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Lying Flat and the Great Resignation
In April of this year, a 31-year-old Chinese millennial named Luo Huazhong posted, “Lying flat is justice” on one of China’s most popular social media platforms. He wanted a simpler life, with less possessions, less responsibility, and less income. This was his reaction to his country’s extreme work culture, characterized by the term “996.” That moniker implies that people should strive to work from 9am to 9pm, six days week.
The Chinese Communist Party has promoted this hard work ethic for decades as the pathway for professional advancement and personal fulfillment. But housing prices are climbing, wages are stagnating, and providing for a family is becoming unaffordable. Many Chinese millennials are opting to “lie flat”, rejecting the importance of a traditional career, a family, or material possessions.
Thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean, a similar phenomenon is growing in America, with discontent as its roots and COVID as its catalyst. It’s called “The Great Resignation.” Fifty five percent of American workers report they are planning to change jobs in the next year, and most among them are Gen Zers and Millennials. So what is this a reaction to? China has 996, and American has “Hustle Culture.”
What’s “Hustle Culture”?
Dedication to hard work in America is as old as our country itself. Remember the “Puritan work ethic” brought by early immigrants that you learned about in history class? Hustle culture is the modern embodiment of that, but with a few twists.
Hustle Culture is the glorification of overwork, of being always busy, always working, putting in extra hours and not taking breaks. You might also recognize terms like “rise and grind” or “#hustle.” Always “hustling” turns work into a lifestyle. It encourages people to boast about their long hours and pro-work attitude on social media, promoting work for the sake of work, where every aspect of one’s life is redirected towards productivity.
Behind this facade is the reality that the people promoting the love of the rat race are those who stand to benefit the most – the bosses, the owners, the investors. Most of the people who are doing most of the ‘grinding’ get little more than this false sense of accomplishment that comes from engaging in a toxic culture of overwork.
Quitting Hustle Culture
People are quitting or planning to quit their jobs now more than ever before. Job openings are the highest they’ve ever been. It’s possible expanded unemployment benefits from the pandemic recovery are contributing to this. However, people all across the income spectrum – rather than just those on the bottom – are dissatisfied with their jobs and want a change.
This trend is especially potent in millennials and Gen Zers. Almost half are unsatisfied with their work/life balance, and more than half find their jobs tedious and repetitive. They feel separated by busywork from the aspects of their jobs they really enjoy. Over half say they want more flexibility and the ability to work remotely, even prioritizing these over higher pay and job security. They want to work during hours that they feel most productive, instead of in the traditional 9-to-5 office.
COVID Forces Change
The trends leading to the Great Resignation have been building for years, and then COVID hit. Those who transitioned to working from home experienced rising stress and frequent burnout. People who could not work remotely were forced to continue showing up to their jobs. They worked at a fevered pace for poor wages during a global pandemic while their corporate overlords raked in record profits.
This situation has led millions of Americans to ask themselves, “Is this job really worth it?” As jobs pay relatively less and less and people become more disconnected from the aspects of their jobs that they enjoy, people look for fulfillment outside of work.
This is happening across the income spectrum, too. White collar workers working from home discovered they were miserable sitting on their laptops all day in their home offices. They missed the daily connections with coworkers they used to enjoy. Blue collar workers realized that risking their lives in a pandemic while stocking shelves was just not worth the paltry wages they were paid. Millions of people are waking up to realize they would rather work less than continue their current tracks. The promise of endless progress is not playing out.
Seeking health and satisfaction
The Great Resignation flies in the face of the traditional American work ethic. This was the belief that the foundation of our lives’ meaning is found in our work. But that’s the whole point. The people who are quitting en masse do not expect to never return to work again and live off welfare. The pandemic simply gave people a glimpse of how their jobs could be better, and they don’t want to go back.
In large part, people recognized how toxic their work-life imbalance had become. People will continue to work; they just don’t want their careers to consume their lives. The obsession with always being productive, always trying do more than the day before, does not breed healthy minds. Studies show that people who subscribe to the “rise and grind” ethos struggle to enjoy their time off and view leisure as a waste. These people are also more likely to be depressed, anxious, and on their way to burn-out.
Even worse, science has repeatedly demonstrated that working long, stressful hours is detrimental to our physical health as well. Overwork leads to heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, illnesses which also happen to be the top causes of death in America. Our obsession with work is literally killing is.
Building a better workplace
As people return to work, they are demanding jobs that pay them better and treat them more humanely. They don’t want to sacrifice their health and happiness at the altar of dollars. In China, the powers that be certainly see the lying flat trend as dangerous. Internet censors have deleted the original “lying flat” post as well as numerous social media groups devoted to the cause. America lacks such a targeted reaction from the powers that be, but there is no shortage of people who still worship the ‘hustle.’
If the pandemic has proved anything about jobs, it’s that it doesn’t kill businesses to be more flexible and accommodating to their employees. This involves paying people a living wage and not forcing them to work their fingers to the bone for it. Our time is infinitely valuable – we can never make more of it or get it back once we’ve spent it – yet our jobs force us to sell our time for a fraction of its true worth. We justified this trade-off by believing that our jobs gave our lives meaning. If that’s true, what gives our lives meaning when we are not working – when we are young children or after we retire?
The pandemic demolished this erroneous notion and handed power back to workers. People had opportunity to ask themselves what they are passionate about, regardless of how much money that passion makes them. The pandemic disrupted the infinite treadmill of capitalism. People finally realized that they could find meaning, self-worth, and happiness outside of working for money. It demonstrated the radical idea that people have inherent value even when they are not making products or offering services to sell.
This shift does not mean that we will all stop working forever and live off of some magical source of infinite welfare. Lying flat in China or quitting your job in the U.S. is a form a protest, a one-person strike. People don’t strike to get welfare; they strike for better working conditions. By participating in the Great Resignation, it means workers are demanding jobs that foster, rather than threaten, their mental and physical health.