Penny’s cousin had been telling her for years that work was a conspiracy. She’d send Penny links about how working from morning to night, day in and day out, was an outdated byproduct of industrialization—a system designed for the purpose of extracting as much value as possible from laborers on the assembly line. She’d make the case that in an ideal world, no one would need to work to survive.
“She used to say to me how she was anti how hard I worked at my job,” Penny said. Penny, a 26-year-old copywriter from the UK who asked that we use a pseudonym for privacy reasons, brushed it aside. She was in her early 20s, a self-described “type A” personality at the start of an exciting career at a creative agency.
By the time she was 25, however, her relationship with work started to unravel. She felt unsupported at her job, where she’d put in long hours with little recognition from her managers. “Being good at my job, I was rewarded with—drum-roll—even more work,” she said.
Then the pandemic hit. With business slowing down and a lot of free time to fill, Penny took up sewing as a hobby and started using Reddit to look up tips and tricks. Logging on to her main feed, she began seeing recommended posts from one of the site’s fastest-growing subreddits: r/antiwork. There, she saw users give voice to thoughts she thought she’d been alone in having, like how absurd it was to continue giving your all to a job that doesn’t give back what you are putting in.
It sounded a lot like what her cousin had been trying to tell her. But it wasn’t until she stumbled upon a random meme on the forum—a grainy image of a man applying clown makeup—that everything clicked: “Maybe if I work hard / Go above and beyond / Never use sick or vacation days / The company will notice and appreciate,” the caption read.
She saw herself in the clown. “It was a never-ending loop of just trying to get more output out of me rather than being genuinely invested in my career and growth,” she said of her job.
There are two sides to the antiwork community. Some people are saying, ‘We shouldn't have to work at all’ and other people are saying that work just should be better.”—Penny, r/antiwork member
A few months after joining r/antiwork, Penny told her boss she was quitting. She’d been asking her employer for more support, like hiring another employee who could help shoulder her workload; instead, she was offered a pay rise and more responsibilities. “I realized the answer was to move on rather than put up with it,” she said. “If I hadn't seen the antiwork stuff, I would have kept pushing for promotions.” Since going freelance and setting her own schedule, she said, she will often turn to the subreddit to remind herself she’s not alone in pursuing a life that isn’t dominated by work.
r/antiwork, which describes itself as “a subreddit for those who want to end work, are curious about ending work, [and] want to get the most out of a work-free life,” has become something of a meme itself during the pandemic. It recently cracked 1.4 million members, up from 13,000 in 2019, and currently ranks among the top subscribed-to subreddits on the site, nearly double the size of r/careerguidance.
A large part of this is due to the subreddit going viral in October, after a warehouse worker posted a screenshot of the text they sent to their boss quitting their job—setting off an avalanche of quitting texts from other users. Publications like The New York Times and Slate drew parallels between the subreddit and the unprecedented number of Americans who have quit their jobs this year, mostly in the service, healthcare, and technology sectors. And in its annual roundup, Reddit dubbed r/antiwork the “poster child of the Great Resignation,” a catch-all term for the current wave of workers leaving or switching jobs, though in reality, it’s a complex phenomenon that can mean very different things for different workers.
Antiwork—also known as the refusal of work—is nothing new. It’s a radical political philosophy with roots in Marxism and anarchism, developed by a handful of 20th and 21st-century thinkers united by a vision of a society where people no longer have to work—though they often diverge on what that society looks like, or how to get there. Members of r/antiwork describe themselves as “Idlers,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the “idle hands” the Puritans feared. The subreddit started in 2013 as a quiet corner of the internet to discuss radical leftist ideas about ending work, but over the past two years, it has become a release valve for people all over the world looking to vent about bad bosses, ask for support in leaving their jobs, or simply share memes to pass the time.
The influx of new members and media attention has led to a novel set of tensions within the group. Palpable in the lengthy discussions about the merits of universal basic income and mass striking is a kind of culture clash between the long-time Idlers and new recruits, those who came to the subreddit out of an interest in anti-capitalist politics and those simply looking for advice on drawing boundaries, asking for more money, or gearing up for a career change.
“There are two sides to the antiwork community,” Penny said. “Some people are saying, ‘We shouldn't have to work at all’ and other people are saying that work just should be better.” The momentum around the subreddit raises a question familiar to many grassroots organizers: When you realize the system is deeply broken, do you try to change it or find a way to exist within it?
