‘Great Resignation’? ‘Quiet Quitting’? If You’re Surprised by America’s Anti-Work Movement, Maybe You Need to Watch More Movies

Yves here. I’m surprised that this post does not mention the grandfather of all work-skeptic productions, The Death of a Salesman, which has been made twice into a movie. But is is a fair point that the exhortations that all good employees be emotionally invested in overproducing, as in working for free are designed to obscure the fact that there’s plenty of tactic and overt resistance.

By Zen Dochterman, Lecturer of Writing, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Originally published in The Conversation

A femme fatale who tries to con thousands through her lover’s insurance company. Jobless bikers on drug-fueled adventures in New Orleans. People smashing printers at work.

Watching movies like “Double Indemnity,” “Easy Rider” and “Office Space,” you might think Americans had never heard of the Protestant work ethic – the spirit of sacrifice and delayed gratification that helped build capitalism.

Films like these reveal that many Americans’ current anti-work sentiments may not be all that new. As someone who has researched and taught world literature and cinema for over a decade, I believe some of the most fascinating movies make viewers ask, “What if all that hard work isn’t really worth it?”

The Pandemic and the ‘Great Resignation’

Since the pandemic, more Americans than ever have been asking that same question.

During what some have termed the “Great Resignation,” many Americans changed careers, quit bad jobs or refocused on life away from work. More recently, the trend of “quiet quitting,” or doing only what one is paid for, has blown up on social media. The phrase is a bit misleading, as one does not quit one’s job. Instead, workers refuse to hustle in the workplace, especially since going “above and beyond” often means working for free.

The recent wave of quiet quitting comes from a deeper, more long-term disengagement with stressful work environments, unfulfilling roles and, despite recent wage hikes, the inability of paychecks to keep up with the cost-of-living crisis for many working and middle-class families.

Ironically, the drive to hyperproductivity that some argue is a central feature of capitalism is at an all-time high. Workers are told that if they “do what they love,” work should never feel like a burden. Some theorists compare modern forms of work culture, especially in Silicon Valley, to a religion in their attempts to instill people with passion and meaning.

These developments have created a pushback, especially among younger generations, toward work-life balance, flexible schedules and a deeper focus on mental health.

But some people have gone even further, with philosophers questioning the very foundations of an achievement-based society that lends itself to rampant burnout and depression. Political theorists and the anti-work movement are asking how it might be possible to create more free time for everyone, not just those who can afford to quit or take a job where they’ll earn less money.

Crime as an Alternative to Work

Yet such anti-work sentiments are nothing new to American culture.

It was arguably Charlie Chaplin’s characters that first expressed the anti-work ethos, most famously in the 1936 film “Modern Times,” in which his character works too slowly at an assembly line and gets caught in the cogs of a giant machine.

Around World War II, crime became an allegory for an anti-work ethos: little effort, big payoff.

The film noir genre often explores the existential and psychological factors that drive people to crimes of passion.

Many noir films feature a femme fatale – that is, a woman who seduces men as part of a larger criminal plot for her to get ahead financially. This character type often speaks to a cultural fear around what women might do to remedy their domestic and workplace dissatisfaction.

For instance, in “Double Indemnity” (1944), Phyllis Dietrichson, who’s unhappily married to an older, wealthy man, seduces insurance salesman Walter Neff. They concoct a plot to stage her husband’s murder as an accident and collect his life insurance money. A similar crime of passion against a wealthy husband also takes place in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1947).

Joseph H. Lewis’ “Gun Crazy” (1950) charts the story of Bart and Laurie, who “can’t live on 40 bucks a week.” They embark on a string of robberies that allows them to live job-free for a time. After Bart learns that Laurie killed two people, he turns remorseful, exclaiming, “Two people dead – just so we can live without working!”

Youth Rebellion and the Counterculture

With the arrival of the 1950s, the anti-work ethos becomes associated with youth culture.

A new generation of “hoodlums,” hippies and dropouts is a poor fit for the traditional workplace, beginning with the leather-jacket clad, motorcycle-riding Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” (1953) and James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955).

Easy Rider” (1969) follows two unemployed bikers who, after a lucrative drug deal, stop at a New Mexico commune and admire the self-sustaining economy there. They continue toward New Orleans and meet Jack Nicholson’s George Hanson, who tells them, “It’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace.”

Hanson goes on to contrast America’s world of work to the freedom of a hypothetical alien species with no leaders and no money. The counterculture is crystallized.

Slackers and Sabotage

In 1990s popular culture, a “slacker” ideal took hold.

The apathetic, unemployed or underemployed young person appears in films such as “Dazed and Confused” (1993), “Reality Bites” (1994), “Friday” (1995) and “The Big Lebowski” (1998).

Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” (1990) follows a series of unemployed people, hustlers and moochers around Austin, Texas, in their nonworking time. One of these men says, “To hell with the kind of work you have to do to earn a living. … I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to do it.” He ends with the rousing proclamation: “To all you workers out there – every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death!”

However, the slacker doesn’t merely try to work as little as possible. Some seek to actively sabotage the workplace. In “Clerks” (1994), two workers are intentionally rude toward customers. They play hockey on a rooftop and go to a friend’s wake during work hours.

Office Space” (1999) follows three workers, who, frustrated with their company’s malfunctioning printer, decide to take a baseball bat to it before infecting the office computers with a virus.

And in “Fight Club” (1999), Tyler, played by Brad Pitt, sneaks pornographic clips into family films while working as a projectionist. The narrator, played by Edward Norton, describes Tyler as a “guerrilla terrorist of the food service industry” after Tyler “seasons” plates of food at a fancy hotel with his various bodily fluids.

Recent Cinema Shifts to Overt Anti-Capitalism

The 21st century has witnessed the rise of a whole series of foreign films and TV shows with explicitly anti-capitalist themes, with dramas like “Money Heist” (2017) “Parasite” (2019) and “Squid Game” (2021) centered on the characters’ fight against economic inequality.

This trend is evident in American cinema, too.

In “Sorry to Bother You” (2018), workers are so desperate for economic security that they sell themselves into slavery at a company called “WorryFree.” The satire follows Cassius Green, an African American telemarketer who, in his desire to rise up the corporate ladder, cuts deals with international companies to use WorryFree’s slave labor. While not as explicitly anti-capitalist, Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” (2020) paints a portrait of America where jobs are increasingly seasonal, temporary and insecure, leaving people adrift as “nomads.”

