Countercultures of Overworking: Socio-Economic Implications of 21st Century Burnout

Arianna Babraj
El síndrome del burnout es incluido en la lista de enfermedades de la OMS -  Factor Capital Humano
Burnout (Source: Factor Capital Humano)

By common definition, burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. 

The grueling demands of modern society are not new and, unsurprisingly, international studies have proven that global work culture is causing burnout, even to the point of death. In the wake of Covid-19 and the additional stress it has placed on workers in every field, it is not surprising to observe a growing resistance to unhealthy workplaces, especially among young people. 

Counterculture movements expressing disillusionment with societal structures have been important aspects of nearly every political landscape for centuries. For example, in the realm of European philosophical approaches, movements like Existentialism, dating back to the 19th century, expressed disenchantment with the status quo and focused on the value of the individual over the collective. 

Two examples of young people standing in opposition to “traditional” post-industrial expectations of young workers – such as finding a “stable” job with a good income, buying property, and starting a nuclear family unit via marriage and childbirth – are “Tang Ping” (or “Lying Flat”) in China and “I Do Not Dream of Labor”, which is based mostly in the West but has global influence. While the former has the potential to be a revolutionary movement, the latter can be understood as a trend that lacks actionable next steps.  

Counterculture Movement: Tang Ping or “Lying Flat”

In China, there is statistical evidence that workers from nearly every industry, from teachers to doctors, are experiencing burnout at staggering levels. At Peking University, one of the top universities in the country, a study found that 40% of freshmen thought that life was pointless. In a country where your marks in school determine your job but cannot guarantee employment, this sentiment is not unfounded, especially this year when only 25% of recent graduates were able to find work due to the pandemic. General youth unemployment in China is around 14% which demonstrates that there is a significant issue. Add the fact that urban housing prices have risen far beyond wages and the idea of even barely getting by becomes unfeasible for the majority of Chinese youth.

Cartoon Depiction of the Lying Flat Movement (Source: Yahoo News)

From the intensified disenchantment created by the pandemic came “Tang Ping“, or the “Lying Flat” Movement, which began in April 2021 after a viral post was written on Baidu; one of the largest internet companies in the world, which hosts a major search engine and online forum for the Chinese population. The post’s author, whose identity is still unknown to the general public, wrote, “I can be like Diogenes, who sleeps in his own barrel taking in the sun” and detailed how two years of unemployment led him to reject societal expectations and ambitions, choosing instead to work small jobs to make just enough money to survive, and nothing more.

The post gained serious traction by May, and the idea that “Lying Flat is Justice” became a formidable online movement. So formidable, in fact, that it posed a threat to the Chinese government. A four-page commentary in Nanfang Daily, a newspaper known to be the CCP-run government’s mouthpiece, stated: “In the face of pressure, choosing to ‘lie flat’ is not only unjust but shameful.” This reaction shows that “lying flat” is not trivial to the government, and it poses a direct threat to Xi Jinping’s “National Rejuvenation” goals of doubling per capita GDP between 2010 and 2021 and reaching a state of full development by IMF standards. 

Several other state-run media sites quickly followed suit in criticizing the movement as a threat to the nation. The backlash was not limited just to media sites; the search function for “lying flat” was banned on WeChat, discussion forums about “lying flat” on Douban were disabled, and t-shirts associated with “lying flat” were banned from Alibaba-owned Taobao.  

“New Non-Cooperative Movement: Lying Flat” (Source: Socialist Revolution)

In a country where the prevalence of wolf culture”, where one must “kill or be killed” and “996” (working from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm 6 days a week), is considered normal, “lying flat” embodies the cost of “killing” a nation’s employees. Attempts to rebel against “wolf culture” are not new in China. As recently as 2019, tech workers utilized GitHub to form the “996.ICU” Movement; a play on words that implied that the 996 culture sent its workers to Intensive Care Units (ICU). Unlike “lying flat”, the movement was not shut down by the government, but rather by the tech industry itself, which quickly shrugged it off. Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba, went as far as to call 996 culture a “huge blessing”.

But in the midst of a looming debt crisis that could disproportionately impact young people hoping to take out a student loan or use credit to pay their bills, “lying flat” seems to be the only formidable alternative to trying to live up to societal expectations. In a country where physical protests are swiftly suppressed, online movements are much more difficult to control. Any attempts to suppress them can be interpreted as a sign of their strength rather than an indication of failure. Moreover, if a significant number of Chinese youth actually chose to “lie down” instead of work, there could be a serious chance for political upheaval, or even a revolution.

Beyond the News Report on Lying Flat (Source: China’s Internal Struggle: Young People “Lying Flat”?)

Counterculture Trend: “I Do Not Dream of Labor”

China is not the only place where online counterculture has formed in the wake of burnout. One example is the “I Do Not Dream of Labor” Movement taking place predominantly on social media platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter. Led by the “influencer” crowd – mostly comprised of upper-middle-class youth – this movement proposes many of the same ideas that “lying flat” does; namely, that career aspirations should not be central to one’s life. 

