In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin shared his daily routine. He began each morning by asking himself, “What good shall I do this day?”
Nearly three years into a pandemic, many people are burnt out. Prolonged periods of uncertainty made many professionals re-examine their lives and jobs. Record numbers of workers are asking themselves the question Franklin posed and finding that their work lacks meaning. Many are leaving their jobs in search of greener pastures. In January 2022, a record number of 4.3 million people resigned from their positions. In 2021, 53% of people who quit their jobs changed their occupation or field of work entirely.
“We're conditioned to this achievement orientation and climbing the highest rungs of the corporate ladder,” says Lynne Andersson, associate professor of human resource management and assistant director of the Executive DBA Program. “So we forget what purpose is, sometimes.”
Being critical of work, or, in some circles being part of the ‘anti-work’ movement, is nothing new. Critiques of unnecessary human labor are found as early as in Ancient Greece. Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin said, “If every man and woman would work for four hours each day on something useful, that labor would produce sufficient to procure all the necessaries and comforts of life."
Members of the anti-work movement, which has roots in anarchist and socialist economic critique, argue that the bulk of today’s jobs aren't necessary and deprive workers of the full value of their output. But that does not mean that there should be no work. Supporters of the anti-work movement believe that people should self-organize and work only as much as needed, rather than putting in long hours to create excess capital or goods.
The popular anti-work subreddit (/r/antiwork) aided in the 2021 Kellogg’s strike, where 1,400 workers went on strike for two months. The strike ended after union workers voted to approve a new five-year labor contract.
Expressions of frustration and anti-work sentiment are happening around the world. For example, in 2021, the ‘lying flat’ movement took off in China. After an app developer realized that work had become his life, he quit his job in order to take a break from relentless work. This is the idea behind ‘lying flat,’ or tang ping in Chinese.
“Capitalism came down with a hammer on these people,” says Andersson. “Instead of ‘rest is resistance,’ they’re saying ‘lying flat is justice’ and I love that.”
"We so often use our labor to make the most money we can, it can be hard to take a step back and ask yourself the bigger questions about what we might want, how we might contribute and find meaning.”
But that is one way that the modern professional can ‘work with purpose’–a theme that this issue of On The Verge is exploring and what many are searching for in their 9-to-5 careers.
Finding work that you are passionate about or working together with others in order to achieve a larger goal is one way to combat burnout and achieve increased levels of satisfaction in your job. Decades of research from the Fox School and beyond show that pursuing extrinsic rewards for work, such as money, can negatively impact interest and motivation in that work. For real satisfaction, workers should pursue intrinsic goals.
Another way workers find or create meaning in their work is to band together, according to Andersson. Many anti-work activists and scholars underscore the importance of unionizing to ensure fair treatment at work.
Andersson is critical of the anti-union sentiment of many corporations and applauds workers who have joined together to improve working conditions. At major corporations like Starbucks and Amazon, baristas, warehouse workers and delivery drivers lobbied for better work conditions—ones they could have greater control over.
“Join or start a union,” she says. “We are so much more potent in our collectivity. The most potent things that have happened in the anti-work movement are these collective walkouts and strikes. We have to think collectively across class. We need each other.”
This article originally ran in On the Verge, the Fox School’s flagship research publication. To check out the full issue of On The Verge: Business With Purpose, click here.