More Than a Subreddit

The members of r/antiwork’s grievances are justified, and the interview debacle should not detract from them.

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By Angela Zeng

In recent weeks, the online subreddit r/antiwork’s meteoric growth to 1.7 million members has attracted considerable attention from mainstream media. Jesse Watters of Fox News hosted an interview with Doreen Ford, one of the subreddit’s moderators, on January 25.

The interview was an absolute disaster and went about as terribly as is conceivable, partly because 30-year-old Ford, who informed no one of the interview before it aired, was unskilled at public speaking, shifting constantly in her chair and failing to look into the camera. Far worse was her inability to explain the subreddit’s purpose or the genuine grievances of its members. She attempted to clarify that, despite the name, it is not about “being home not working but still getting paid by corporate America,” as Watters posited, but about workers not wanting to feel “trapped in their job[s].” She then referred to laziness as a “virtue” and struggled to define the ideal workday before concluding the interview on an absurd note by saying that she aspires to teach philosophy and critical thinking.

Watters’s frequent eyebrow raises and smirks indicated from the start that he had no interest in taking Ford seriously. One could easily forgive a person watching the interview with no previous knowledge of the subreddit for switching off the TV and thinking that the community is composed of 1.7 million indolent children looking to justify their few prospects in life.

This position is already the prevailing view of young people in the workforce today, to the extent that a viral greeting card reads, “How many millennials does it take to change a lightbulb? How much does it pay? Are there benefits? Oh, and I’ll need every Friday off.” The interview’s portrayal of Ford, a dog-walker working 20 hours a week, fits this narrative, but she does not represent the majority of the r/antiwork community. A quick browse of the front page of the subreddit will show post after post of full-time wage laborers justifiably disillusioned with the idea at the center of American capitalism that hard work guarantees stability.

The edicts behind the economy feel more and more like platitudes. Workers who are dissatisfied with their job prospects are told to go to college, and yet average college costs have skyrocketed to 169 percent of what they were in 1980, while the average earnings of workers aged 22 to 27 have only grown by 19 percent. Intelligence does not have nearly as much bearing on whether a person will be able to attend college as does economic status. A 2019 Georgetown University research study found that poor kindergarten students with high test scores were less likely to graduate from high school and attain a degree than their rich counterparts with lower test scores. This result disproves the false notion of American meritocracy and the supposedly level playing field upon which workers are set.

The United States is experiencing an ongoing affordable housing crisis, with more than 11 million Americans spending over one-half of their monthly incomes on rent. This value has undergone a record increase of 30 percent over the last five years. There are only about 220 counties out of the 3,006 across the country in which full-time minimum wage workers are able to afford the rent of a one-bedroom apartment, and no county in which they can afford a two-bedroom rental exists. Home ownership, once considered an accessible goal among those entering the workforce, now seems more and more like an unachievable dream. According to a 2019 report, 69 percent of millennials who are choosing to rent do so because they cannot afford to buy. In addition, the cost of student debt is prohibitive to home ownership, with debt-free millennials saving about $100 more per month than those paying off debt.

Clearly, the job market’s systemic failings are not new, but the pandemic has made them even starker, leading to the “Great Resignation.” Termed by Texas professor Anthony Klotz, it’s a phenomenon in which large numbers of people leave their jobs without immediately looking for new ones. What hides behind this buzzword is a simple fact that the members of r/antiwork understand—one can work hard for years and still never achieve stability. Intelligence, savviness, and work ethic have no bearing anymore. The state of the economy means that workers increasingly feel that their work is purposeless and are questioning the idea that the bulk of one’s life should be spent laboring. This sentiment is at the heart of the r/antiwork subreddit—real distress, genuine suffering, and justifiable despondency.