Every shock to the economy leaves lasting scars. A big one from the pandemic could be unprecedented destruction of human capital. And the damage could come not only from learning loss due to school closures but also from the “no-work movement” emerging among today’s youth.
The no-work movement goes back almost ten years, but it really accelerated in the United States during the pandemic, when many people, especially upper-middle-class knowledge workers, couldn’t go to work and now don’t want to go back. The movement initially took inspiration from overworked Chinese factory workers who decided to lie flat or opt out entirely from work and China’s relentless socioeconomic rat race. But as pandemic economic restrictions lifted and firms asked more people to return to the office, the movement took off in America, too. Members of Reddit’s r/anti-work forum celebrate dramatic stories of employees who quit their jobs. The moderator of the subreddit, Doreen Ford, claims that the community is 1.3 million strong. The no-work movement spans political affiliation, though it appears to have a significant Marxist component. “No work” doesn’t always mean not working; it can mean taking an extended or permanent work sabbatical, just putting in the minimum effort at work, working fewer hours, or resisting “hierarchical structures at work”—that is, the indignity of having a boss tell you what to do.
To call this a movement is something of an exaggeration. It may be popular with the audience of left-leaning web publications staffed by low-paid, college-educated workers, but it’s not clear how many people are actually living up to the no-work mantra. The number of people leaving their jobs is high, but many are finding other jobs or exploring self-employment. Americans without a college education and new retirees—not college-educated millennials—make up most of the increase in quits. To be sure, the past two years have been stressful, but Americans have also never had more leisure time, and high earners tend to work more hours. We are not working harder than ever before.
It does seem, though, that the ideal of not working, or working less, is catching on. The no-work movement mainly appears to be pushing back against the long-held American value of hard work and perseverance in one’s career. And some valid reasons exist for questioning how we work. The pandemic forced us to use more technology, empowering people to work from home. This may have changed our notions of what we require to be productive, and it may have shown many of us that there is less need to be tied to a single employer or a single boss.
But changing how we work and working less hard are two different things. The no-work movement tends to emphasize working less, or doing easier work, as opposed to embracing new kinds of work that take advantage of a changing economy. But even if the no-work movement is small, opting out of employment is still not a healthy decision. Having a job gives people a sense of purpose and connects them to a community. People out of the labor force tend to have worse physical and mental health (though the causal arrow here goes both ways). The no-work ideal thus ensures a permanent economic underclass. Contrary to popular perception, American economic mobility is not under threat, and out-earning one’s parents remains a common outcome. True, some jobs don’t offer the same opportunities for advancement that they used to. But one thing hasn’t changed: succeeding economically comes from hard work.
Younger workers opting to work less or to put in only the minimum effort may pay a future price in terms of stagnation or downward mobility. Workers receive the most pay raises in their twenties and thirties. This is also when people acquire the skills and contacts that pay off for the rest of their careers. One’s early years are not an ideal time to stay away from work, even considering the challenges that today’s younger workers face. Some jobs are certainly harder than others—especially when you’re learning skills and occupy a low rung in the workplace hierarchy. But opting out early only makes it more likely that work won’t get better later on.