Americans have long had a vexed relationship to work, seeing it as alienating, exploitative or simply without real payoff.

Hustle culture and “grinding” might still dominate in America. However, more theorists are now arguing that technological automation and major social change could lead to a world beyond work with more free time for all.

It is therefore more important than ever to pay attention to what these films say: Perhaps work does not hold the key to happiness, fulfillment and the good life.

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  1. paul

    What a strange piece.

    It is therefore more important than ever to pay attention to what these films say:

    Work is necessary and also an engagement with others, most of us are not that interested in driverless cars or terraforming dead planets

    Perhaps work does not hold the key to happiness, fulfillment and the good life.

    Perhaps meaningful work can.

    1. Guest Reader

      Really, who doesn’t want to lounge around aimlessly without worry? But most people have aspirations and obligations and find something they can tolerate or accept to earn money to trade for goods and services. If you’re in a good place in life, these articles aren’t even the intended audience.

      A likely insignificant portion of workers are the quiet-quitting type, previously the bare minimum type or the constantly out kind or the talker-not-doer. It’s not like we didn’t have low-bar employees before, everyone has a sense of who is capable and who isn’t. Whether management lets someone go is irrelevant to what the group knows internally. Difference now is the cocky attitude of assuming one can just find another job anywhere, which may hold true at certain times and in certain industries but it’s not going to last. As debt becomes more expensive, so will the need to justify new and old positions become more common. Lean means extra workloads as usual and trimming the fat. This isn’t some mobilization for workers’ rights, it’s simply playing a game like a child would react to the adult world. I’m bored, I’m clueless, I won’t do it.

      Films now all promote the “correct” zeitgeist of the times: nomadic, detached, away from people and their issues in the same old retreat to nature tale. Except they have to be connected to the internet thus triggering either needless sprawl development in the middle of nowhere or launching a thousand satellites into orbit just to be able to fake work for a few hours. What is the point of all this, after abandoning the very cities decimated only a few years ago? Displacing people who wanted to be somewhere and now feeling too edgy to be amongst the flock.

      The two prevailing thoughts feel like temporary embarassed milionaires (grind, hustle, repeat) or a novel socialist view: all the capitalist goods for me but without the capital to pay for it.

      1. Anthony G Stegman

        It may come down to the fact that many people (most perhaps) dislike working for the Man. People want to have agency. Control of their lives. Being bossed around, over managed, and treated like chattel is not appealing. Work itself isn’t bad. How it’s organized and done can be bad.

        1. Guest Reader

          It may come down to the fact that many people (most perhaps) dislike working for the Man. People want to have agency. Control of their lives. Being bossed around, over managed, and treated like chattel is not appealing. Work itself isn’t bad. How it’s organized and done can be bad.

          Most people will work for someone else, still will regardless of the pandemic outcomes. Many choose to work for someone because of reduced risk and stability, steady income, benefits, separation of life and work, etc. Nothing stops them from trying the self-made route but there are clear challenges between entrepreneur and employee that keep most traditionally employed (salary). Would a large-scale co-op or shared ownership model work? Would you trust all your fellow co-owners to all carry and contribute their equal share for equal profit? Is contract work best? This doesn’t guarantee anything either: you still work for someone, for their money at the very least. You still work regardless, even if it’s longer hours and unbilled for.

          As long as we need money, work in whatever form will be the primary source of money.

          I think this is something that is often missed when discussing USA’s covid response. I hear a lot of criticism that we’re letting it rip because we’re being forced back to work by big, bad corporations looking only at the bottom line. There may be some truth to that, but there are a lot of people who don’t or can’t work from home or don’t want a government income subsidy to stay home. They want to be out there feeling like members of society.

          A lot (a lot) more people have to be out for at least half the week than can stay at home all week. Who delivered those meals, groceries, and packages to the isolated fringe? Who repairs and builds and takes care of the world around? It was the way before and jobs that need a physical presence have not changed and will not change anytime soon. Whether someone in a particular position has incredible leverage to refuse return to an external office is not the reality for many who have been and will continue to be outside regardless of any decisions or fringe victories.

          I’m not some rabid cultist of work or anything, just that the discussion is losing touch with the common universal experience.

      2. Glossolalia

        But most people have aspirations and obligations and find something they can tolerate or accept to earn money to trade for goods and services.

        I think this is something that is often missed when discussing USA’s covid response. I hear a lot of criticism that we’re letting it rip because we’re being forced back to work by big, bad corporations looking only at the bottom line. There may be some truth to that, but there are a lot of people who don’t or can’t work from home or don’t want a government income subsidy to stay home. They want to be out there feeling like members of society.

        1. podcastkid

          If the US had a brain, it would begin to think ahead about when BRICS comes into its own. Might be rational to start thinking of specializing. Like Cuba. Possibly doctors, nurses, safer jabs (the nation’s a broke down engine as it is). Saw a share yesterday about hemp firewalls (Cuba has the cigar thing sewn up). Organic seeds. Don’t laugh. Cuba’s very close to us. We’ve seen the whole gig. Imitation would be natural.

          What you and Paul have said makes me think about Jung…we’ve displaced ourselves from archaic milieus [don’t know if plural is proper]. There was a lot of slavery in such, but think of Van Gogh’s paintings of fields.

          When it comes to quarantine situations the system demands a mite much from workers (Michelle Witte mentioned the Cuomo/nursing-home thing the other day, which everyone in MSM seems to have forgotten). There’s where workers are caught in a bind. In terms of getting the job done, quiet quitters just gum up the works. What can over worked workers in that field do? All the resources go to arms, and the cut-costs [elsewhere] insanity keeps coming and coming.

          Imagine a fairly fulfilled farmer that tilled some of those Van Gogh fields. Weather could still have made things tough. Myriad factors on the edges could have brought some stresses to bear, and the difficulty of the work itself presented some every day. Too late for me to do a thesis on those debt jubilees Michael Hudson’s been talking about. But it’s been the lot of many humans to deal with stresses down through the ages. Granted, with climate problems…if nations had brains, requisite planning could help a little, and probably alleviate some age old stresses to boot. Some stresses were always there with many lebenswelts, but if sadism and meritocracy push the plowing team too hard at the absolute worst time…

        2. Basil Pesto

          but there are a lot of people who don’t or can’t work from home or don’t want a government income subsidy to stay home. They want to be out there feeling like members of society.