A “dream job”, the trend shows, is unrealistic because no one actually dreams of engaging in labor, and instead prefers to enjoy their life through leisure. The idealization of labor, especially in Western countries like the United States, can be attributed to the modern neoliberal economic system that is built upon the idea that paying your dues to society will directly benefit one’s happiness. However, “I Do Not Dream of Labor” indicates that this idea no longer motivates younger generations, who widely believe that even with hard work, their lives are unlikely to be more prosperous than their parents’ lives

YouTuber @anattynook Discusses “I Don’t Dream of Labour” (Source: I do not dream of labour + reading list on work & capitalism)

It is important to remember that this trend is led by “influencers”, who often make a significant income from their social media platforms, often attained through ads for the same major companies they critique. While an influencer can use their channel to reject the idea of a non-specific “capitalist system”, all of the leaders of this movement self-identify as “privileged” and, though their intentions may be good, have utilized that same “capitalist” (specifically neoliberal) system they live within to their own benefit. In fact, many of those same influencers support the idea that everyone can make money off of YouTube and later outsource the tasks they find dull to other people

The idea that you can “fight capitalism with capitalism” through YouTube and then practice “altruistic outsourcing” is essentially a reworking of the trickle-down economic policies which most notably manifested in “Reaganomics” in the US during the 1980s. The idea that providing tax breaks to businesses will “trickle-down” to the consumer because it will allow the business to grow and therefore hire more employees and increase wages, failed to produce long-term growth in the economy. In fact, empirical evidence has shown that tax breaks for big corporations only exacerbate wealth gaps

For this reason, “I Do Not Dream of Labor” does not propose a real solution to the problems the leaders of the trend point out, which is exactly what makes it a trend and not a movement. Until the leaders and followers of this trend can find a real, actionable solution that does not merely reproduce the problem in a different way, this idea will not have a real impact on the economy or political system the members live in. 

Example of “I Don’t Dream of Labor” Tweet (Source: Reddit)

In this way, the “I Do Not Dream of Labor” Movement is far less formidable than the “Lying Flat” Movement in its hopes to evoke structural change. That being said, the “I Do Not Dream of Labor” Movement represents a broader sense of disillusionment and disenchantment with labor or employment in general and can be considered an indicator of burnout in the 21st-century, which has already had a very real impact on the global economy. 

Socio-Economic Implications

Both of these movements indicate a significant shift in the way employees approach work, the consequences of which have already manifested in the economy. Economists are calling 2021 “The Great Resignation” due to the number of workers who have quit their jobs in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. A Microsoft study of more than 30,000 workers worldwide indicated that as many as 41% were considering quitting or changing jobs this year. 

For many people, changing jobs or quitting altogether was centered on the ways they felt mistreated, undervalued, or overworked by their employer during the pandemic. A Stanford Business study shows that companies who were already treating workers badly before the pandemic were less financially flexible and more likely to engage with activities that hurt their employees; such as laying off large numbers of workers.  

The Great Resignation, much like “lying flat”, is manifesting itself in every socio-economic group. In April 2021, 650,000 retail workers quit their jobs, citing that “their lives weren’t worth a dead-end job”, and some studies place this number even higher at 740,000

Where “lying flat” has many obvious political implications, like the possibility for social unrest and making feasible strides towards change, trends towards rethinking work in the West show less revolutionary thinking and more petitioning for peaceful changes. 

More and more companies are realizing that offering remote work is one way to attract workers back into the economy. For jobs that are able to be done remotely, the number of remote listings on LinkedIn tripled in 2021 in Australia alone. However, for jobs that cannot be done remotely, the mass exodus of workers is forcing businesses that previously offered minimum wage payments to consider increasing their wages and offering benefits.     

If businesses can adapt to workers’ needs, there is no indication that a broader political movement would take place. However, it is clear that workers are willing to risk everything, including their source of income, to live a life that is not controlled by their workplace. Therefore, it is up to both political and business leaders to react in a way that satisfies workers’ demands, because not doing so risks systemic collapse, lost generations, and social upheaval.

Questions:

  • Is “lying flat” a legitimate counterculture movement that will change Chinese society?
  • How feasible is it for people to work less and work remotely in the modern global economy? Can the economy continue to function in the way it does without overworking its labor force?
  • Will “I Do Not Dream of Labor” develop into a movement or will it remain a temporary trend?

Further Reading:

How overwork is literally killing us by Christine Ro, BBC

Capitalism and the Politics of Resignation by Peter Benson and Stuart Kirsch, Current Anthropology

A systematic review of burnout among doctors in China: a cultural perspective by Dana Lo, Florence Wu, Mark Chan, Rodney Chu & Donald Li, Asia Pacific Family Medicine

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Countercultures of Overwo…

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