Stephen Paton: Rise of anti-work culture show it's time for us to stand up for ourselves – The National

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IT’S time we all re-examined our relationship with “work”. The pandemic has certainly given us a lot of time to explore new ways of doing it – but what about the concept of no longer working at all?

That’s the goal of one of the most popular boards on Reddit currently – r/antiwork has become a cathartic mishmash of political theory, shared commiserations and screenshots of people telling bad bosses where to shove their jobs. And sure, there’s no way to tell how many of these boss battle interactions are authentic, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. The story being told is a truth regardless.

In the 1960s it was theorised that, at the pace that technology was advancing, the five-day work week would be eliminated by the year 2000, a futurist ideal that would lead to prioritising leisure over drudgery.

In many ways the predictions that led to that belief have come to pass. Technology and automation have replaced many jobs previously performed by humans, while productivity has never been higher – and yet we are more stressed and overworked now than at any other time in recent history. Despite those advancements, the hours we work have increased while wages have stagnated. It is incomprehensible now for people my age and younger that a single earner could ever comfortably provide for an entire family – yet that was once the norm.

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So the question is, who really benefited from these technological advancements? The average FTSE 100 CEO in the UK currently makes more money in a few days than most employees on a median income will earn in an entire year.

While we’ve worked harder for less, the wealthiest in our country have increased their abundance by many times – and that has come at the cost of all of us. Most work is, by its nature, inherently exploitative. Surplus value is extracted from what we produce and passed upwards to CEOs and business owners whose labour contribution is grossly mismatched to the wealth they accumulate – but it’s also worth remembering that every second of unpaid overtime you do for an organisation only exacerbates that already skewed flow of wealth.

If you don’t have enough time to complete a task within your allocated hours, it is because a manager hasn’t given you the time needed to do so. Yet the expectation is that YOU will disrupt your leisure time to ensure profits are maintained and the boss gets to buy another holiday home.

Framed like that, it seems ridiculous that any of us would ever choose to do it – particularly when the organisations in question could easily pay for that time if not for the deliberate, stomach-churning drive to maintain the wealth of the 1%.

Meanwhile, the excuses for keeping staff on low wages while profits explode just don’t add up. Supermarket chains will claim that increasing staff wages leads to increased food prices yet conversely replacing workers with self-checkouts does not lead to cheaper products.

Nonetheless, for all the problems our working culture has in the UK, the anti-work movement hasn’t quite reached Britain in the same way it has in America, and it’s clear why.

America’s working conditions are substantially worse than the UK. Pay is worse, holiday time is non-existent and access to healthcare insurance is often tied to employment. The States have reached a boiling point in a way the UK has not yet done.

Things are at least a little better in the UK, but “better than” does not mean “good”. There’s no case to justify dismissing concerns around working conditions in the UK just because it’s worse elsewhere – especially not when labour laws and unions are so relentlessly under attack.

The second reason I believe the movement hasn’t quite hit here yet is because of Brexit. The US is in the middle of a “Great Resignation” with 4.4 million people quitting their poorly paid jobs in September alone. In the UK, however, many similar positions were filled by labourers from abroad … who we effectively kicked out of the country after leaving the EU. Our so-called labour shortage comes off the back of a refusal by UK workers to take on such exploitative work, rather than the active decision to pack it in.

It’s encouraging at least that bosses are finding it difficult to continue exploiting as they have, but we can’t ignore that the way European workers were treated is still part of a broader, repugnant work culture in Britain and Scotland.

Your job likely dictates a huge amount of how you live your life in ways that are deeply unhealthy. How you dress, look and behave. Whether or not you choose to use recreational drugs, whether or not you go to a gig on a “school night”, whether or not you dye your hair.

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We have all been raised in a culture that prioritises productivity and corporate homogeny well above our health and happiness, often coupled with a total lack of financial stability or any faith that your job will exist past the next five years.

With many in the UK potentially returning to office environments having had time to experience a different way of working, it is a good time for us all to re-examine how work impacts our lives. Ask yourself questions such as: “Do employers who pay minimum wage deserve anything more than minimum effort?’

Or: “What value is a job that leaves me no time to organise or spend time with friends and family?” Perhaps most importantly, ask yourself how much power you hold in an organisation that needs your labour to function.

The UK might not dream the American dream, but it’s certainly a bedfellow of such delusional aspirations. We have a culture that glorifies pushing ourselves to breaking point for the benefits of the wealthy, over our own basic needs and the time needed to labour toward a better world. That’s no way to live. Anti-work doesn’t mean the end of labour – just the end of labour that benefits the capitalist class over our communities and our lives.

So the next time a manager tells you to work unpaid overtime, you too can tell them to get lost.


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