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#Antiwork: Why young people feel increasingly at odds with the workplace

Many young people think the workplace no longer delivers for them. Credit: Adobe Stock

#Antiwork: Why young people feel increasingly at odds with the workplace

In 2021, unprecedented numbers of people left their jobs in what was dubbed the “great resignation” or the “big quit” in the US.

One year later, with the cost-of-living crisis, inflation at record highs and strikes in the railway industry and possibly across other parts of the public sector, many are asking the question, what is working worth?

Across social media, there has been a growing sentiment of anti-work as the #antiwork hashtag has garnered over 100 million views on TikTok and popular Reddit has been compared to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The movement has many different fractures, from some calling for better working conditions, and stronger unions to the more radical ideas of the abolition of work altogether. While the movement was previously a fringe idea rooted in anarchist and socialist economic critique, it saw great new heights during the work crises of Covid-19. 

According to Amelia Horgan, author of Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism, the pandemic was a big driving force in leading more people into the anti-work ideology.

“The pandemic did two things,” she says. “Firstly, it made quite starkly obvious the relations of power in the workplace that can be more easily occluded in ‘normal times’. Secondly, it gave some portions of the population a bit of breathing room to reassess their relationship to their job.”

Young people are often at the losing end of the rhetoric around anti-work with Gen Z job-hopping showing that the current youth are more likely to change jobs more often than any other generation.

Yet the truth is, anti-work sentiment is very cyclical and comes in many different forms, from the 70s hippie to the 90s slacker, and now this young generation who have traded skateboards and psychedelics for social media.

Reports show that 56 per cent of Gen Z and 55 per cent of millennials would leave their jobs if it got in the way of their personal lives, or wouldn’t accept it in the first place if they had issues with the company’s social or environmental politics.

However, despite the interest in creating better work environments, fewer young people are looking at the traditional routes to improve their working lives, namely joining trade unions.

Meg is a 21-year-old student and bartender, who has mostly been in minimum wage service jobs since she began working. She has become increasingly disillusioned.

“I thought there'd be of a sense of community around it but everywhere you go, everyone is miserable,” she says. “We're living in these awful conditions just to have to work like cattle. We need to change but we can't do that until the workplace has changed.”

BetterThanZero is an organisation in Scotland that targets exploitative bosses and supports workers against zero-hour contracts and other precarious working conditions.

Amy Tait Westwell is an education worker and BetterThanZero activist.

She says: “Unions can suffer as the economy shifts and new sectors and forms of work emerge that don't yet have strong unions, that's why it's so important that all young workers are offered education and support in the practice of organising for control in their workplace so that they can develop collective strength with their colleagues.”

Ultimately, anti-work comes from a great disappointment and disillusionment with the current conditions. With unattainable house prices, steady increases in student loans and an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis, many feel like there is no reward even after doing everything right. And that there is no way out.

“Many people are in jobs that make them unhappy and stressed,” Tait Westwell says. “For some people, the pandemic exacerbated that, for others, it gave them some time to reflect on how work affected them. People began to think more seriously about how they could live a better quality of life, and a lot of that came down to work.” 

So what is the solution? The anti-work movement continues to gain global momentum and more and more people are considering taking action against working conditions amid the cost-of-living crisis.

The consequences of poor working cultures and conditions is already being seen from the UK’s own “summer of strikes” and if change is not felt by workers who feel undervalued and overlooked, then these strikes may become a feature of all seasons.

Amal Abdi is a freelance journalist based in London and Edinburgh. She is taking part in the Pass the Mic initiative, which seeks to promote more women of colour in the media.

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