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The Dream Job Has Lost Its Luster
The Great Resignation is more than a backlash to pandemic missteps. A growing “antiwork” movement could signal a broader shift in our relationship to work.
Hello, and welcome back to Hear Me Out’s newsletter! For this post, I had the pleasure of speaking with Simone Stolzoff, a researcher at IDEO and author of the forthcoming book The Good Enough Job. It also gave me a chance to test Glimpse, a Chrome Plugin (in beta) that turns Google Trends into a first-class forecasting tool.
Workers are still quitting. Since I last wrote about the YOLO Economy in April, they’ve been doing so at higher and higher rates every month. And tech is no exception: a report from Slack’s Future Forum found 57% of knowledge workers are open to a new job.
But it’s not just about trading one job for another. The isolation and time for reflection over the past year are causing some employees to question work itself. Why are some kinds of work valued more than others? Who benefits from our obsession with productivity? And is working yourself to death just to afford rent in a coastal city really better than living simply and running an Etsy store?
On sites like Reddit and TikTok, a growing “antiwork” movement spanning generational and demographic lines is gaining traction. The r/antiwork community on Reddit has grown from about 100,000 subscribers to 1.2 million since the start of the pandemic. And on TikTok, the #antiwork and #thegreatresignation hashtags have a combined 50M views, a number which, while about 4% of the view count of #oldtownroad, is still a lot of views.
Data from Glimpse shows Google searches for “antiwork” spiking to 29k in October, roughly 5% of the search volume for “burnout” in the same month. Someone is even spamming unsecured receipt printers with antiwork-inspired manifestos informing service workers of their right to organize.
Unsurprisingly, this has some people spooked. In a note on Nov. 11, Goldman Sachs called the antiwork movement a “long-run risk” to labor force participation. And the Washington Post ran a story called “How to quit your job” that managed to come across as vaguely threatening while failing to include the voice of anyone who’s actually quit their job recently.
A lot of the coverage of the Great Resignation has focused on working-class jobs labeled as “essential” and treated as expendable, and for good reason. Line cooks had the highest risk of dying during the pandemic, while warehouse workers were pushed to the point of complete exhaustion.
But the Great Resignation and the growth of r/antiwork represent more than a backlash against jobs that put employees’ health, and often their lives, at risk. For employees at mission-driven companies, they’re also a response to a different kind of harm, one that’s harder to articulate.
The term moral injury offers one way to explain the sense of betrayal when a mission-driven team falls short of its values. Here’s how it’s described in a recent episode of The Ezra Klein show, The Case Against Loving Your Job:
So this term was first used with war veterans to describe the specific trauma that soldiers experience when they were forced to act contrary to their moral beliefs, by killing civilians, for example, and the way that specific psychological harm showed up differently than traditional PTSD. [For the full exchange, skip to 34:46]
While it may sound trivial, moral injury is very real. Symptoms include intense feelings of guilt and shame, loss of trust, trouble sleeping, and self-destructive impulses. But from the outside, it looks a lot like burnout. In fact, some physicians have argued this happens quite often in a medical system that prevents them from fulfilling their Hippocratic Oath. It’s hard to love a job that comes with a lot of preventable deaths.
In this light, we might interpret the current mood of tech’s labor market as a response to a collective moral injury. How can these employees not feel cynical about jobs that promise work-life balance when the CEO of a mental health startup can give interviews on avoiding burnout while leading a culture seemingly designed to produce it, even if the sins don’t rise to the level of Uber?
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These days, the temptation to stretch the moral truth is higher than ever. It’s hard to hire in tech without a great narrative: the altruistic mission, the people-first culture, the origin story carefully sculpted into a hero’s journey. That narrative can make or break a hiring team’s success; ask any Facebook recruiter.
But when a great story fails to line up with employees’ reality, it’s a bitter pill. For the generations that were told they could do good and do well, in a job that felt like a family and had their best interests at heart, it can be crushing. And while it’s easy to dismiss those feelings as naïve, blaming employees for taking the language on a career page at face value isn’t the most pragmatic response.
Unfortunately for employers, it’s often hard to know when they’re walking the walk. It’s tough enough to get employees to speak up about workplace misconduct; they probably won’t flag every company decision that doesn’t live up to its shared values. But small slights add up, and often, the message sent to employees by seemingly minor decisions goes unnoticed by everyone else.
If loving your job becomes seen as a trap instead of a life goal, what will that mean for teams that sincerely care about culture? Simone Stolzoff, a researcher at IDEO and author of the forthcoming book The Good Enough Job, thinks companies will need to take tangible steps to decenter work in employees’ lives or risk coming off as disingenuous. If they’re offering a four-day workweek but haven’t lowered the actual workload, employees will notice, and candidates will find out one way or another.
Stolzoff is still unsure about whether the current mood represents a short-term bump or a long-term shift. And even if the change is here to stay, it probably won’t happen overnight. “I found myself writing over Thanksgiving break,” he recalled, “and realized, I’m writing a book about not overworking yourself for a job you love, and here I am doing just that. I think there’s going to be a lot of unlearning.”
At the same time, Stolzoff says, “The charlatan employers are gonna use this to their advantage.” He expects many HR departments will respond to antiwork with thinly-veiled attempts to co-opt the language of the movement. That will probably look like “careers pages that say ‘do good work and go home’ and guaranteed minimum days off”: a labor-relations version of “the kind of Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad that’s tried to tap into the cultural zeitgeist, but ultimately fell flat.”
This approach stands in stark contrast to the coop model, where workers have a real stake in both the product and the process. And while Stolzoff considers himself a crypto skeptic, he thinks decentralized organizations, like the one that tried to buy the U.S. constitution, could develop healthier incentive structures. He wonders aloud: “What would it look like to live in a world where work is just transactional? Not your family or your life's purpose, but rather a place to create value for others and support your livelihood?”
In a world where companies regularly promise work-life balance without making any changes to the actual workload, employees will be more skeptical than ever. And delivering on those promises will take more than just an open door. It will take time, resources, and, most critically, a leadership team that’s open to feedback it might not enjoy hearing.
Listening to employees takes work, and it’s worth the investment. Because when the scope of acceptable alternatives includes working with strangers for crypto—or just living with less money and more leisure—all bets are off.
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