What Is the Anti-Work Movement? Understanding “Unemployment for All”
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When I was a little kid, one of my favorite songs was Todd Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day.” Whenever it came on the radio, I would joyously sing along: I don’t wanna work, I just want to bang on the drum all day.
Fast-forward to the 2020s, and the 1980s hit has become an unofficial anthem of the anti-work movement, a fringe radical movement that somehow has moved into the mainstream, thanks to Reddit.
But understanding the anti-work subreddit and what it means for someone seeking financial independence isn’t the easiest task. The anti-work movement has undergone some large shifts in nature.
That’s why I’ve put together this guide to understanding the anti-work movement and what you can learn from it as you journey to financial freedom.
What Is the Anti-Work Movement?
The anti-work movement is an ideology that questions the need to work for a living. Over time, the movement has evolved from a militant desire to smash the entire economic system to a softer form that involves demanding better working conditions and striking a better work-life balance.
The anti-work movement gained traction thanks to the anti-work subreddit, which has skyrocketed from 100,000 subscribers to more than 1.8 million since the start of the COVID pandemic.
The Reddit movement and its founders have been featured in legit newspapers like The Financial Times and The New York Times. And unfortunately, it was the subject of a disastrous Fox News segment that nearly destroyed the subreddit. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Where Did the Anti-Work Movement Come From?
Although the anti-work movement has gained in popularity thanks to Reddit, the concept of anti-work is actually pretty old.
In fact, you can argue that the movement’s roots stretch all the way back to ancient Greece, when philosophers like Socrates and Diogenes claimed that the burden of employment impinged on the human right to enjoy one’s self.
But it was really during the 19th century, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, that the anti-work idea was articulated by prominent anarchist and socialist figures.
They argued that people should work only as much as required to sustain life, rather than laboring to create excess goods and capital. After all, with the invention of all kinds of machinery, there should really be no need for anyone to work much.
Well, jump forward more than 100 years and many of us are still railing against capitalism. Technology hasn’t eliminated our need to work—instead, it’s made employment weirder.
How the Pandemic Spurred the Anti-Work Movement
When the COVID pandemic first started causing lockdowns here in the United States, many employees suddenly had time to think about whether work is really necessary. They began questioning whether the “hustle culture,” in which your employment takes priority in your life over your family, friends, hobbies, etc., is really worth it.
During the pandemic, many employees were forced to work from home. Sitting through endless Zoom meetings at the kitchen table or bedroom desk literally brought their employers and colleagues into their homes. Work shifts became nebulous. Was there any way out?
Unhappy workers started exploring Reddit’s anti-work subreddit, where they found a group of folks critical of work culture. They realized they weren’t alone in wondering why they’re stuck in a seemingly unending cycle of wage labor.
The tone of the subreddit changed. Whereas since 2013 it had been a smallish group of “idlers” leaning to the far left—with the slogan “Unemployment for all; not just the rich!”—it now became a haven for more mainstream folks to share memes about awful jobs and employers.
Although some anti-work redditors have embraced the anti-work ethos wholeheartedly and joined the Great Resignation—a phenomenon in which millions of Americans have recently quit their jobs—many others are just there to treat it as a watercooler venting session.
The Fox Interview
On January 25, 2022, Doreen Ford, a moderator of the anti-work subreddit, was interviewed by Fox News anchor Jesse Watters. It did not go well.
During the interview, Ford failed to clearly explain what the anti-work movement was all about. Instead, Ford came across as a champion of laziness, rather than telling the world about how our current work culture is flawed.
It was just what conservative critics of the anti-work movement hoped for.
And it was a publicity nightmare for the movement. The r/anti-work subreddit went private while moderators dealt with “the cleanup from ongoing brigading” (a form of Reddit sabotage).
Since the Fox interview debacle, Ford has been removed from the moderator position.
What Does It Mean to Be Anti-Work?
Prior to the COVID pandemic, if someone told you they were “anti-work,” it would probably mean they were all about disrupting the West’s entire capitalist system. They’d tell you that our current paid labor model should be abolished entirely because it exploits workers. It’s probable they’d self-identify as anarchists or communists.
Today, “anti-work” has a much broader definition. Most people who count themselves as part of the movement believe that every worker should be paid better, that every person should have a work life balance that allows them to enjoy hobbies and spend more time with friends and family, and that workers should organize into labor unions to stand up for their rights.
Except for the labor unions part, it doesn’t sound too different from the financial freedom movement, does it?
Those of us who are seeking financial freedom envision a life beyond working a 9-to-5. We want to be able to enjoy our lives without stressing about micromanaging bosses or overbearing managers. We want time to explore our passions and be there for our friends and families.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How Does the Anti-Work Movement Relate to the Great Resignation?
As I mentioned above, the Great Resignation is a phenomenon in which millions of Americans have quit their jobs since the spring of 2021. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 48 million people voluntarily left their jobs in 2021.
Some of the employees who quit during the Great Resignation have done so as part of the anti-work movement. And many of them share screenshots of their resignation emails in the anti-work subreddit.
However, not all of those who have voluntarily left their jobs in the last year have done so because they share the anti-work ethos. Roughly half of parents who quit reported that, with schools and daycare facilities shut due to COVID, they left their jobs to take care of the kids.
But the majority of folks who quit did so because they felt their pay was too low and they had too few opportunities for advancement.
As more Americans quit, it created a worker shortage. This gave job seekers more bargaining power for better pay, better hours, and better benefits.
And most of the folks who left during the Great Resignation have since found new jobs. According to Pew Research, 56% of workers who switched jobs last year report earning more money, having more opportunities for growth and promotion, and enjoying more flexibility.
Is the Anti-Work Movement the Way to Financial Freedom?
Although the anti-work movement certainly has its noble points—I believe every employee should be entitled to good pay, flexibility, and a work-life balance that tips toward the “life” side—you don’t need to ascribe to this ideology to achieve financial freedom.
In fact, for many, the path to financial freedom involves working even more now so you can enjoy a work-free life later. A lot of people on the quest for financial independence take on side hustles and start their own businesses or passive income streams. Then they retire early and live the good life without worrying about money.
However, for some folks, financial freedom looks an awful lot like the post-COVID anti-work idea of working only enough to make ends meet. They might be perfectly happy just to live in an area with a low cost of living, trim their expenses, and work only a part-time gig.
Remember, how you define financial freedom is extremely personal and unique to you.
The Bottom Line
The COVID pandemic has changed the anti-work movement from a fringe left-wing ideology close to its historical anarchist, socialist, and communist roots to a mainstream movement that advocates for better working conditions and a more clearly defined boundary between a person’s work life and personal life.
As for me, I left the 9-to-5 workforce more than 10 years ago and have worked remotely as a freelance writer and editor ever since. Although I hustle really hard and often work long hours, I still have the flexibility to enjoy my hobbies and spend quality time with my family.
I’m also saving up and planning to make lifestyle changes soon so in the next few years I can work less and enjoy living full-time at our cabin in the mountains.
Maybe then I, too, can bang on the drum all day.