I first heard about the #antiwork movement as a trainee lawyer about to start my career at one of the biggest law firms in the world. After years of working in retail, earning just over minimum wage, I was delighted to have landed the type of job that my parents could brag about to their friends. Society told me I had 'made it' and I was prepared to hustle hard and burn the candle at both ends to reach the pinnacle of my industry. After all, isn't that what we are told success is?
The antiwork movement flies in the face of all that. It is a growing trend that has been gaining traction over the last few years, seemingly exacerbated by the pandemic and the problematic behaviour of some employers during the crisis. The subreddit /antiwork – dedicated to "those who want to end work, are curious about ending work, want to get the most out of a work-free life" – has more than tripled its subscribers since March 2020. Millennials and Gen Z are leading the charge as many of us choose to leave the grind of stressful jobs in favour of work-life balance. But what exactly is antiwork? And why does it matter?
There is no one universally accepted definition of antiwork; it means different things to different people. For some, it is the idea that work is miserable so no one should do it. For others, it means putting our individual needs and desires before the interests of any employer – after all, look how terribly a lot of them treated their staff during the coronavirus crisis. As Amelia Horgan writes in her book Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism, one ideal would be not to do away with work altogether; instead we should be moving collectively towards the transformative goal of experimenting with work as we know it and finding "possibilities for human cooperation and joy" outside of the work we must do.
I like to think of antiwork as the exact opposite of hustle culture – the expectation that you have to grind and sacrifice your personal life to be a high earner or reach the top of whatever career ladder you are climbing. As a self-described high-achiever who experienced (and escaped) the burnout that came with a 'hustle hard', multi-figure legal career, it is refreshing to see the counter-narrative against overwork entering the mainstream. It’s important to note, of course, that 'burnout' is a tricky concept. It has become so widely used during the pandemic that we are beginning to lose sight of what it means. Are you actually burned out or are you overworked, underpaid and leaned upon too much? Also, what counts as burnout for some (the term is most often overused in office environments) can look very different for, say, a nurse or a carer.
Born from burnout or otherwise, the antiwork movement is showing no signs of slowing down. A quick look on YouTube will uncover thousands of videos, posted in the past year, with antiwork themes like "I quit my job without a plan" and (my personal favourite) "I don’t dream of labour". The stats show that this is not just social media hype; it is all part of the Great Resignation phenomenon. According to research by HR software firm Personio, over 38% of UK employees plan to quit within the next six to 12 months, while job vacancies in the three months to August surpassed 1 million for the first time since records began in 2001.
It's not just a UK thing. In March, a similar study by Microsoft found that over 41% of the global workforce were considering leaving their employer this year, with 54% of workers saying they felt overworked and 39% saying they felt exhausted. It seems we are fed up with work taking over our lives and we want our careers to work for us instead.
Former NHS worker Jade* said it took "stepping out of my workplace to realise there was so much more to life!" After working for most of her pregnancy, she decided to quit her job after her request for flexible working was denied. It was the final straw after almost seven years in a demanding role that left her feeling "underpaid" and "unappreciated".
Similarly, Nadia* left her job after mass layoffs at the start of COVID made her realise how undervalued women were at her law firm. The pandemic gave her ample time to reflect on her priorities, strengths and interests. She realised that she no longer had to put up with "misogynistic behaviour by top fee earners" in order to be successful.
And that’s the truth. We have so many options now to build a great career outside of the traditional nine-to-five, from consulting to remote work to entrepreneurship. It seems foolish to work for companies which will burn you out without offering anything in return beyond a fixed salary and the promise of a promotion...someday.
As someone who successfully changed careers to achieve work-life balance and now helps others to do the same, I have to add a note of caution. The antiwork movement may sound appealing but I know firsthand how terrifying quitting your job can be. At the best of times, it is incredibly scary; during a global pandemic, it could be unwise if you don’t have a safety net like the bank of mum and dad or fat savings to support you if things go wrong.
It also has to be said that quitting is not the only option, especially if you like your job. These days, many companies are keen to retain their employees and are increasingly open to flexible working, part-time work and so on. Scotland is even trialling a four-day work week without loss of pay. So if you are tired of the way you are currently working, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want – companies are struggling to hire right now and your boss may be open to giving you the flexibility you need to avoid losing you.
The hustle hard mentality is not always bad. Without it, my immigrant dad would not have moved from being a taxi driver to heading a bank and I wouldn't have had an incredible legal career that allowed me to travel the world. Those from ethnic minorities, low income backgrounds and marginalised groups often have to work harder to get to the same place as white British people (this is a key issue with hustle culture more generally). That said, balance is important, wherever you are from. Overworking helped me to thrive professionally but with it came failed relationships, strained friendships and ill health from the stress of never switching off. This is the dark side of hustle culture that people hardly ever talk about so I’m happy to see the cultural shift and conversations that the antiwork movement has inspired so far.
Although I don't resonate with the extremities of #antiwork, the turning of the tide against toil glamour and exploitative working conditions means that companies must treat their employees as humans and not just as resources to boost their profit margins. The new modes of working have demonstrated that we can build happy, fulfilling and financially rewarding careers without losing ourselves to the grind in the process. I hope more people embrace this as the pandemic continues to show us that family, friends and personal relationships are more important than work.
*Name has been changed to protect identity