          Of course, but nobody is actually arguing for that as a permanent state of reality. Those of us who are arguing for the known solution to Covid to be implemented are arguing for temporary restrictions and gov’t support in the form of paying people not to work precisely so we can all return to feeling like members of society etc without the sword of damocles that is infinite covid and the de facto Infection Mandate dangling over our heads. Our Infinite Covid failure policy is going to lead to problems far more profound and atrocious than mobilising for war against this virus by way of, inter alia, a temporary suspension of some forms of work for the deliberate purpose of containing it.

          This weird idea seemed to emerge that those advocating for necessarily strict containment measures and elimination were arguing for strictness for the sake of it. In fact it was (and is) the most pro-normal, pro-freedom, pro-social course of action available to us. Oh well.

          1. podcastkid

            Since ’08 capitalism’s been especially clothed in propaganda. Jobs that should be fulfilling they turned into the ranks of scapegoats. Think these MICIMATT folks would deign to do any real care giving on behalf of another human that needed it? Maybe systemic fragility was gonna bring all this about anyway. Hard to believe, though, it would have as woefully without the Covid mess up, or without these desperate/idiotic sanctions. Maybe without one of’em? Anyway, the system sure was not resilient. Industrial consumerism will go on in the east. As many cars as you can afford. As many appliances. Always the latest phone. Work’ll be like it is on the outskirts of southern Zhengzhou, “Apple City.” But, after this perfect storm the west’s going through, I’m wondering how much tweaks can help us (paying people not to work until deficit hawks get themselves in a stew). We’ll still need very small chips. We’ll still need shoes. Some think we’ll need Uranium. Will the payouts have helped? [7nm chips (actually transistors in chips right?) are for what? Phones & weapons. IMO no need to go whole hog with either] Anyway, we’ll need shoes! But we will have cooked our goose. That’s why I say face the fact that we’ll get our special period too. Maybe it would be worth it for some to quit a little quietly as long as they could come up with some ideas re what to do around 2050?

            By 2050, as the seas submerge some of its major cities and heat begins to ravage its agricultural heartland, China will have no choice but to abandon whatever sort of global system it might have constructed. And so, as we peer dimly into the potentially catastrophic decades beyond 2050, the international community will have good reason to forge a new kind of world order unlike any that has come before.” Alfred W. McCoy https://consortiumnews.com/2022/01/04/new-years-day-2050/

      3. Jesper

        This is a central part to me:

        But most people have aspirations and obligations and find something they can tolerate or accept to earn money to trade for goods and services.

        One persons freedom to pursue aspirations and obligations is the removal of the protection for another person from being exploited. Not sure what the balance is, where it could be found but I do believe that the best solution for the majority is the solution that the majority wants – might vote for.

        My experience has been that the ones who want the ‘freedom’ to be allowed to work for another for as many hours as they want do not realise that the legal protections that others benefit from also benefit themselves (rising tide?). The relative status compared to others might seem important but given the choice who wants to earn 50% more than the worst paid (performer??) in a poor country rather than being paid 10% more than the worst performer in a country where solidarity is valued?
        The above might be an argument against solidarity and unions, it might also be an argument for solidarity and unions.

        I do know that the people who want the ‘freedom’ of not having the legal protections of being employees do have the freedom to become independent contractors but I’ve not yet encountered one person who argues for the removal of the protection of employees who is actually an independent contractor with no protections against employer/supplier protection provided by the public. At the very least they demand the right to take people to court for non-payment of services provided.

    2. urdsama

      I think you may be applying your experiences and views on work to all work for all people.

      I know many positions where there is little to no engagement with others. And meaningful work? Meaningful or not, it’s hard to feel positive about a job when you know you are just a step or two from slave labor.

      1. Anthony G Stegman

        You are correct. Especially with regards to how the pandemic changed working arrangements. More people work alone than ever before. No social interaction. No group lunches. No break room chit chat. It’s all very stultifying. It feels better to just fart around.

        1. ian

          A common argument I hear from people who like working at home is ‘I get all my stuff done and there are no interruptions’. I think this focus on individual productivity can be short-sighted – the real measure is how productive the organization is as a whole. In my case, a lot of the ‘interruptions’ are things like co-workers asking me to explain something, or walking over to help someone debug something.

    3. Lee

      My kid was born cursed with a love for working with his hands, and with very little interest in much that constitutes classroom learning these days. There was no shop class in any high school he went to, more’s the pity. After attending a for profit technical school and years of apprenticing in the building trades, he now runs crews of electricians, and is loving it. Keeps him out of trouble and the money is good. What’s not to like?

    4. hunkerdown

      In antiwork discourse, “work” refers to compelled labor. It is only ruling classes that create the world in which “work” is both necessary and possible. Without them, things that are inherently worth doing, i.e. have a clear material payoff, will be done as needed, and who cares about the rest.

      Besides, other social institutions and processes (lunch counters, bowling nights, chance encounters in the park or downtown) are far better fit to produce outcomes and relations, and better people, than the workplace, which has coldly displaced those other institutions and processes and the personal relations that went into them, could ever possibly produce.

      I suspect that the people who most loudly pledge allegiance to the institution are the ones who have employees to exploit, whether their own or their employer’s, and are interested in the relations of command as their objective.

  2. YankeeFrank

    As a current member of the gig economy (dog walker for an online outfit) I can say the gig economy provides corporate earners with the cheapest and most flexible labor so they can larp a bit as upper class. The flexibility (they can cancel a walk with a day’s notice and often do) and rates provide unlivable wages and make for an ersatz economy that is unsustainable (but like many things economic, it sustains far longer than it should). This class has done relatively well under neoliberal corporate tyranny so far and they can rely on a ready pool of desperate people scrounging for pennies to provide such services on the cheap.

