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Has the pandemic made people rethink the pursuit of wealth?

ALLEN WAN, AMANDA WANG, TOM HANCOCK, KATIA DMITRIEVA, CAROLYNN LOOK, YUKO TAKEO and SAMSON ELLIS
ALLEN WAN, AMANDA WANG, TOM HANCOCK, KATIA DMITRIEVA, CAROLYNN LOOK, YUKO TAKEO and SAMSON ELLIS 1/5/2022 4:30 PM GMT+08  • 14 min read
Has the pandemic made people rethink the pursuit of wealth?
Around the world, millions of people are rethinking how they work and live — and how to better balance the two
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Although the Great Resignation is a phenomenon among those who are younger than 40, it is also reverberating across the economy and forcing a broader conversation about work

The Great Resignation has US workers quitting their jobs in record numbers — more than 24 million did so from April to September 2020 — and many are staying out of the labour force. Germany, Japan and other wealthy nations are seeing shades of the same trend.

The pandemic has taken a toll, with surveys showing an increase in feelings of burnout and a deterioration in mental health in many nations. But the pressure has been building in developed countries for decades. Incomes have stagnated, job security has become precarious and the costs of housing and education have soared, leaving fewer young people able to build a financially stable life.

Although the Great Resignation is a phenomenon among those who are younger than 40, it is also reverberating across the economy and forcing a broader conversation about work. Millennials (born between 1980 and the late 1990s) and Generation Z (the demographic cohort after them) tend to marry, buy houses and have children later than their forebears — if at all.

China’s “lie flat” movement, jump-started by a social media post from which it got its name, is also about opting out. It is a reaction against a system in which a gruelling “996” work schedule — 9am to 9pm, six days a week — is common in industries like technology. So is unrelenting pressure from family, society and even the government to keep climbing the ladder.

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The country’s economy has doubled in size over the past decade, but not everybody is reaping the benefits: In many big cities the rising cost of living is outstripping wage growth. As a result, some see the lie flat phenomenon as a warning of impending Japan-style stagnation — one that arrived unexpectedly early in the economy’s development. Others argue it is more of the 1960s-style counterculture movements that cropped up in the US and parts of western Europe, with ordinary people seeking a lower-pressure society that is more focused on personal development.

“It’s basically a coincidence that these two discourses emerged at the same time,” says Xiang Biao, director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany. “But we can make a connection. It’s about how the economy has become overheated and unsustainable, both in an environmental sense and in a mental sense.”

Almost half of the world’s workers are considering quitting, according to a Microsoft survey. About four in 10 millennial and Gen Z respondents say they would leave their job if asked to come back to the office full time, a global survey by advisory company Qualtrics International found — more than any other generation.

Some among older generations have criticised these attitudes as privileged and lazy. But the reality is that working hours have been dropping in richer countries for decades across all age brackets.

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In the face of existential threats such as the pandemic and climate change, the Great Resignation and lie flat have the potential to spark a deeper discussion about the relentless pursuit of wealth, at the individual level and for nations as a whole.

“When confronted with the prospect of mortality, people definitely behave differently,” says Benjamin Granger, head of employee experience advisory services at Qualtrics. “People are looking at work through a very different lens. The lens is things like, ‘I am not working for a pay cheque. That’s not what this is about. I need to be fulfilled.’”

Lying flat in China

What started as a witty expression of Chinese youthful rebellion has become a movement that even Xi Jinping has acknowledged. In a speech in August last year, President Xi urged the country to “avoid involution and lying flat” and instead “open channels for upward mobility.”

“I haven’t been working for two years, and I don’t see anything wrong with this,” read the April post on the Baidu Tieba platform that went viral. “Pressure mainly comes from comparisons with your peers and the values of the older generations. But we don’t have to follow them.”

The poster, who went by the name Kind-Hearted Traveler, drew a comparison with the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, an ascetic who lived in a barrel. “Lying flat is my philosophical movement.”

The movement’s spiritual home may be Shenzhen, in south-eastern China. The booming technology hub is home to giant electronics factories and companies such as Huawei Technologies and Tencent Holdings — as well as 18 million people, many of whom have moved there from other parts of China to chase their dreams of affluence. Now, as the economy slows, some are wondering if those dreams are worth the effort.

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Jack, a 32-year-old tech worker who gave only one name for fear of reprisal from his employer, was full of ambition when a telecommunications company hired him five years ago. But a punishing workload failed to translate into the success he had hoped for, and over time his enthusiasm drained away. He is still working, but not as hard.