In many ways, anti-work is less of a movement than a loose set of principles that individuals can apply to their lives in small ways that add up to a personal form of protest. On r/antiwork, Idlers spend a lot of time discussing tactics workers can use to slack off, cheat, sabotage, and steal from their employers in an act of defiance. It’s not all especially heady: One recent post tells people to use the restroom while at work, so that they “poop on company time.” Earlier this year, a user reminded the subreddit that April 15th is Steal Something From Work Day.
More recently, the ethos of employee subterfuge has spilled over into attempts at organizing. In November, the subreddit’s moderators lent their support to a Black Friday boycott, encouraging members to skip out on the shopping in favor of spending time with family. This was a scaled-back compromise after an initial proposal—for a general strike in solidarity with retail and hospitality workers—catapulted users into a heated debate about whether such a move would affect any real change. (The moderators eventually concluded that it would be too dangerous to organize at such short notice and without substantial resources.) There have also been incidents of anti-work mischief online. Earlier this month, after Kellogg’s announced it would be hiring people to replace striking workers, posts appeared on the subreddit encouraging people to spam the cereal manufacturer’s job portal with bogus applications, overloading the company’s recruiters.
The beating heart of r/antiwork is its well-stocked virtual library of books, essays, and articles critiquing work. There are links to canonical sociological texts, like Karl Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital; Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness, and Paul Lafargue’s The Right to be Lazy. There are also modern texts from “post-work thinkers,” such as Devon Price, (the author of Laziness Does Not Exist), David Graeber (Bullshit Jobs), Kathi Weeks (The Problem with Work), and David Frayne (The Refusal of Work).
Ann Hubbard, a 56-year-old retail worker and card-carrying member of the Communist Party, can’t remember exactly how long she’s been on r/antiwork, but long enough to remember what it was like before it went viral. Like many of the long-time Idlers VICE spoke with for this story, she found it after frequenting other lefty corners of Reddit—in her case, r/LateStageCapitalism, billed as a “One-Stop-Shop for Evidence of our Social, Moral and Ideological Rot.” Hubbard describes herself as “so far left I got my guns back,” a phrase used by the pro-gun, anti-fascist leftwing.
There was no singular moment that made Hubbard question whether the concept of earning one’s living was a fair system; rather, it was death by a thousand cuts. She recalls being in third grade and learning about the specialization of labor. The teacher gave an example of how a cobbler can only make one shoe a day, but a factory could use a production line to make 20. “I said, ‘Wouldn't that be boring?’” she remembers.
When she finally entered the workforce, she found that work wasn’t so much boring as it was devastatingly inequitable. Five years ago, she was working as a history teacher in Virginia when her mother was diagnosed with dementia and she had to leave her position to care for her full-time. Unable to keep up with her payments, Hubbard ended up losing her home. After her mother died, shortly before the pandemic, she struggled to find a new teaching position. Eventually, she found a weekend position at a retail store, though she said she is barely getting by.
“You're not worth anything if you don't generate revenue. It's very, very stressful to know that you're not valued by society.”—Ann Hubbard, r/antiwork member
For Hubbard, the problem with work is clear: “You're not worth anything if you don't generate revenue,” she said. “It's very, very stressful to know that you're not valued by society.” On r/antiwork, she’s found a supportive community who, for the most part, agree with her diagnosis. There, she can vent about scant job prospects, help others, and nerd out about alternatives, like forcing corporations to be profit-sharing.
As r/antiwork has grown in size, some long-time Idlers have bemoaned an influx of “liberals”—people with more moderate, reformist ideas on work that people like Hubbard don’t necessarily see as compatible with anticapitalism. One post, titled “Don't let this sub become liberal,” has over 3,500 upvotes. “Seen a bunch of crap around lately like ‘all we want is fair pay and benefits,’” the post reads. “No. This sub has always been about actually reducing the amount of time we spend working and being in control of our own labour; controlling the means of production.” There’s even a meme about old antiwork v new.
“There has definitely been a shift,” Hubbard said. For one thing, she’s noticed a lot more memes on the site lately, especially ones about better benefits and pay raises. “I have nothing against memes—they’re fun!” Hubbard said. “But they tend to still be pro-capitalist. I try to explain, there's no such thing as benevolent capitalism.”
Ever since the Industrial Revolution gave us our current system of work as waged labor, writers and thinkers have been fantasizing about freedom from work—or at least fighting to help us do less of it. Karl Marx envisioned a communist utopia in which man would be free to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner”—free to follow his passions without being forced to pick a niche. Later, 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes’ predicted that his grandkids would be working 15-hour weeks.
