of thousands following its subversive cause. /antiwork teems with posts from workers who are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore — including many screenshots from folks saying they are telling off their managers, quitting in a rage after years of abuse.
I’ve been reading /antiwork for months, and I’ve been surprised to find myself joining in the visceral thrill of seeing people wrest the reins of their lives from the soul-sucking, health-destroying maw of capitalism.
I was surprised to find common cause with people on /antiwork because, of course, I have very little to complain about, job-wise. Indeed, at least once a day I revel in open-mouthed gratitude. What I do to make a living — writing this column — is less physically demanding and more intellectually rewarding than anything my ancestors had to endure to earn their supper, and — don’t tell my bosses — more than fair compensation for my time and effort.
It sounds perfect, right?
And yet, a lot of times my job can feel like an all-consuming hell. I’ve got a wife and kids and two lovely cats, but work is the first thing I think about every morning and the last thing I worry about every night. My job has dibs on my mind and my time, it gets the best of my attention and creativity, and it is the subject of my deepest neuroses and my most intractable stresses.
I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t really realize how much work ruled my life until the pandemic — until this huge meteor took aim at our lives and forced me to reconsider what I was doing.
I’m not saying I’m quitting — I hope to keep this gig for a long time. It’s just that I now have space in my mind for a truth that my prepandemic workaholism never allowed me to consider — that even a dream job is still a job, and in America’s relentless hustle culture, we have turned our jobs into prisons for our minds and souls. It’s time to break free.
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