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What Is Antiwork, and What Does It Mean for Employers?

With every passing day, it’s more likely you’ve heard about the antiwork movement. It’s a growing awareness in the United States and abroad, fueled by younger generations’ perceptions that there’s more to life than devoting oneself to a thankless 40-hour workweek.

 

If you’re a business owner or recruiter, this may be setting off alarm bells. Does this mean no one is going to want to come back to work? If you’re understaffed right now, are you doomed to be forever? Not necessarily, but it may take a meaningful shift in the way we think about work before it gets better.

 

If you’re in a position where you employ people, you need to understand the implications the antiwork movement has on virtually every industry. Find out what antiwork is and what it means for you.

 

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What antiwork is—and more importantly, what it isn’t

Ideas around antiwork began on a subreddit—a community on reddit.com—called r/antiwork. Here, workers share stories ranging from unfair treatment to outright abuse and question the merits of work as a worthwhile path to a better lifestyle.

 

In 2020, COVID-19 hit, and unemployment spiked. Suddenly, workers who felt taken advantage of or tossed away in favor of maintaining profits were able to access a community that could explain to them why their feelings were valid and bring them into the fold.

 

While the initial effects of the pandemic eased, turmoil in labor markets didn’t. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 24 million Americans left their jobs between April and September 2021, part of what’s being referred to as The Great Resignation. While many of these people found other jobs that better suited their needs, many did not, joining the ranks of the rapidly growing antiwork movement.

 

Today, antiwork is more than the online community where its ideas are extended into discourse. Across the country and beyond, workers who are dissatisfied with their work lives are searching for a greater source of fulfillment that may or may not involve employment.

 

This is what antiwork boils down to. Here’s what it’s not:

 

It’s not about money

There’s a persistent belief that employees are single-minded—pay them enough and they’ll stay; don’t, and they’ll leave for a better-paying opportunity. Numerous data points suggest this isn’t true.

 

One study found that when their work has meaning to them, people consider their wage lower among the factors that motivate them to stay in a given job. According to a survey published by Harvard Business Review, 9 out of 10 workers said they would be willing to be paid less for work that is more meaningful to them.

 

It’s not about laziness or entitlement

Another misguided attitude about antiwork is that people aren’t coming back to work because of a general entitlement or because social welfare programs offer too much support.

 

While the name “antiwork” might raise eyebrows, people who hold antiwork beliefs aren’t against the concept of work on principle. The group’s stated purpose is “to start a conversation, to problematize work as we know it today.”

 

Essentially, the antiwork movement is a collective call for fed-up workers to take a step back and consider the types of changes that would be needed for them to be more motivated to go to work. As an employer, if you take anything away from the antiwork movement, it should be this.

 

What’s contributing to the rise in support for antiwork?

To be clear, COVID-19 is not solely to blame for antiwork.

 

The pandemic forced employers to get creative with recruiting, but while the conditions of COVID-19 accelerated the antiwork movement, r/antiwork was established in 2013. This is something that has been boiling under the surface for almost a decade. However, the antiwork movement and, more precisely, the revolt against stagnant wages and economic inequality, entered the mainstream media with 2011’s Occupy Wall Street movement.

 

Essentially, people are seeing the potential benefits of going to work as less compelling today than ever before for a few reasons.

 

Low pay and unhealthy expectations

The conversations in r/antiwork take many courses, but frequently repeated are the stories of workers in jobs that pay minimum wage, or close to it, whose bosses don’t seem to understand that their employees are human beings. Anecdotes include people being fired for being sick, having car trouble or dealing with family emergencies.

 

At the same time, pay is lower than ever before, at least in conjunction with inflation. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the federal minimum wage carries 21% less value than it did when it was last raised in 2009.

 

Growth in unionization and pro-labor sentiments

There’s a dissonance in the way we talk about so-called “unskilled” labor that has been laid bare by the pandemic.

 

Workers in several industries were labeled “essential” at a time when conditions demanded that many companies shut down or go remote. But when these workers asked to be compensated requisite to that status, they were rebuffed.

 

In 2020, a Gallup Poll showed that support for labor unions was at 65%, a 20-year high. With high-profile union activities at John Deere, Kellogg’s, Starbucks, Amazon and many more in 2021, it’s likely that number has continued to increase.

 

What does this mean for employers?

At this point, you understand antiwork, the consequences and the main factors contributing to it. Here are a few lessons you can take away and actionable ways to keep your business on track in the midst of all this volatility.

 

Don’t take employment demand for granted

Although COVID-19 contributed to the rapid spread of consciousness about antiwork, there’s no reason to think it won’t outlast the pandemic. For many people involved in the movement, being laid off suddenly or forced to quit their job to attend to responsibilities at home changed something in them that can never go back to the way it was before.

 

This means that the demand for your openings may fluctuate, and turnover will likely stay at a higher level. If you can, backfill your key roles so that productivity doesn’t grind to a halt every time someone leaves for what they feel is a better opportunity.

 

Think about how to add value to your employees’ lives

There’s a running joke that employers who want to thank their employees for their hard work will throw them a pizza party—a thoughtful gesture, but something that does little to increase the long-term well-being of the average worker.

 

Your employees don’t want bean bag chairs and ping-pong tables in common areas. They want flexible work schedules and consideration for things like family medical leave and other creative benefits that show you support them as a person, not as an ID number on your tax paperwork. Really look at your employees and give some meaningful thought to how to enrich their lives while they’re giving you their weekdays.

 

The lasting lessons of the antiwork movement

If there’s anything the antiwork movement can show us, it’s that business leadership in nearly every industry needs to rethink its approach. Employees are not disposable, no labor is truly unskilled and it’s going to take a commitment to increasing employee satisfaction in a real, sustainable way in order for many people to come back to the jobs they left.

 

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