A group of “post-work” scholars writing today, some of whom actively engage in r/antiwork, have expanded on these ideas to challenge everything we’ve ever been taught about paid labor—from the value we put on it as a source of personal meaning and identity, to the idea that we necessarily need to “work for a living” at all. As Kathi Weeks, author of The Problem with Work and professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies at Duke University, puts it: “The ‘post’ in ‘post-work’ is not meant to be descriptive or a blueprint, but rather to signal something that's radically different.” At its core, post-work asks: Can we reimagine our world so that we work less? Anti-work goes one step further: Could we stop working altogether?
Historian Benjamin Hunnicutt, whose books are linked in the r/antiwork library, points out that work’s centrality in modern society, and our lives, is a historical outlier. “For 300 years, we've had this unusual thing of work as an end [unto] itself,” Hunnicutt said. “Over the large arch of history, dating back to the Greeks, the Romans, and the Middle Ages in Western history, leisure was the basis of culture.” It wasn’t until the 16th century, when the Reformation gave rise to the Protestant work ethic, that many people began to see work as a way to bring oneself closer to God. The religious aspect faded, he explained, but the faith in hard work persisted, eventually evolving into the spirit of capitalism.
Weeks, the Duke professor, attributes the sudden, widespread interest in r/antiwork to the pandemic, which brought issues to the fore that had been beneath the surface for years—chief among them dangerous working conditions, precarious employment arrangements, and wage stagnation, but also harder-to-quantify problems, like dissatisfaction and disengagement. She likened the impact of COVID-19 on people’s working lives—an estimated 25 million Americans either lost work or had their hours cut—to “being thrown from the moving train.” Some of them, as a result, became interested in more radical alternatives. “People made a very different kind of calculation about what they were willing to put up with once they got a bit of critical distance from their employment situation,” she said.
The Refusal of Work author David Frayne, who works as a researcher at Cambridge University, also sees the Reddit forum’s growth as a reflection of the need for change. “Work has such a total grip on many people's lives out of material necessity—we're either working or worrying about work,” he said. His hope is that movements like r/antiwork will channel these frustrations into tangible goals. “I’m in favor of policies that can just crack open a little space for people to think differently,” he said.
Two of the potential solutions he names—universal basic income and a shorter work week—certainly seem a lot less far-fetched in 2021 than they did in years past. UBI pilot programs are being run in the US cities of Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as Wales in the UK, and Lee Jae-myung, South Korea’s leading presidential candidate, has UBI as his top campaign priority. Persuasive arguments for working fewer hours, including ones focusing on the potential environmental benefits, have prompted four-day workweek trials in Spain, Scotland, and Ireland.
Whether the members of a giant group like r/antiwork could come together and rally around a policy like UBI is unclear. In both posts on the subreddit and interviews with VICE, some members said they see UBI as a desirable—and indeed, achievable—solution. Others said they opposed it because it requires the government to have control over people’s income. And while some Idlers would like to see the energy behind r/antiwork translate to direct action, others seem to think of it more as an educational resource than anything else. As one moderator, Victor, put it to me, “Revolution starts in our minds and in our personal lives.”
While there is no hierarchy between the r/antiwork mods, one of them has played a significant role in building it into the behemoth it is today. In 2014, Doreen Ford was writing a blog about radical alternatives to work—AbolishWork.com, which takes its name from a seminal 1985 essay by the reclusive post-left anarchist writer Bob Black—when the creator of a small Reddit forum with about 300 members asked her to be a moderator. “Everybody thinks I started it because I've been there so long,” she said.
Ford’s dream of a world without work came as much from her anarchist politics as it did from lived experience. “A lot of people presume I just read Bob Black’s Abolition of Work,” Ford said. “No, I started working at a local grocery/RX retailer and I decided, ‘Wow, this really sucks’. It was a very intuitive reaction.”
In 2016, two years into her involvement with r/antiwork, Ford made a move towards living a life more in line with her ideals. After a decade working in retail, she quit her full-time job to work with animals. She now earns a living as a dog-walker, which she does part-time, supplementing her income with funds from her Patreon and the occasional pet-sitting gig. “It’s the best ‘career move’ I ever made,” she said to me over Zoom, minding a cat. “Pet-sitting is the easiest job I’ve done. Dog-walking is physically demanding, but I love it.”
Ford is autistic, which she says makes it tough for her to work a full-time job. And though her current wages barely cover her Boston rent, she said she doesn’t see her decision to pursue work/life balance over income as a lifestyle choice; it’s an act of resistance.
