The new generation of rat race refuseniks

Tom Hodgkinson salutes “tang ping”, the Chinese millennials lying down in protest against a culture of overwork

A tang ping meme that has been circulating on the Chinese social network Sina Weibo

One remarkable trend emerging in the post-Covid world is a new worldwide anti-ambition movement. Everywhere you look young people are surveying their futures and turning their backs on the gospel of hard work.

The global superpowers of the USA and China have, over the last hundred years or so, fostered a ferocious work ethic in their young. Silicon Valley has accelerated the trend and it’s apparently fashionable to post pictures of yourself falling asleep at your computer at midnight having put in another heroic twelve-hour shift. They call it “hustle porn”. The masters of the universe at JP Morgan encourage their young staff to work a crazy 100 hours a week. Elon Musk boasts about sleeping under his desk.

But this elevation of work is a dangerous creed with few winners and many losers. America’s opiate crisis, I would argue, was at least in part a result of the “soldiering on” attitude. In great pain resulting from your job? Take OxyContin and carry on until you die. It’s a puritan creed. And it’s deadly. OxyContin, made by the billionaire Sackler family, killed hundreds of thousands of people. The shocking story is told in Patrick Radden Keefe’s book, Empire of Pain, which was reviewed in the July issue of Perspective. Most commentators blame the Sacklers. However, we can also blame a systemic failure. After all, the Sacklers’ get-rich-quick scheme would not have worked without the complicity of doctors, bosses and the workers themselves. It’s the work round the clock mentality which should be on trial.

China’s new work ethic is Confucian rather than Calvinistic in origin but has the same effect of completely knackering and depressing its people. It has been nicknamed 9-9-6. That means working from nine till nine, six days a week. If my calculations are correct, that makes 72 hours. INSANITY. Even the notoriously tough workhouses in England in the nineteenth century only demanded a 50-hour week, and the inmates were encouraged to sleep ten hours a night.

If Bertrand Russell and Maynard Keynes could see us now, they’d be sorely disappointed by the backwards motion of mankind. Both those august philosophers argued in the 1930s that a civilised society would see a gradual shortening of the working week. Russell reckoned a three-day week was possible; Keynes was even more optimistic and predicted a fifteen-hour week in the early years of the millennium.

The always progressive Iceland, home of anarchist mayors and the Sugarcubes, has been working on a four-day week and recent reports say it was a success. The trials saw 2,500 workers moving from a 40-hour week to a 36-hour week on the same pay and most of the working population will now move to a shorter work week. Now that is what you call progress.

A more radical Chinese youth movement, inspired by the example of Diogenes, who threw away all his possessions and lived like a dog in an upturned wine cask in Athens, has emerged in recent months. It has the appealing name of “lying flat”, or “tang ping” in Mandarin. Nihilistic millennials have surveyed what the authorities have got mapped out and concluded, like Jarvis Cocker, that it’s nothing much to shout about.

Tang ping appears to have its origins in a blog post by young Luo Huazhong, a former factory worker who quit his job, reduced his outgoings and got by on odd jobs. “I have been chilling,” Mr. Luo, 31, wrote. “I don’t feel like there’s anything wrong.”

The movement gathered 200,000 followers on social media, but the authorities then censored tang ping-related posts and the newspapers have called the movement “shameful”. Even the hardworking utilitarian corporate capitalists at the Economist magazine have taken notice and ran a report with the headline “China urges its people to struggle. Some say no.”

Tang ping reminds me very much of the English punk movement in the 1970s. Johnny Rotten sang various anti-work lyrics including “I don’t work, I just feed, that’s all I need” and “I’m a lazy sod”, and both The Clash and The Specials raged against crap jobs and “the system”, singing “I won’t open a letter bomb for you” and “you’ll be working for the rat race”.

The Chinese millennials are in fact the new Taoists. The country has always battled between the Confucian ideals of harmony and social conformity and the hippy ideals of Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, who hymned the joys of sitting quietly by a river writing poetry rather than kowtowing at the court.

Mr Luo has defended himself by arguing that his actions, or lack of them, hurt no one. “Those people who say lying down is shameful are shameless,” he said. “I have the right to choose a slow lifestyle. I didn’t do anything destructive to society. Do we have to work twelve hours a day in a sweatshop, and is that justice?”

Millions of women in the US are waking up and starting to rebel against a work ethic which, after all, only really serves the rich white guys who run Amazon, Facebook, Apple and all the rest of the greedy bloodsucking parasites out there

Another tang ping advocate is Zhang Xinmin, who quit his job in advertising to concentrate on his music. He wrote a distinctly Taoist song called “Tang ping Is the Right Way.” It was promptly removed by the authorities. “Nowadays,” he complained, “only running forward is allowed, but not lying down.” His song includes lyrics such as “Lying down saves energy and saves the planet” and “lying down is the royal way”. The less censorious platform YouTube has not banned the song, however, and you can see it there, along with a clutch of approving comments from American millennials.