“Many internet industries have reached a stage where there is no explosive growth,” Jack says. “But all the heavy work is still here. All the stress is still here. You lose hope.”

That Shenzhen is among the world’s least affordable cities adds to his woes. “Even for well-paid professionals like me and my girlfriend, it’s still crazy,” he says. “The downpayment for a flat in Shenzhen is two, three million yuan [about $424,000 to $637,000]. That’s like both our savings, plus very huge help from our parents.”

In October, thousands of employees at companies like Alibaba Group and TikTok owner ByteDance, participated in an online campaign branded “Worker Lives Matter” by posting information on when they start and end their workdays on a public spreadsheet. ByteDance has since mandated a shorter work week.

In memes and online posts, younger Chinese people call their generation “mouse people’’ and “salted fish” (In Cantonese, a salted fish is a metaphor for a corpse, but it can also mean people lacking ambition or drive). If such attitudes become pervasive, they could accelerate population decline: China’s birth rate dropped to a record low in 2020, a major concern because the labour force is already shrinking.

At the Sanhe employment exchange in the north of Shenzhen, dozens of recent arrivals from other parts of China gather to browse job postings. While the country’s migrant workers were once celebrated for their industriousness, these men and women have developed a reputation for wasting their time playing online games or streaming TV, picking up day jobs only when they need money to pay their phone bill or rent. Shunning longer-term work and factory jobs in favour of less demanding service roles, they sum up their lifestyle in a simple mantra: “Work for a day, have fun for three.”

On a recent morning, Li — a 32-year-old from Shaanxi province who declined to give his full name — surveyed the market’s bulletin board with little enthusiasm. When a recruiter approached with a smartphone video from a factory seeking workers, Li rejected the job as soon as he saw it involved operating heavy machinery.

Li’s attitude suggests the lie flat movement may be a symptom of a new stage in China’s economic development: As a nation gets richer, its workers can afford to be more choosy. In the US and Europe, the formation of a large middle class was key to the rise of 1960s counterculture and, later, the so-called slacker generation of the 1990s.

In an echo of those Western movements, middle-class young Chinese people — with prospects beyond anything their parents could ever have hoped for — say their society is too conformist and materialistic. “There is a rather limited definition of success,” says Chen

Ziyang, 25, who is living in Shenzhen while studying online for a master’s degree from the University of Chicago.

“We all know Jack Ma and those CEOs. But if everyone pursued that kind of career, of course there will be more competition and depression,” she says over drinks at an upscale teahouse. “Some people give up and lie flat.”

American resignation

In the US, the financial anxieties of millennials long predate Covid-19. Because of the combination of an explosion in student debt and the plodding recovery from the Great Recession, this generation is likely to be the first in US history to be less wealthy than their parents.

The pandemic appears to have brought these concerns to a head. Two-thirds of millennials who left their jobs in 2021 cited mental health reasons, according to a Mind Share Partners survey, and the proportion for Gen Z was even higher, at 81%.

The human and economic carnage caused by Covid-19 has also left many young people questioning their priorities. In July 2020, the federal agency in Washington DC where Ben Anderson worked summoned its staff back to the office without supplying safety equipment or making accommodations for social distancing. After a colleague became a Covid-19 long-hauler, Anderson began to wonder whether a steady job was the key to security and a good life after all. “As the world collapsed, I don’t think they gave a shit about me,” the 29-year-old says.

Quitting had been on his mind for a few years already. He had earned top grades in college, relocated to a big city for work, and spent seven years in a full-time, white-collar job. Yet he still couldn’t save enough to buy a home. “Work was crazy stressful, and I was far from my family,” he adds. “And at a certain point it was like, ‘For what?’ I was working in a gigantic bureaucracy in which you don’t effect change. It’s not built for that. I just got jaded.”

He is now living in Los Angeles and acting in television shows and commercials. “I have as much chance in something as insane as Hollywood as running the gauntlet at a government job,” he continues.

Mann: People have felt their power now. They won’t be embarrassed to advocate for themselves PHOTO: DEE DWYER/BLOOMBERG

Although the Great Resignation is often thought of as a youth movement, at least one study shows employees from age 30 to 45 are also quitting at high rates. Nate Mann, who at 40 is among the oldest millennials, spent almost half his life as a bartender in Washington, DC. He put up with late nights and high stress in return for about US$80,000 ($108,000) a year. But when Covid-19 closed the bar at which he worked in March 2020, he decided to focus on something he’d been doing on the side for a while: painting. “I all of a sudden had all this time, so I just hunkered down and focused on the art,” he says.

