There’s an anti-work sentiment taking hold that’s striking fear into business leaders across the globe. It’s clear what the movement is pushing against but there’s less certainty on what it’s moving towards. This is essential insight for brands and organisations to tune into their audiences and retain their employees. So what is anti-work? What’s driving the shift and where is it going? 

What’s unusual is the global nature of this cultural trend. China coined the term tangping (lying down), Japan has its anti-work icon Gudetama, a defeatist egg yolk character who incidentally ran for prime minister in a recent animation with an ‘8-days off’ a week campaign. Elsewhere across Europe and America the Great Resignation of 2021 has now given way to ‘quiet quitting‘. 

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When catchy names are coined, people follow, that’s what you call a movement. I should know. Back in 2007 along with my then Future Laboratory colleague, Jacob Strand, we coined the term Bleisure. Identifying an ambitious fervour we’d spotted amongst the young. Work was their identity; the flagship store to their personal brand. Business was everything, even leisure. Is it any wonder people are pushing back at a decade or more of this productivity obsession? 

Some of the reasons for this the backlash are clear and have been well cited: Enduring lockdown and the pandemic’s upheaval has lead to some reprioritisation. Life feels short, live your dream and cherish those loved ones. But digging into the numbers shows there’s more going on and this provides clues to what’s coming next.

Firstly the illusion of choice. A lot of people are anti-work because they can’t work. 

And a lot of this is down to Covid. New data from the Household Pulse Survey show that more than 40% of adults in the United States reported having COVID-19 in the past, and nearly one in five of those (19%) are currently still having symptoms of long Covid. Elsewhere it is predicted that China’s latest Covid wave will see tens of millions of people suffering long COVID in 2023. 

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The UK has reported a record rise in economically inactive people, mainly in the over 50s but it’s the 25-34 year olds which show the biggest relative rise. For half a million of those not working it’s due to long term illness and mental health problems, this is the highest it’s been in 30 years. Are people anti-work because they’re exhausted and ill? No wonder AI chatbots like Woebot, Wysa and Flow Meditation, have millions of users

Recent figures from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Time Use Study shows US adults spending less time working ‘away from home’ as expected. However, alongside this is an increase in  leisure in the home and interestingly, sleep. One interpretation of this is that people don’t have the energy to spin up their old crazy lives again. As Andy Gibson, founder of the mental health campaign Mindapples explains,“”It’s hard to dive back into the whirlwind of doing thousands of different things, juggling work and social life, if we’re not feeling great.” 

This puts a focus on time. Those suffering from long term illness simply can’t do as much as they once could. The concept of ‘crip time’ speaks to this. It’s a way to escape from the punishing schedules that characterised hyper productivity and burnout. New behaviours that embrace bouts of inactivity will resonate better than the bustling, busy persona. In China this is evidenced in the growing market for Lazy Goods for a generation of consumers who want to signal that they prioritise doing nothing. This includes devices to tie shoelaces or squirt toothpaste on. Mundane acts that nonetheless take effort. 

Is it any surprise that ‘goblin mode‘ was selected as the Oxford English word of 2022. Or that the concept of ‘Buddhist living’ has become an essential life philosophy for Hong Kong youth? As Hong Kong based Karen Chan, creative director at a global PR firm explains: “This term is used by a generation who don’t have the energy or the will to actively pursue something. It’s about going with the flow rather than having a goal that needs to be chased.”

And along with this shift comes a value judgement and this is the second clue. Too much ambition or the sacrificing of personal leisure time to make your millions in Silicon Valley or South Korea’s Pangyo Techno Valley is starting to look decidedly last season. For Will Storr, journalist and author of several books including, The Status Game: On Human Life and How to Play It, it’s quite clear what’s going on: “It’s all about status.” Humans are hard wired to seek out status as an essential component to health. Psychologists talk about the human drives of getting ahead and getting along. Humans attribute status to each of these. As Storr points out, the getting-ahead approach has been increasingly hard to attain. Data abound on how the younger generation are turning out to be worse off than their parents. Progress appears to be reversing.

In Storr’s thesis, this opens up the need for a different approach to status, virtue status. This is based on beliefs, judgements and climbing the status ladder by having superior noble beliefs. 

‘Virtue status is quite easy to get on things like social media,’ Storr explains, ‘You are just a tweet away from making yourself feel virtuous.” According to Storr, quiet quitting is part of this status projection, ’it’s a signal that we’re not like the Gen X and Millennials who were hell bent on making their millions.’ 

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Anti-work is about people wanting to put their time and energy into other aspects of their lives. This might be actively eschewing the codes of ambition and projecting a lazy, messy self or embracing dopamine dressing. Or it might involve going deeper down the values route. Recent data produced by Paul Polman shows that employees want to put their time and energy into responding to this unprecedented era of ‘perma-crisis’ and they want to work for organisations that do the same. Polman states that young people in particular need to work for companies that offer hope for the future and he warns that ‘an era of conscious quitting is on the way.’ 

Two out of three employees are anxious about the future of the planet and society (69% UK, 66% US). The majority want to work for a company that is trying to have a positive impact on the world (66% UK, 76% US). Nearly half of the employees surveyed said they would consider resigning if the company’s values don’t align with their own — even in these difficult economic times.

So it’s clear, anti-work is a form of activism too. People want to take a greater control over their working lives. And with this transition will come new opportunities. There will be a need for support to help rebalance work and play. This could spark new services or perhaps apps to track progress. They’ll be looking to leaders to model the ethical values that are good for people and planet. Part of this needs to be about ‘work to live, not live to work’ and Jacinda Arden is the latest pin-up for this. Could the future of wellness involve a prescription to take up hobbies, volunteering and a cause to unite around? Anti-work is in fact pro-humanity and there’s really nothing to fear about that.

Miriam Rayman is a cultural strategist, executive coach and founder of Now Then research.

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