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.
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
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.
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.
“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
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?
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.”
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.”
“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