Many of his friends are also shifting out of poorly paid or unfulfilling jobs. “People have felt their power now,” he continues. “They won’t be embarrassed to advocate for themselves or tell the people: ‘No. I’m not going to do that. That’s not fair or right.’”

Mann was one of the many who used money he had saved over the years to facilitate his reinvention. The US personal savings rate skyrocketed during the pandemic thanks to enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus cheques.

Global burnout

In Japan, the conversations taking place in China and the US about how to balance work and other pursuits sound familiar. In the 1990s, the media painted an unflattering portrait of youthful “freeters” who rejected Japan’s demanding office culture, with its rigid hierarchies and 15-hour workdays, in favour of working odd jobs.

Young people said their lifestyle had been forced on them by a stagnant economy and a deregulation of the labour market that resulted in fewer salaried positions and more job insecurity.

By 2010, freeters had acquired a less disparaging label as part of a bigger phenomenon — the “satori generation” — referring to a state of enlightenment in Japanese Buddhism achieved by giving up material desires.

Kairu Taira, 22, works for a consumer goods company in Kobe and runs a satori generation blog. While not a freeter, he considers himself a minimalist, with a limited wardrobe that includes only four T-shirts and four long-sleeved shirts.

He says the satori generation gets blamed for “not helping the economy enough,” because they spend so little. “But I think each of us is more able to see what’s really important in life,” he says. “In that sense, I like the term.”

The growing acceptance of the satori generation may reflect that lower growth rates and less stable employment are here to stay. The number of newborns in the country, already in decline for decades, fell to a record low in 2020.

“With freeters there was a lot more shame, fear, and anger being expressed,” says Robin O’Day, a professor at the University of North Georgia who studies Japanese youth culture. “Now it seems that there’s nothing that can be done.”

Young people’s prospects took a similar hit from Taiwan’s economic slowdown in the early 2000s. At the time, A-Gui was a video editor in Taipei. Burned out by a job that once had him spend three days straight in the office finishing a project, he quit in 2006 and became a freelancer. “As long as I had enough to live, it was enough,” he says. “There were times when my money almost ran out, but something would always come along.”

Eventually, A-Gui got married, and in 2016 he went back to work full-time. But he sees frustrated younger people today following the same path. “No matter how hard you work, you won’t be able to buy a house,” he says. “The threshold is always rising, so it’s becoming more unobtainable. What’s the point?”

Even in more welfare-minded Europe, where employment retention programs prevented pandemic layoffs on the scale seen in the US, many people are rethinking their careers. Across the Euro area, about two million fewer people are in employment than before the coronavirus struck.

Milena Kula, 26, says she was “relieved” when her contract at a Berlin non-profit organisation focused on politics expired in April 2020. “I hated working a desk job,” she says. “The best part of my day was my 45-minute cycle to work.” She now lives in the Brandenburg countryside, where she plans to set up a communal space for people who — like her — want to live in a more environmentally sustainable way. The idea is not to drop out of society, but to help create one they believe in, she says. “I needed a different approach to how I was doing things, and to be free from manipulation to create the life I want.”


Milena Kula, who now lives in the Brandenburg countryside, was relieved when her work contract lapsed PHOTO: JACOBIA DAHM/BLOOMBERG

Working, reworked

Often what is portrayed as a change in young people’s attitudes is simply a manifestation of longer-term trends, says Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, whose book The Generation Myth challenges stereotypes around generational shifts.

Many people in their 20s and 30s seek different things from work than their older peers, such as prioritising learning new skills over stability, Duffy says, but older cohorts held broadly similar views when they were young.

The vast number of people quitting their jobs in the US and Europe is a sign of a structural, psychological shift, according to Granger from Qualtrics. He says people are being driven to “work on something that’s going to be meaningful, have a higher purpose. We’ve seen a lot of evidence for that.”

In China, the shift may prove to be even more fundamental. The Communist Party is trying to defuse the lie flat phenomenon by promising continued upward mobility, with plans to double the size of the middle-income segment of the population by 2035. But slowing economic growth is leading the party to focus more on how those gains are distributed. Recent policies aimed at improving conditions for gig workers and moderating housing and education costs aim to support a better quality of life.

If these preoccupations about the value of work persist, they may in time influence the course of economies. “Lying flat and the Great Resignation are raising difficult questions, without making specific demands for change. This is good momentum,” says Xiang of the Max Planck Institute. “This can be energy to push for new growth paradigms.” — Bloomberg Businessweek

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