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The future of work - the 'anti work' revolution is coming

Is the anti work revolution here and what can we learn from it?

During one of my very first jobs, I thought country music singer Johnny Paycheck, known for his one hit wonder, “Take this job and shove it” was going to overdose on my watch. How? Well at just 19 years old I was the manager on duty of the newly reopened - and very posh - Hermitage Hotel in Nashville and there was Mr. Paycheck himself having a bad reaction to something on the stairs leading from the lobby to the mezzanine bar.

Greasy hair, dirty clothes, the quintessential look of a drop out from the 1980s, “Take this job and shove it” was the anthem of the counterculture in the early days of Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is good” era and the hustle culture.

If you weren't a rebel then you were expected to hustle, and hustle we did. Especially especially in the USA where ninety hour weeks were a badge of honour.

I remember falling asleep while I was having my hair cut one day while I was working for KPMG because I hadn’t had a day off in 6 weeks. Telling that story to my friends on the weekend (at the pub after working a full Saturday) made me a hero not a victim back then.

The only people who were dropping out of work back then were people who looked like Johnny Paycheck - the counterculture.

Today? The people dropping out or scaling back from work look just like you and me, our sisters, sons, neighbours and friends who come to our weekend barbeques. Every people who have decided they’ve had enough of the traditional structure at work.

Enter the very real and growing anti-work revolution.

According to recent research in the USA “The labour force participation rate, the proportion of working-age citizens either working or actively looking for work — has declined from a high of 67.5 per cent at the turn of the century to 62.3 per cent.”

In 2016 (pre Covid), 11% of men in the US age 35 - 54 have fallen off the radar where work is concerned.

While this movement has been growing for some time Covid really brought it into the mainstream with Quiet Quitting, the Great Resignation and the new #workyourwage.

It can be tempting to think this trend is coming from those youngsters from Generation Z, perhaps you even think they are lazy slackers. But all older generations think that the younger ones are lazy slackers. Even the much maligned Baby Boomers who were once considered the original and selfish “Me Generation.”

But this revolution has nothing to do with anyone being lazy or being a slacker. It has to do with a seismic shift in priorities and the fact that the power balance has changed radically over the years between organisations and individuals.

This change is also hitting different generations for different reasons. Gen Zs and younger Millennials are not interested in work as a means to get by in life, they’ve got their side hustles and investments and other streams of income. If they are going to work they are looking for a sense of meaning and contribution.

Baby Boomers, on the other hand, are opting for early retirement and breaking the cycle of decades of hustle…but this isn’t their dad’s retirement. They still want to work - they just want to do it on their own terms.

Overall the demand from every generation for a more humane and sustainable way of working is gathering momentum quickly. Unless we figure out how to stop this revolution - or embrace it and capitalise on it - it could cause a severe downturn in our GDP.

So how do we do this? The easiest way to start addressing is to start making work itself more attractive and the best way to do that is to simply treat workers as responsible adults rather than errant children, intent on skiving off, or giddy adolescents, wowed by free beer and pizza.

Use Zoom to reduce the need for work-related travel as well as trips to the office so staff can work from home when they want to. Cut down on the proliferation of meetings. Stop bombarding employees with unnecessary emails, particularly from HR. Embrace part-time jobs so that older workers don’t have to choose between working and retiring.”

The world of work is changing and how people want to work is evolving. Leaders who desperately cling to the old ways and point to new practices like hybrid work as the root cause of the evils of “the anti-work revolution” will find themselves on the fast track to nowhere while braver leaders begin to figure it out.

And some are.

But as long as there are more jobs than people to fill them (and don’t expect that to turn around anytime soon - even in a recession) this seismic shift in people’s relationship to work will continue to push boundaries.

This provides us with real challenges in the workplace, to be sure. I’m a firm believer that we can solve these problems - and I’m seeing companies do it real time. Companies who use new thinking to solve these challenges will be the clear winners in the war for talent as more jobs are advertised and fewer and fewer applicants show up.

Leaders who embrace this will pass those who don’t by in a flash on the career track - if that’s what they want. Because in this new world of work it seems we have choices and smart leaders will embrace them, rather than resist.

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Smiling women and piles of Australian cash
Smiling women and piles of Australian cash