    I love dogs very much, take good care of my charges and don’t really begrudge their owners: we’re mostly all just trying to scrounge out a living on the edge of the abyss whatever we may pretend to believe. If you think its any easier high up the food chain watch the recent Tucker Carlson interview with Kanye West. You’ll see a talented, heartfelt man who is clearly stuck in the gears of a machine he can’t get out of as his children are caught up in it as well. With all my economic problems these days I have the most wonderful and loving wife and a happy home. We should all be so lucky.

    1. Louiedog14

      Hey Yankee Frank, fellow dog walker here. My wife and I run an off-leash dog walking co. ( no employees because making it worth it would involve some exploitation that I want no part of). I seem to recall from other posts that you’re in Mass. We’ve been in business since 2009, and while we haven’t gotten rich, we’re not completely precarious either. I’ve made some wonderful canine friends over the years and can sincerely say that I have the best co-workers on the planet. Running your own business is not for everyone, but I’ve found it truly enjoyable since I can completely disregard MBA-type business principles, and run things to my own set of beliefs.

      I am in Metrowest, and the name of our company is A Bark in the Park. Contact me through our website and I’d be more than happy to share my experiences with you. Perhaps you can escape the gig life.

  3. The Rev Kev

    Come to think of it – we are now nearly three years into the present Pandemic. You have had some people having to risk their lives still going to work while others were fortunate to be able to quarantine at home. And people began to question their relationship with work, what it means to them and whether the place they were doing it was worth the candle. Frequently the answer was no which led to the great resignation. Letting workers have the opportunity to think has proven very dangerous and perhaps the spur to join unions was also a result.

    My point is this. Should we not be seeing a whole swath of films reflecting this massive changes? I mean a decent scriptwriter could come up with some serious story lines in how people’s lives were upended and they had to rethink their lives. Instead we just get more remakes, updates, prequels etc. of superheroes with very few of them relevant to people’s lives. Entertaining? Often. But where are the films on the same sort of level as “The Man in the Grey Suit” or “The Big Chill”?

    1. Kurtismayfield

      Corporations exist to make money and to continue the narrative that they are necessary in order to make money. No one is going to financially back the anti work film.

  4. tegnost

    An old saw I’ve heard is that there are two leisure classes, one at the top, and one at the bottom…

  5. marieann

    I did a form of this “quiet quitting” when I worked as an RN in the 90’s. We worked hard and most times never took a break or finished on time, I was really annoyed when I realised home much time I was giving to my employer….and believe me they knew how busy we got.
    I worked permanent afternoons and the rule was you had to notify the supervisor on call if you thought you might not get out on time, otherwise they wouldn’t pay overtime( you know we could have sent you help from another floor) was their stupid excuse.
    So if by 7pm I was behind I would make the call, most times it would be overtime and I would get paid for it.
    Sadly I was the only one who did this…all the others worked and didn’t get OT.
    I did not work less or less hours but at least I got paid overtime when I was due.

  6. Arizona Slim

    Hey, wait a minute! This article omitted what I think is the best subversive work film ever made, “Nine to Five,” starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin.

    The scene where the three secretaries plot the various ways of bumping off their boss is truly one for the ages.

    Oh, since Arizona Slim is also an avid reader, permit me to recommend the book I just finished reading, The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet by Nell McShane Wulfhart. All I can say is that those 1960s and 1970s era stewardesses were serious badasses.

      1. Arizona Slim

        Her case was cited in the book, Lee. Thanks for the link to the ruling.

        Key point, which I copied and pasted from said ruling:

        The Marital Status Rule Is Not Justified as a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification

        1. eg

          The requirement that a woman teacher resign upon getting married was still on the books at boards of education in Ontario until as recently as the 1950s.

  7. Carolinian

    Of course a lof of those slacker movies are making fun of slacker culture or, in the case of Brando et al in the fifties, are serious “problem pictures.” H’wood’s true devil may care period was likely the1930s* when capitalism had just received a big black eye.

    I’m not sure work itself is ever that much of a movie subject given that sex and violence are more box office. I’d say Double Indemnity falls more in the latter category than the former.

    *Gable and Colbert on the road in It Happened One Night. Gable tutors rich girl Colbert in important poor people skills (“you don’t know how to dunk!”)

    1. begob

      You may be overlooking all those at-work movies of soldiers, spies, cops, medics.

      Horror is the one genre where work plays little dramatic part, usually just a device to whisk a character off-stage, only to return after 5 p.m. to find the house has gone nuts. I suppose exorcists and ghost-hunters are exceptions. Hang on – is cannibal a job?

      1. Carolinian

        Oh work is a subject with not the least being entertainment itself in all those thirties musicals. I’m just saying that it, or the avoidance of same, is not the main subject the great majority of the time. There’s not much drama in an assembly line–perhaps more for physicians or people driving trucks full of nitro.

  8. Alice X

    I recall it being said that the San people of Namibia, in their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, only required some 17 hours a week to satisfy their physical requirements. In that light, civilization has been oversold.

    1. Watt4Bob

      A friend whose parents were both anthropologists explained that exact reality to me, adding that the rest of the tribe’s time was spent singing, dancing, and telling stories.

      I can’t think of a more ‘civilized‘ life-style.

  9. Mikel

    I’ve always suspected a substantial number of family fortunes, big and small, got their start with insurance fraud and crimes. Including life insurance and especially in the days of less and unreliable forensic science.

    1. Robert Hahl

      I thought the message of Double Indemnity was, stay away from ankle bracelets, and that is what I told my boys.

      1. paul

        I thought the message, as it’s told by the dying narrator, is:

        listen your guts, not your nuts.

        the originating james cain novel is one dark work.

        1. Robert Hahl

          And the message of Body Heat for estate lawyers is, don’t violate the rule against perpetuates, but they aren’t supposed to do that anyway.

  10. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Great post. Thanks.
    Grammar Nazi on patrol
    “overproducing, as in working for free, are designed….” Comma?
    “plenty of tactic and overt resistance.” Do you mean “tacit” or “tactical” or both?
    Delete when read.

