In making sense of “The Great Resignation” — the phrase coined for the record rate at which Americans have quit their jobs this year — it’s important not to lose sight of the fundamentals. We’re living in a pandemic. There’s a child-care crisis. Workers are worn out. Others are just over the grind.
It also helps to read some receipts.
For months, text exchanges between fed-up employees and their villainous bosses have been going viral. Many can be found on the Reddit forum r/antiwork, where popular examples tell a version of the same story. A manager texts an employee, often about a last-minute shift change. The employee gently rebuffs, and the boss becomes stern. Still, the employee holds ground while the manager’s tone becomes more menacing: “I’m not asking you to come in, I’m telling you that you have to come in.”
Then comes the payoff, the message most underlings have only dreamed of sending: “And I’m telling you that you’ll have no worker at all now. I quit,” with a thumbs-up emoji for emphasis.
If you’ve ever been less than perfectly happy at a job, r/antiwork has something for you. Last week, my colleague Farhad Manjoo described the “visceral thrill” of reading the forum and “seeing people wrest the reins of their lives from the soul-sucking, health-destroying maw of capitalism.” Even people like him, who have “very little to complain about, job-wise,” can appreciate these text conversations, which frequently go viral and have become a kind of meme. (In one construction, an Oompa Loompa gives notice after Willy Wonka texts him, saying: “A chubby Bavarian kid fell into the chocolate river and I need you to help get him out and clean the tubes.”)
We’re living through a moment of change for American workers. Recently occupied positions really are sitting open, and employees across disparate fields are beginning to command higher wages. Organized labor is reasserting itself, and industries dealing with surprising surges in consumer demand are fretting publicly about needing workers.
And then there’s all the anecdotal evidence online: employees’ stories of rage, release and schadenfreude.
“I think something is happening,” said Alison Green, who has been writing a column called Ask a Manager for 14 years. “I’m seeing what feels like a seismic shift to me in people’s attitudes toward work.” While viral quitting texts have tended to speak to experiences of shift work — a kitchen manager lecturing a line cook about “loyalty,” for example — Green’s readers often struggle to navigate office environments. Recently, she’s noticed a certain topic gaining popularity: letters from oblivious bosses.
In one recent exchange, a manager fretted about a “respect gap” after an employee, whose last paycheck had been late, told her that late pay “can’t happen again”; the manager crtiticized the employee for not saving “smartly,” then questioned her claims of financial hardship.
Green’s response was unsparing. “You’re absolutely right that there’s a respect gap in this situation — but it’s from you toward your employees,” she wrote. “Somewhere along the way, you picked up a very warped idea of what employees owe their employers.” The exchange summoned the repressed dream of giving that speech, or sending that email — the one the manager can’t ignore, that says you cannot treat people this way.
According to Green, the post more than doubled her site’s daily traffic and received more than 1,000 comments within an hour of publication. “I’ve had letters like that fairly regularly for years,” she said. Her approach to answering them hasn’t changed. What has, she said, are her readers.
“It’s almost like there’s a mob energy out there,” she said.
The real story of what’s happening to the American worker right now is still being written, but the stories they want told are published daily. They share a theme: Finally, we’ve got a little bit of leverage, and, wow, wouldn’t it feel good to use it? Readers pumping their fists to a delicious takedown of a patronizing district manager are enjoying a rare moment of solidarity in an otherwise alienating period. They’re allowing themselves, if only briefly, to express ideas that they hadn’t entertained before. Some people are acting on them (“this subreddit finally gave me the motivation”).
With the community approaching 1 million members, r/antiwork is figuring out what, and whom, it really serves. Some debates are reminders that the forum is like any other, doomed to become mired in managerial disputes of its own, trapped within a commercial platform where many fastest-growing communities are full of day-traders and crypto enthusiasts. Others represent clumsy but earnest attempts at group definition by people who seem to realize just how much energy is around them.
A post called “WAGES! How much do you make?” has more than 18,000 responses. Another demanding that people “Keep politics out of this sub” triggered a surprisingly welcoming debate about whether that would even be possible. Retro editorial cartoons are shared alongside hyperreferential memes, between statistics about the wealth gap and updates about union drives at Amazon. One thread cautions the subreddit against becoming too “communist”; another asks, “Is this sub becoming too moderate/right wing, instead of embracing worker solidarity and radical revolution?” Commenters questioning the veracity of just-so quitting texts are informed, in some cases by group moderators, that they’ve missed the point.
It’s possible, as with other viral trends, that all this content is another example of new media meeting its moment — the COVID era’s exhausted, fed-up take on the Horatio Alger stories, in which the protagonist always walks.
And, sure, maybe a couple long-lived meme formats combined with a chaotic online community doesn’t quite signify a movement. But if it doesn’t, in 2021, one has to ask: What does?