Kevin McKenzie used to work six days a week at a South Carolina bar — on his only day off, he says, he was required to return to work to water the plants. So you could say he intimately understands why a rash of text screenshots depicting workers quitting their jobs after being outrageously mistreated has gone viral. And why, post-peak-pandemic, people have been flocking to the source of those much-shared screenshots: the antiwork subreddit, for which he is a moderator.
Some highlights from r/antiwork include: A boss trying to guilt-trip an employee into working on their day off by bragging that said employee got a week off when their spouse died; an employer threatening a worker’s health insurance if they didn’t cover for another employee; a person who gets axed for not coming back to work during vacation — the hits keep coming.
But the subreddit is not all grievances. As the official description says, it’s a resource for people who “want to end work, are curious about ending work, want to get the most out of a work-free life, want more information on anti-work ideas, and want personal help with their own jobs/work-related struggles.” And it’s been blowing up during the Covid-19 pandemic, during which many have found the space and time to reevaluate their lives outside the constant grind.
For eight years, the subreddit has had a modest following, but over the past few months, its membership has increased sevenfold as the U.S. undergoes what folks are calling the Great Resignation: a mass exodus of workers fed up with bad treatment and worse pay. New users seem to be lured in by texts with screenshots of employees telling their bosses to fuck off in deeply satisfying ways. Last year at this time, the board had 175,000 “idlers,” according to moderator Doreen Ford; r/antiwork folks refer to themselves as idlers, a dig at what Protestants would call “idle hands.” At press time, r/antiwork has more than 700,000 members and is on track to break 1 million by the end of the year.
“This is bonkers,” Ford, a 30-year-old dog walker in Boston, tells Rolling Stone. “We never really thought anything like this would happen. I’ve never been a part of something so successful in my life.”
i've just discovered r/antiwork
inject all of this into my veins pic.twitter.com/SFGZASLssv
— travis (@TravisShreffler) October 17, 2021
The concept of being anti-work, however, is far from new — and it’s not really about not working. According to McKenzie, anti-work has long been embraced by anarchists, communists, and radicals of all stripes. Kathi Weeks, associate professor of women’s studies at Duke University and author of 2011’s The Problem with Work, explains that it’s not directed specifically at certain jobs, but, rather, at the power difference between workers and employers.
“[Anti-work] identifies a fundamental inadequacy and sweeping problem with paid work as a system of income allocation,” she tells Rolling Stone. “That’s supposed to be how it works: Workers give up control over their own labor and receive income. But that system is broken by unemployment, underemployment, nonliving-wage employment, employment discrimination by race, gender, disability, citizenship, age, and more. The problem is not this or that job, but the present organization of waged work.”
Weeks says the anti-work ethos has taken off in recent months due, in part, to the pandemic. According to the Labor Department, a record 4.3 million people quit this past August, many of whom worked in food service and retail. “The pandemic forced many workers out of jobs, and it would seem that many are unwilling to accept the employment terms being offered — with their low wages, intensified work rates, and long hours,” Weeks says. “They have had a taste of freedom from a life reduced to working and trying to recover from it in order to go back and do it all again, and from the control that employers have over so much of our waking life.”
McKenzie, 33, who is working as a bartender as he gets his master’s in social work at the University of South Carolina, agrees. “I think we all kind of took that time to kind of get away from the lifestyle that we’ve been kind of indoctrinated into, [where our] lives were revolving around work,” he says. “We got to partake in our hobbies. We got to be with our family. We got to do all these things that kind of make us feel like people. I think that kind of opened up a lot of people’s eyes toward this philosophy that, you know, hey, maybe our lives shouldn’t have to revolve around work.”
Hence the influx of idlers. “The support has been growing because there were a couple of viral posts that revolved around people quitting [their jobs] via text, stuff like that. And I think that resonated a lot with people,” McKenzie says. “I think the general displeasure with working, as a whole, and not feeling fulfilled and feeling stressed and feeling all those types of feelings that go into day-to-day life on our capitalistic-style government, I think just resonated with people. … We all kind of have this fantasy of ending employment where you didn’t feel valued.”
McKenzie and Ford both note that there has been some speculation on the board about the veracity of the text screenshots, but Ford doesn’t really care if some are fabricated. “I don’t think it matters whether they’re real or not,” she says. “I think the fact that people can believe it, the fact that people can see that and go, ‘Well, that’s not outlandish. I could see that happening to someone in the U.S.,’ I think that’s what matters.”
Seven hundred thousand idlers and counting is certainly a movement, but as the pandemic continues to abate and more and more people return to work, and unfavorable positions, it remains to be seen if real action will manifest in the physical world. Ford is hopeful, pointing to a rash of worker strikes going down this month that have earned the nickname Striketober. “A lot of the subreddit is for education and awareness,” she says. “I don’t have anything against people turning it into something concrete, specific — a strike or a direct-action call or something like that. I would love that stuff. It seems like at this point it’s inevitable.”