  11. polar donkey

    I killed myself managing sports arena concessions and restaurant. For nearly 10 years, I stressed myself and my wife to save up money to buy a house, along with investing in a rental property company. Covid hit, life was pretty good being at home and refinanced my house at lowest point of interest rates. Then covid continued, labor shortages, price spikes, shortages. Stress was worse than before covid. Physically got wore out. Probably not buy a another house, liquidated a couple rental properties while prices were high and wait for prices to drop. Left restaurant business to work from home 32 hours a week and see my family much more. Make less money, but fairly comfortable. No car payments but don’t drive nearly as much and my old cars will last a long time now. There isn’t anything that could be offered to me to go back to my previous job life.

    1. Late Introvert

      Nice. I dropped out way back in the mid 2000s, first slowly then all at once, and have not looked back. We live super cheap with one older car in a small house, and I’ve never been happier. It helped that I saved up from a dot-com windfall stock options deal, but none of my co-workers sold because they thought they were going to be millionaires. I was happy to be 75 thousand-aire.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Procrastinate Now!

      (Apologies to the Commemtariat: this article made my sloganeering impulse rip… )

  12. semper loquitur

    Meanwhile in China:

    China’s Gen-Zers Are Slacking Off, Refusing To Work Overtime And Playing On Their Phones In Protest Of Long Hours And Low Pay

    The younger generation of workers is not aboard with Ma’s precepts. As reported by the South China Morning Post, they’re known to “slack off by refusing to work overtime, delivering medium-quality work, going to the toilet frequently and staying there for a long time, playing with their mobile phones or reading novels at work.”


    The kids call it “lying flat”.

    1. Anthony G Stegman

      In Silicon Valley where I live there are increasing numbers of South Asians in the neighborhood and nearby neighborhoods. One thing I have noticed is that by 5pm many Indian families are taking strolls with their young children and their parents (either living with them or visiting from India). They don’t seem to be working the Silicon Valley striver 12 hour days, and yet they aren’t being punished for not doing so. Many East Asians are busy grinding away. The shrinking numbers of Causcasian workers are somewhere in between. As more businesses are shifting work from China to India “productivity” may decline as Indian workers may not be willing to work 12 hour days. Or even 10 hour days.

    2. animalogic

      All this reminds me of the old Soviet saying — “they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work”.

  13. BeliTsari

    ‘Nomadland’ & particularly ‘Sorry To Bother You’ were such let-downs (promoted to DEATH by obviously solicited BS reviews, that intentionally missed the point, that either of these could’ve been exactly the RIGHT movie at the right time. I remember, ‘Gung Ho’s director coaching my partner how to wiggle-past as she was one of scores of $60/ 12hr day 1099 extras at a bowling alley & VW plant, stealing food from craft services, during Reagan’s Miracle. Most NC readers would prefer Flashdance, where if you put out for boss; all your dreams would come true (Is that the Equitable Gas & PNC tower, by the US Steel- Rockwell International- UPMC Building in the sexy, if lethally toxic MTV atmosphere?

    1. Arizona Slim

      I lived in Pittsburgh when “Flashdance” was released. Yes, the story was inspiring, but you know really got us going? The ease with which the protagonist got from Point A to Point B on her bicycle. Talk about fiction.

      If you’ve ever been to Pittsburgh, you’ll know that it’s a hilly city. Sort of like the San Francisco of northern Appalachia. Crossing town with ease is a challenge, to say the least. Add a bicycle to the mix, and you have quite the workout.

      I’m speaking from personal experience. Bicycling in the Burgh really sharpened my hill-climbing skills.

      1. Robert Hahl

        David Letterman once did movie reviews based on insider perspectives. He had a welder on to review Flashdance, who noted that she was wearing campaign buttons on her shirt and they might have burned her eyes, so he gave the move one star.

        I gave it four stars. That was when I realized the powerful effect a good song can have on the popularity of a movie. For instance none of the Mission Impossible movies would even exist if it wasn’t for the opening theme.

        1. LifelongLib

          This brought to mind the bit in “The Full Monty” where the guys are watching “Flashdance” to get ideas for their act. IIRC they’re critical of both the dancing (“It’s just a souped-up tango!”) and the welding (“She’s using way too much rod. Those welds will never hold.”).

      2. BeliTsari

        The opening has Jennifer playing with a cat, above the North side. Magically cycling down a hill I’d climb every few days and crossing the oldest steel lenticular truss bridge beside 1940s PCC cars. I’d been paid to shoot stills outside Carnegie Institute & thought the young woman was a PA. So was shooting from the hip with an old M4. I’d ridden there on a Tange framed Sakae covered in pannier bags, from right above McKees Rocks (a ride I’d make every day, icy rails sticking through cobblestones, including 16% Steuben & 24% ascents on Boundry St). Used to do the Dirty Dozen, through my 50s, but moved to Manhattan where I’m hoping to survive, until we see if Allegheny County is fracked, cracked & Fetterman isn’t helping one bit?



      3. BeliTsari

        PS: in reality, if you were a Black female in Pittsburgh, during the Reagan years. Cycling to work (due to white-flight/ removal of one of the planet’s best electric traction systems) ~75% of all LRVs had Westinghouse or other components INVENTED & made in Pittsburgh) you’d best wear a helmet, gloves & some kind of easily accessible & disposable weapon & hide bail money, but NOT in baggy, HEAVY cotton trousers?

  14. chris

    This kind of thesis dovetails into the “BS Jobs” phenomena too. It’s hard to want to work hard when you’re shown your job produces nothing of value for anyone and is largely illusory.

    Regarding “quiet quitting” I love the memes that re-name it “Acting Your Wage”. There are few positions that people with limited credentials can obtain which reward the kind of hustle that’s encouraged. With the abuse of salaried employees in positions like retail store managers, it’s hard to see how that option is attractive to many people. “Gee, rather than hourly wages, I get to work 60 hours a week when my salary is too low for a 40 hour a week job? And you did that so I could open and close off the clock? And I’m exempt from over time? Hard pass.”

    There are companies that are employee owned or which offer partnerships to employees. There are companies which pay salary and have bonus opportunities or hourly overtime compensation too. But those companies require their employees to have lot of credentials. They usually require people to know someone who knows someone before you even hear about openings. So the opportunities for people to work as much as they want to, and be rewarded for that effort on a fairly direct basis, are tightly rationed. I don’t think those kind of positions would be a solution for everyone but if more people had the option to work for companies that didn’t deliberately game bonuses or overtime or steal wages from their employees they’d probably see employee engagement increase.