“I think we can radicalize them. It's not something we will push on them, but I hope that over time they will recognize these problems we’re seeing are inherent to our capitalist economic system.”—Victor, r/antiwork moderator
As the subreddit grew, more moderators took up the call. One, a 29-year-old from Austria who goes by the name Daisy on the internet, googled their way there in 2017 following a string of frustrating experiences in the service sector. “I was burning out as a replaceable cog in the machine,” they told VICE. “One day, I couldn't take it any longer and just stopped showing up.”
Though they hoped to work as little as possible, they eventually had to take on a part-time job as a cashier, and recently sold their car for extra cash. “In a society and culture fine-tuned for work, it’s more of a daily challenge than a consistent lifestyle,” Daisy said of trying to live by their anti-work ideals. “There’s always a bit of a gap between ‘what is’ and how I’d like to live my life.”
Moderators spend most of their time removing off-topic comments, trying to calm down inflammatory threads, and banning trolls. They also talk a lot about how to run the subreddit in an anti-work way. There’s no “top mod,” decisions are made by consensus, and, beyond enforcing the rules of the subreddit (no trolling, no politicians or CEOs, no alt-right content), moderators don’t deliver any directives. Kevin McKenzie, a 33-year-old moderator from South Carolina, said the aim is to foster an environment where users can come to their own conclusions rather than be told what to think or do. “In our current work culture, there's a governing body and then there's a subordinate body,” he said. “We don't want that to reflect in the sub itself.”
While the subreddit is more narrow in its specific focus on work, there are parallels to the Occupy Wall Street movement, chiefly in r/antiwork’s leaderless structure and intellectual foundations. (David Graeber, the late anthropologist who wrote the 2018 book Bullshit Jobs about the psychological and social harm of meaningless work, was such a central figure in Occupy that he’s often miscredited as coming up with its “We are the 99%” slogan.)
And while anti-work is already ruffling feathers in the financial establishment—Goldman Sachs recently published an article stating that r/antiwork poses a long-run risk to labor force participation—experts say the movement runs a similar risk of getting so bogged down in debate about what its own aims should be that it never ends up producing much in the way of concrete change. As such, Hunnicutt, the historian, says he has mixed feelings about the subreddit. “The anti-work folks are doing a valuable service in the sense that they’re bringing the topic alive,” he said. “Then again, [r/antiwork] may radicalize things and make the possibility of seeing eye-to-eye difficult.”
Victor told VICE that he was especially concerned by the revelation, in a recent survey, that a third of the site’s user base identifies not as anarchists or communists but as social democrats or progressives. Like Hubbard, he worries that this signals the group is leaning more moderate. “I think we can radicalize them,” he said. “It's not something we will push on them, but I hope that over time they will recognize these problems we’re seeing are inherent to our capitalist economic system.”
Ford said that while she’d prefer the group to stay focused on radical ideas, she’s come to accept that the message will get diluted. “If all people get out of it is a need to rethink their own relationship to work, I'd be happy with that,” she said. “It’s not the core of anti-work, but a byproduct of it that we certainly do want.”
Whatever that reconsideration may entail for any given Idler, one thing’s for sure: Even for the most passionate anti-work activists, there is no escape from work itself. According to a survey by one of the moderators, the majority of its members still work full-time jobs, with unemployed people and students comprising less than 10 percent of the community. Like the subreddit’s own tagline—“Unemployment for all, not just the rich”—it’s a reminder that most people cannot yet exit the system of working and still get by.
Still, congregating with a bunch of strangers on the internet and talking about the grip work has on people’s psyches seems to help. Ford tells me that as thrilled as she is to see the subreddit grow, that’s not what ultimately keeps her going. “The best thing I will ever get out of the subreddit is one individual saying to me, ‘I don’t feel insane anymore,’” she said. “I feel like I'm not crazy for thinking that my job sucks and that this isn't just a ‘me’ problem, it's a systemic problem.”
Since quitting her job and going freelance, Penny says she feels like she finally has some breathing room. She still tends to go the extra mile on projects—but now it’s mostly on her own terms. “It's not the default to do 3 hours extra work because that's what you need to do to get ahead anymore,” she said. And though she doesn’t post much, she’s still on r/antiwork most days and sends screenshots of her favorite memes to friends. “It definitely has the power to change individuals’ lives,” she said. “It changed my life.”
Hubbard, the former teacher, has also been finding something meaningful in her time on the sub. Lately, she’s made it her mission to try to guide newbies back to the subreddit’s original purpose. “When people come on and talk about how it helped inspire them to get a better job, that’s great,” she said. We still have to live, we still have to work. I will gently point out to people, though, that even if you have a nice boss, and they're treating you well, they're still stealing your labor.”