A record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September, accounting for 3 percent of the workforce. That’s the highest quit rate since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping track in 2000 and the latest sign that the “Great Resignation” is not slowing down.
The past two years have pushed many people to re-evaluate how they spend their days, especially in a U.S. work culture long marked by its long hours, sparse vacation days, and stingy benefits compared with what workers enjoy in other developed countries. Even those lucky enough to work from home are burning out. It’s no wonder then that people telling their bosses to “take this job and shove it” have become aspirational heroes, as evidenced by the sudden ubiquity of the viral resignation text.
The main source of these messages is the r/antiwork forum on Reddit, a magnet for the overworked and underappreciated employees of America. Screenshots of people quitting their jobs over text have taken over the internet in recent weeks, with pieces in the New York Times, Vice, and elsewhere lauding the subreddit’s ethos of rejecting drudgery. All this sudden attention has come as a surprise to the moderators, who insist the community is not just about hating your boss but also working toward a future without bosses, period.
Since the start of the pandemic, the r/antiwork community on Reddit has grown from about 100,000 subscribers to more than 1 million, largely based on the popularity of these screenshots. There’s the worker quitting telling a boss “go fuck yourself” after being pressured to pick up a shift while mourning a parent’s death. Another person gets berated for sitting down at work, despite having a doctor’s note, and decides to quit instead. Another texts his resignation rather than miss Thanksgiving with his family.
“Unfortunately, it’s happening too much,” said Doreen Ford, a founding moderator of the subreddit, who said she was forced to restrict resignation texts to Sundays so they don’t crowd out everything else. “I mean, antiwork isn’t just telling your boss to go fuck off.”
Ford has been running r/antiwork for seven years after starting it with a friend who later dropped out. Other moderators have since joined the team, but she remains the main force behind the subreddit and said she was astonished by how quickly it grew at the onset of the pandemic. As workplaces floundered with remote work arrangements or failed to enforce mask mandates and social distancing, more and more people turned to the subreddit as a place to vent their frustrations.
Ford—who also uses the online pseudonym Doreen Cleyre, a nod to the legendary American anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre—worked a series of “miserable” retail jobs for a decade and said she fully understands how soul-crushing most work can be. Now 30, she pays the bills as a dog walker and dog sitter in Boston, which she said is much better for her mental health than working with people. She also said the name of the subreddit is quite intentional: Those who have built it into the thriving community it is today don’t just want to improve working conditions, they want to fundamentally change the system so people have the ability to work less, or not at all.
As r/antiwork has grown, many longstanding members of the subreddit have complained loudly about recent recruits who seem not to appreciate the larger ideological project. “The subreddit is antiwork, not reformwork. We’re not liberals, a capitalist ideology. We’re leftists, anti-capitalists, and we want to abolish all work,” reads a representative post.
Ford said despite that tension, the antiwork movement is a big tent, and some of the most rewarding moments come from new people finding out through the subreddit that they can ask for raises, say no to unreasonable requests, or simply walk away. One of the most popular posts from the past month is an announcement from someone about their decision to focus on woodworking rather than spend more time at a dead-end job.
“My favorite thing about the community is seeing people saying, ‘Hey, this subreddit really helped me. It helped me realize that I’m not crazy,’ ” she said.
Of course, there’s also the vicarious thrill of seeing people sticking it to The Man in whatever way possible, like a recent post by someone describing how they automated a data entry job and collected pay checks for five years without lifting a finger. There is no way to verify how many of the stories are true, but their veracity is less important than the catharsis they offer. All victories, big and small, are celebrated equally on the subreddit.
Whether the sub’s popularity signifies a long-term shift in U.S. work culture is still an open question. Pandemic-driven changes and the ongoing labor crunch have given workers a rare opportunity to negotiate a better deal for themselves, but there is still “a lot of uncertainty about what things are permanent and what things are transitory,” said Harvard labor economist Lawrence Katz.
“I think a lot of employers are holding out thinking they’re going to get the old bargain back,” said Katz.
Even if the favorable economic conditions giving people the ability to turn down crappy jobs swing back in the other direction, the shift in attitudes could last longer. Devon Price, a social psychologist and author of Laziness Does Not Exist, says “the culture is changing rapidly, and dramatically.”
He says the obsession with work and productivity in the U.S. goes back to the Puritans and that over the centuries, it’s helped to justify colonialism, slavery, and the gutting of social supports for vulnerable populations. Living through a once-in-a-century pandemic, however, has exposed the hollowness of that belief system, and many people are exploring new ways of existing in the world that don’t center work.
“In spaces like r/antiwork, people are encouraging one another to take a stand against labor exploitation and hustle culture in their workplaces, and giving one another both the confidence and the tools to do so, and that’s not something I’ve seen on this scale ever in my lifetime,” said Price.
Price encourages everyone to find ways to reclaim their time at work and away, but stresses that there’s always more power in collective action.
“Even if you don’t have the power to walk out of a bad job in a dramatic blaze of glory, you do have the power to join forces with other workers,” he said.
That’s a lesson that Ford says is at the heart of r/antiwork, where many members are currently promoting “Blackout Black Friday,” a day of action around the busiest shopping day of the year. It started as a push for a general strike, but those ambitions have been scaled back in recent days. The focus has now shifted to promoting the relatively humble goal of a consumer boycott instead, an acknowledgement that “it’s very dangerous to organize a strike with such little notice,” said Ford. Even convincing people not to shop on Black Friday will be a test of the subreddit’s influence, raising the question of whether an online community of proud quitters and slackers can translate its online chatter into political action, but Ford said that is the ultimate goal.
“It’s all about individual empowerment leading to collective empowerment.”
Nov. 18, 2021: This article was updated to better describe Doreen Ford’s role in the antiwork subreddit.