    1. Questa Nota

      Love that renaming, Acting Your Wage.

      My recent fieldwork among a select group of young people found the following themes, amplified by their social media reach. Yes, people read posts and contribute even if not, barf, Instagram Famous.

      Nobody believes the bosses. They don’t support workers and will cycle through more drones to get seat-fillers, all while squeezing expenses to make their nut. They get that override on P&L and the drones don’t.

      Don’t be some anonymous box on a chart. If you can’t add any value to the paint-by-numbers dictates of the job then you will get bored quickly.

      Most co-workers admit to searching for new positions All The Time. They see that their current McJobs are temporary and good only for covering rent, some food and a little gas.

      Benefits are lousy, when available. Expect to pay more out of your own pocket. Sick leave or PTO is discouraged since the numbers have to be met.

      Guess what? Screw the numbers. Screw the bosses. Find meaning anywhere else but that current place working for that POS.

      Expectation: Fulfillment is sought and achieved in various ways. Work fulfillment has dwindled materially over the past 30 years. People got re-engineered, right-sized and generally F-ed Over, by cynical D-bags in PE firms and their PMC enablers. That trend caught on and more employers of all sizes said, No More Social Contract. Employees said No More Loyalty. Expect some general strikes or other manifestations of discontent. Someone might listen.

      What about a return on labor? Did that get totally erased in the slog toward sanctified return on capital? Rhetorical question.

  15. Mike

    Separate but related – add in the dozens of movies and TV shows that accelerated since 08′ about overall dystopia or outright apocalypses. Counter culture is a morbid proposal these days.

    As a contractor during Covid, during the beginnings of the pandemic, it seemed the mood at the jobsites wasn’t quiet quitting, more like when can we bust out the Arms and get serious about this apocalypse (or Jackpot as NCers say). Way more people ready to throw everything away literally, people we’re/are itching for this, look at our government they are the same with this Russia situation.

    1. BeliTsari

      Think, a BUNCH of us had guessed from jump: that we’d NEVER see a worthy show about 1099 gig messengers, delivery, HCW temps, warehouse, slaughterhouse, transit, first-responders, cleaners, dying line & sous chefs, teachers & staff… forced to infect & kill loved ones, coworkers, commuters & work on icy, TERRIFYING streets for work-from-home yuppies afraid to come to the door & tip them, or return from the Catskills to save them, cycling during cytokine storm or undiagnosed PASC organ damage? Maybe, with a laugh track & slapped bass, like Seinfeld? The Bear, Mo, Reservation Dogs… ALL great shows, nary a mention?

  16. Partyless poster

    I think one thing this essay leaves out is that by far the majority of films show rich people doing rich people stuff.
    People in this country love to pretend they will be rich someday and Hollywood loves to nourish that fantasy.
    When is the last time you saw a poor person on TV?

    1. ForFawkesSakes

      Roseanne featured a working class family. This is one reason why I suspect the eponymous character was kicked from the show in the considerably more class conscious years.

      She was possibly going to open up a discussion of class.

      As a side note, the TV executive who made the call to cut the actress from the show she created was shortly after removed from her position. A ton of ads had been sold for a show featuring Roseanne.

  17. Boats G

    This has been a pet theory of mine for some time.

    Coming out of the great recession you had a whole genre of films trying to grapple with the crises and how it reflected on white collar workers’ relationship to work. “The Company Men”
    ,”Up in the Air”, and “Margin Call” all come to mind coming out between 09-12.

    Leading into Obama’s second term and up to Trump there is an element of movies that go beyond just the mechanics of crises, and the direct impact on work and use the failing social-economic contract of America as the backdrop or driver of plot in “Hell or High Water”, “Mississippi Grind”, and “Killing them Softly”.

    This is a selective sample, but the movies have seemingly progressed in dour tone, from directors and writers that skew the perceived political landscape with Clooney the arch Hollywood liberal, and Taylor Sheridan the Cowboy conservative all mining the same veins for content and plot. I’d go so far to say as they represent a pop culture road map to the conditions of the ’16 election.

    1. pauln

      I’ve only seen margin call and it seemed to be a baton pass to a younger generation.

      We’ve had our kicks, and we’ll take our small licks.

      The upright kevin character was sensationally romantic.

  18. Wukchumni

    The apathetic, unemployed or underemployed young person appears in films such as “Dazed and Confused” (1993), “Reality Bites” (1994), “Friday” (1995) and “The Big Lebowski” (1998).
    I knew lotsa Lebowskis in LA who kind of slid through life, almost performance art.

    I called it quits @ 43, working takes away from goofing off and such.

    1. Anthony G Stegman

      The term “goofing off” is often used as a pejorative in this country. It ought not be viewed that way. There is nothing wrong with sitting around, farting around, idling your time away, etc…In fact, it can be quite enjoyable and relaxing. Don’t people look forward to retirement so they can do just that? Why wait. Do it sooner, not later. :)

      1. Wukchumni

        When I traveled extensively around the world in the 1980’s i’d see American tourists in their 60’s or older who often looked so tired and not having fun. They had worked for 40 years and this was their reward…

        …it was a bit of an inspiration to not do that

        1. Questa Nota

          Nobody wants a tombstone that reads Gee, I wish I’d spent more time at the office.

          Even if so many seem to act like that.

  19. Mikel

    As for the most recent pandemic’s effects on work culture, the author should not discount that many got the message about what’s in store even if the there are pandemics of increasing severity.
    Puts a dark shadow on what is really being prioritized and for who’s benefit. Any lie will be told to protect the fat cats’ profits.
    So, yeah, people are rethinking what they should be enthralled with…if they are at all the thinking type.

  20. Unemployed Smelly Person

    Reading this makes me glad I live in a nation with a sub-poverty walfare system. I hate the idea of handing large chunks of my life over to someone else to profit off. I have everything I need, a roof over my head, decent food and good internet. I live without a car, not worth the return on investment. Ride a bike instead, better for me and better for the planet. Also prefer to use second hand tech, I like to ride the trailing edge.

