Updated Aug 5, 2023 - Economy

The American Dream has lost its hustle

Illustration of a hand operating a computer mouse with a thumbs down instead of their pointer finger

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/ Axios

News organizations can't quit writing about "quiet quitting" and its close cousins — bare minimum Mondays, lazy girl jobs, loud quitting, grumpy staying, hush tripping, "act your wage," etc., etc.

Why it matters: The popularity of such stories, which largely describe behavior as old as time, reveals something important about how the American Dream has changed significantly in the wake of the pandemic, especially for Gen Z and younger Millennials.

Between the lines: Young Americans mistrusted capitalism — they were convinced that employers were exploiting their labor — even before the pandemic .

  • Now, with a strong labor market at their backs, they are increasingly proud of, and being lauded for, turning the tables on their employers — the exploited have become the exploiters.

How it works: The behaviors themselves are mostly decades old. The phrase "phoning it in" dates back at least to 1938, and the novelty then was the phone, not the conduct.

  • What's new is that the underlying attitude has been transformed. It used to be something to be ashamed of; now it's something millions aspire to and celebrate. The r/antiwork forum ("Unemployment for all, not just the rich!") has 2.7 million members.
  • Hustle culture, even among the self-employed, is on the wane.

Flashback: The 1999 movie "Office Space" came thisclose to making slacking off heroic — but then, in the final scene, it turns out that the protagonist, Peter Gibbons, is perfectly happy to put in an honest day's work after all. It wasn't the all-American paragon of hard work he was rebelling against, just soulless corporate drudgery.

  • In fact, Gibbons quits what might now be termed a lazy-girl career in order to achieve happiness. That's the exact opposite of workers today, who achieve happiness by minimizing the amount they do for their employer.

The big picture: The pandemic reminded us all that we only live once and that devoting decades of our lives to making other people rich might be a suboptimal use of our precious time on this planet.

Be smart: The Great Resignation, combined with the rise of hybrid work, helped to usher in an era where job satisfaction has reached all-time highs, partly because being interested in your job is less important to workers than it used to be.

  • The key to job satisfaction turns out, at least for a substantial minority of workers, to be the ability to be happy in a job where you're not excelling, or even trying to do so.
  • If workers can't have it all, then jettisoning ambition in many cases is going to be the utility-maximizing move. It also makes it much easier to carve out personal time in a world where working from home means that on some level you're always at work.
  • Money buys happiness, work buys stress; so one smart post-capitalist move can be to work enough to be happy but not so much as to be stressed.

The bottom line: Hard work used to be part and parcel of the American Dream. For millions of younger workers, that's no longer the case.

Go deeper: Listen to the Axios Today podcast, where Erica Pandey and Felix Salmon talk about how exactly the American Dream has shifted, especially for Gen Z or young Millennials.

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