For yes, that other massive workhouse nation, the USA, is also showing signs of relinquishing its work ethic, at least among young women. Following the decision of tennis star Naomi Osaka to slow down a bit and take a break, US journalist Kelli María Korducki (author of Hard to Do: The Surprising, Feminist History of Breaking Up), published a piece in The New York Times with the appealing headline “We’re finally starting to revolt against the cult of ambition”. She called meritocracy a “myth” and railed against that rather nauseating brand of “work your ass off for the corporation” feminism promoted by Facebook boss Sheryl Sandberg:

“From the career-branded Barbie dolls of my 1990s girlhood, to the ‘lean in’ ethos of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, to the so-called ‘girl boss’ era of the last decade, an ethos of careerism has been intrinsic to the mainstream cultural conception of women’s ‘empowerment’.”

This is stirring stuff and pandemic-related. Korducki says that millions of women in the US are waking up and starting to rebel against a work ethic which, after all, only really serves the rich white guys who run Amazon, Facebook, Apple and all the rest of the greedy bloodsucking parasites out there.

In the UK there are also signs of a young feminist uprising against the work ethic. Writer Lola Olufemi is a member of an antiwork collective called “bare minimum” (lack of capital letters is deliberate), who are currently showing a video at London’s ICA. She says they want to focus on “illness, work, laziness, care, love and doing nothing”. Their film Manifesto shows the collective’s members sitting in parks, laughing, doing handstands and foraging.

As Korucki says: “In a society that prizes individual achievement above most other things, ambition is often framed as an unambiguous virtue, akin to hard work or tenacity. But the pursuit of power and influence is, to some extent, a vote of confidence in the profit-driven myth of meritocracy that has betrayed millions of American women through the course of the pandemic and before it, to our disillusionment and despair.” Ambition can lead to Sacklerism: who cares about killing people, so long as you work hard and are rich? It would have been infinitely better for humanity, of course, if Mr Sackler had retired to a cabin in the woods and lived alone in the bee-loud glade. If you do nothing, you cause no pain.

Cute yet political. A meme from New York-based Chinese social network SupChina


And what is ambition, exactly? Isn’t it a deferral of pleasure? Isn’t it about a postponement of present enjoyment with the hope, never realised, of some ideal level of money and power and fame one day in the future? It’s a “jam tomorrow” philosophy. And Gen Z might well be observing Gen X and concluding that we do not present a terribly good example as far as life satisfaction goes. The price of ambition is the death of the soul. What about all those arty Gen X types who became bankers, saying that they would “do this for a few years” but who got stuck in the ambition trap?

Covid has given people a new lease of life in a funny way. It’s brought thoughts of death to the forefront of the imagination, with the natural result that people are asking, what exactly is the point of being alive? In my own case, despite having had a very privileged education – Westminster and Cambridge – I rejected traditional career paths in favour of freelancing and small business, and I don’t regret it. I have little (but enough) money, no status, no title, no pension, no job, no awards, nothing. Yet my 21-year-old son says: “You followed the right path. This is the best way to live.” (Though he does complain about our crappy old cars.)

Ambition is the precise opposite of the creed of “living in the moment”. It’s all about sacrificing present pleasure to an increased level of wealth or power or fame in the future. What happened to enjoying life, hanging out with loved ones, doing nothing? As Olufemi, the tang ping movement and Korducki are arguing, doing nothing is a sign of being free. Working hard for the man is a form of slavery.

The future mapped out by Keynes and Bertrand Russell was a life of leisure, for men and for women (and everyone in between). Keynes quotes a well-known charwoman’s epitaph:

Don’t mourn for me now,
don’t mourn for me never,
I am going to do nothing for ever and ever.

Death, then, was the only release from a life of hard toil. Keynes thinks that mankind, with all its cleverness, should create more time for doing nothing before death. But we’re actually afraid of idling, he says.

“[W]e have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing!”

That’s because psychopathic rich people spend their time dashing about and boasting about how busy they are, thus setting a bad example to the rest of us. Keynes ends his essay with a beautiful anti-capitalist vision of a society where moneylending is frowned upon and we laze about all day:

“I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue – that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field, who toil not, neither do they spin.”

Salutations to the brave young Chinese rebels, to the American anti-work feminists, to the progressives of Iceland, and to the “doing nothing” artists at the ICA here in Blighty, for asserting the basic Socratic principle that life is for living well. Keep up the good work.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of the Idler. He is author of “How to be Idle, How to be Free” and, most recently, “Business for Bohemians”, all in Penguin

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