  21. fresno dan

    You know who won’t work without getting what they think they deserve??? CEO’s and any rich person. Incentive, Incent, Incentivise, Incentives, and every permutation of the word is a rich person’s lingo. You don’t get nothin’ out of them for free – indeed, if they can, you will pay them far, far, FAR more than they are worth – that is how they play the game – their incentive is they get more and you get less. The suckers are finally figuring out that a hard day’s work for a “fair” wage is a scam, when the people setting the rules of the game tilt the game to their own benefit.

    1. Copeland

      Yes, thank you! I was waiting for the silly article to address the reality of work, after the movie examples, but that discussion never came.

    2. CanCyn

      Yes! I have a friend who worked as an assistant to a VP in a commercial real estate development company. While they did pay her a decent enough wage, her boss was paid (I refuse to say ‘earned’) over $300K annually. One of my friend’s monthly tasks was sorting her boss’s receipts and making out his monthly expense claim report. Guy saved crumpled receipts for coffee, mints, short cab rides, etc. He expensed absolutely everything. Also had my friend doing personal errands, dropping off/picking up dry cleaning, gifts for wife, weekend restaurant reservations, etc. He fully believed he earned and deserved all these perks.

      1. Questa Nota

        Pro tip: expense that kennel for the pets when traveling on business. Get creative and offload everything imaginable.

        What are they gonna say, that star exec doesn’t merit some special treatment? /s

        p.s., the IRS might have a dissenting view.

    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      How can people who have figured that out do some of their work for their own unmonetized subsistence in the free unmarket countereconomy?

      Figure out how and then . . . Occupy yourself!

      1. Rolf

        Thank you Slim!
        Also, Budd Schulberg’s ‘What Makes Sammy Run?’. I read this as a kid, along with ‘Working’, always stayed with me.

    1. Mikel

      “2. Labor scarcities are permanent due to demographic and social dynamics.”

      He forgets to mention these dynamics:
      The Court of Mass Incarceration (PDF) Rachel E. Barkow, CATO Institute. “One out of every 52 people in the United States is under some form of criminal justice supervision (such as probation or parole). In some states and communities, the rates are even higher. In Georgia, for example, one out of every 18 people is on probation or parole. We are now living in a country where one out of every three adults in America has a criminal record.”

      And I’m going to add this: I suspect some regions are handling the demographic changes that are readily visible in the younger generations better than others.

      So yeah, I’m saying, “Not enough workers my a –.”

  22. Fastball

    While the whole issue is worth discussing, I doubt very much Hollywood has (or even had in the past) a lot to say on the subject that is cogent. With some noteworthy exceptions, Hollywood is and has always been a capitalist caricature of American culture, often times so insulated and removed from real Americans that the audience is left scratching its head about what planet a given movie or moviemaker is from. Hollywood connects with its audience where it can appropriate and not so much other times (just look at what a dog’s dinner it has made over the whole “woke” issue).

    1. CanCyn

      Also quitting scene in American Beauty
      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=psNuJuaYqVU Sorry I know he is not a likeable guy and played by the now cancelled Kevin Spacey but the line “I’m just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose” always stayed with me.
      And, if I could find it to share, an oldie but goodie from Canadian comedy duo McLean and McLean (popular pre Internet) and their skit about quitting, albeit after winning the lottery.
      And Jerry Seinfeld’s bit about office work. He acknowledges not knowing what people do but adds that he does know that everyone thinks they could do better at their bosses’ jobs.
      Interesting thread of utter contempt for management in all of these bits. I think COVID has heightened that feeling. I was always a bit of a malcontent. Liked my actual work but hated admin. Now retired, I hear more complaints about management than when I was working (pre-COVID) even from people who I thought of as content workers. Including one who admits to quietly quitting and trying to work on her novel once her work is done for the day. In the past she would have looked for more to do, not anymore.

  23. Bugs

    I think “Caddyshack” is a pretty darn good slacker movie that didn’t get included here. Absolutely no one cares about their job except for the ridiculous Judge Smails, and even he is a cynic. Brilliant movie that never gets old. I won’t put a quote because there are just too many…

  24. Cat Burglar

    Living the anti-work life in Seattle in the 80s was pretty easy — cost of rent was low, and even on a low wage as single person could save enough for plenty of free time off. Slacker always seemed like a watered-down version of the intelligence, wit, and creativity of the scene; as much as I enjoyed the film, it only lifted the covers enough to show just a little of what was going on.

    Living as I did, I met a lot of people who were ostensibly pro-work, in the ideological sense. In those days I used to say that work was “the new sex,” because people would duly repeat the all the usual homilies about the work ethic, etc., etc, but it never had any relation to how, or if, they really worked! They also traded on the ambiguity between physical work –use of energy to perform a task — and wage work: labor obligated by payment contract. It got pretty clear that doing things like carrying a pack in the mountains had less value for them than the social recognition of being paid to do something; the latter clearly had value, while the former did not. What amused me, as a mountaineer, was that what I did for free was harder work than what I did for a wage.

    The Quiet Quitting debate puzzles me — do they mean that the explicit understanding that conscientious performance of certain job duties for an agreed wage actually contains a hidden social understanding that you’ll do more work than you’re paid to do? Any adult knows that is a swindle, even if they don’t say so. When I became an employer later in life, if I had to ask for an exceptional effort on a task, I made sure to give back in the form of extra tanks of diesel, loans for truck repairs, time off to compete in the rodeo, and truck parts on the ranch account. Hard to believe that any serious person does not understand that time at work is time under control, and that this is a a power relationship, and the less time you spend under it, the freer you are.

    One of the 80s anarchist slogans was, “that which is taken at work is never returned.” What they meant by that was time and life. So we did all we could to minimize dominated work time. It worked pretty well. What I eventually found valuable in work was being brought together with a random gathering of people who I would have never met, to figure out how to work together on a long-term project — that was worth it, so I have to say the old slogan is not strictly true, even if it is a good starting point.

    Most of the anti-work types I knew in the 80s had all done the Situationist exercise of adding up all the hours of their week, then subtracting all the time spent working, resting from work, preparing for work, going to and from work, and time spent on any extra activities related to work. We also used to draw maps to show our habitual movements around the city, the “real Seattle” we lived in. The idea was to discover the real constraints on our freedom.

    They want extra work? They can pay extra.

    1. animalogic

      Physical workers, ie, those who must use muscle power to perform their job not only sacrifice their time, they sacrifice their health & bodies. By 50 or 60 such workers are lucky if they don’t have arthritis or back/neck/muscle problems or worse damage (ie damaged lungs, skin from working around toxic chemicals etc)
      For many work is no joke — it’s a life gamble.

    2. CanCyn

      “conscientious performance of certain job duties for an agreed wage actually contains a hidden social understanding that you’ll do more work than you’re paid to do? Any adult knows that is a swindle, even if they don’t say so.” Gotta disagree on that one, there are plenty of people who think working more than their 40 hours per week is a required.
      I know many people, government workers and private sector, who believe that part of being paid a high wage is working more than 40 hours per week, checking email on weekends, vacation and sick days. Had a colleague who complained that our boss always took a lunch break and went home most days at 4:30 and thus wasn’t working hard enough. While we worked in a community college, her siblings were all employed in the private sector and working way more than 40 hours per week, presumably ‘earning’ their high wages. When I responded to the 4:30 complaint by observing that she arrived most days between around 8am I got a wide eyed look of incomprehension. There was a lot about that particular boss that I didn’t like but her hours of work and the fact that she didn’t expect us to work long hours we’re OK with me.

  25. MichaelSF

    Here’s a video of a reading of Bertrand Russell’s “In praise of idleness” essay:

    In Praise of Idleness

    The text is also shown on the screen.

    Perhaps Russell is undergoing a new popularity?

    1. lyman alpha blob

      I read the comments all the way to the bottom to see if someone had mentioned that one – thanks for posting!

      Too bad he’s not still around to teach today’s kids math.

  26. Gus 2021

    I have seen they are desperate for aircraft mechanics etc …..but their past history of DOD type companies is remembered ,constant layoffs ,insane production goals ,long drives ,they just dont get people are not moving 3 states over with a wife kids etc for a 30$ an hour job .

  27. Anon

    I had a girlfriend once who would constantly brag about how hard she worked. She would get in a conversation and elaborate on how tired she always was, with a beaming smile. I found it disturbing, until I received the “so you’re not taking the overtime? You know we all do it.” speech from multiple supervisors, at multiple employers. People quite literally live to work. Very much a lower class, people who work with their hands thing I believe; but that was some coup by capital, convincing everyone that working themselves to death was a virtue.

    1. CanCyn

      Indeed! My hope is that those CEO types are working way more than 40 hours and I have no sympathy for them. People earning minimum wage working in retail and coffee shops, etc. don’t have the luxury of quietly quitting. When the orders come, they have to move.
      I know a farmer who was recently complaining about the youngsters who don’t want to work, specifically a friend’s son who was going through some troubled times and between unemployment and COVID related support (here in Canada) just didn’t want to work anymore. I tried to point out that was little meaningful work like his farming (small dairy farmer, milk goes to a local cheese producer. Not ‘artisanal’ cheese, just everyday decent cheese sold in area grocery stores that most people can afford to buy and enjoy), but he really didn’t understand my point. Saw all work as meaningful, esp. if it is to take care of family. I’ve maybe lost my point here, I guess just saying’ that work, who does it and what it means is different for everyone. I’ve read our own Yves’ opinion that working is a necessity for most people, that’s not true for me but I know lots of people who wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they didn’t have to go to work. I don’t expect Hollywood to understand or capture that.

  28. Skip Intro

    The summary of Office Space really misses the main character, which is about a cubicle worker who is completely freed of concerns about work through a freak accident. His dream is to do nothing, but he doesn’t quit, he just stops working. “Are you gonna quit?” he’s asked, “nah I’m just not working”.
    They key is that his attitude gets him promoted while his peers get laid off. “He’s a straight shooter with upper management written all over him”. It is a truly timeless classic. Must Watch!

  29. eg

    My father made it clear to us very early on that we should work to live, NOT live to work.

    I’ll admit that there were times in my professional career when I forgot this lesson, usually when the camaraderie and esprit de corps ate my brain — but those were abbreviated periods.

    I got serious about “working my wage” in the last 7 years of my career, in particular when we had to sue our board for screwing us out of pay we were owed. We eventually won, but at the cost of legal fees. What amused me most was that they evidently thought they could “win” by underpaying us, while I was certain that I could work far, far less and thus get a big “raise” in hourly terms.

    I was, of course, right. Now I’m comfortably retired, and to this day they can all family blog themselves.

  30. VH

    I was thinking the same thing, that “9 to 5” with Dolly Parton is a great example of a movie that fits this discussion. Anyway, there should be no surprise that people are fed up with doing more for less. Technology was supposed to help us work less but instead it gave us the 24/7employee that corporations totally love! Corporations pit employees against each other – encourage the on call work for exempt workers to get more out of you and promote those who do this. Everyone else looks like a slacker but they are doing the job they signed up for. There is a lot of psychological manipulation that results in Americans busting their butts out of fear of being let go or passed over. It’s a sickness that isn’t good for anyone even those who say they are digging it. It generates divorces, neglected children, etc. aside from giving people stress produced illnesses. The pandemic broke some of this but judging by the traffic now at 5 pm, corps have demanded people go back into the office for the BS they call collaboration or whatever. Also, Americans get so few vacation days that our whole life revolves around work. If everyone got 6-8 weeks off a year, it would be possible to develop interests outside of the workplace. This is another thing that keeps everyone so enmeshed in work that they can’t think of anything else. I have no answers other than moving to another country but sadly the world seems to want our system so the fat cats can get more money and stuff. No one should feel like they have to work for free. A job is a business arrangement. It’s a contract with a company to provide skills; you wouldn’t volunteer to pay more for the car you buy after you sign the contract. Why should this be different?

  31. HMT

    There is a lot of psychological manipulation that results in Americans busting their butts out of fear of being let go or passed over. It’s a sickness that isn’t good for anyone even those who say they are digging it. It generates divorces, neglected children, etc. aside from giving people stress produced illnesses.

    Yes, our system sucks and most of us know it.
    Perhaps we should think seriously about how we want our lives to be rather than what we have to tolerate with the sickness, neglect and stress. Most people want to be productive but who can ignore that it gets them nothing under our system.

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