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'Antiwork' movement may be long-run risk to labor force participation: Goldman Sachs

About 5 million Americans have exited the labor force since the pandemic began. Goldman Sachs estimates that about 3.4 million are likely gone for good due to retirements, meaning that 1.7 million people are open to returning to work.

But Goldman said in a note on Nov. 11 that there is a “long-run risk” to labor force participation: a general distaste for work. The bank’s economics team pointed to the reddit thread r/Antiwork, a social media community carrying the mantra “Unemployment for all, not just the rich!”

A common theme on r/Antiwork: younger workers sharing stories about being overworked and burnt out to the point of quitting.

The subreddit is about a tenth the size of the WallStreetBets thread of GameStop mania fame, but Goldman points out that Antiwork now ranks above WallStreetBets in comments per day.

In the last few weeks, the r/Antiwork subreddit has been getting more engagement than the r/WallStreetBets thread that exploded earlier in the year.
In the last few weeks, the r/Antiwork subreddit has been getting more engagement than the r/WallStreetBets thread that exploded earlier in the year. (Subreddit stats, Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research)

“We see some risk that some workers will elect to remain out of the labor force for longer, provided they can afford to do so,” Goldman wrote.

If more younger people choose to stay out of work, that would spell trouble in the trend of depressed labor force participation rates (the amount of people looking for work as a percentage of the total population of working-age people). Before COVID-19, the headline labor force participation rate was at 63.4% and showing signs of rising further. Since June 2020, that figure has struggled to break 62%.

'I quit my toxic job...'

The r/Antiwork thread underscores an important trend in the COVID-19 recovery labor economy: worker power.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that workers have been moving in and out of jobs at record rates. In September, a record 4.4 million people quit their jobs. Many of them likely found new jobs. With an elevated 10.4 million job openings out there, finding new work has been relatively easier for most.

Wages are the most obvious reason for switching jobs, but r/Antiwork speaks to the importance of working environments. The thread is a trove of anecdotes about workers leaving their jobs after being treated unfairly by management and customers/clients.

“I quit my toxic job, without a new job lined up, only a week on the job market and landed a job that pays a lot more,” one redditor posted.

The thread often weaves in discussions of strikes and other labor movements, particularly against large corporations that employ low-wage workers.

A post on the reddit thread r/Antiwork.
A post on the reddit thread r/Antiwork. (Reddit)

Goldman Sachs points out that it is unclear if these “worker’s preferences and lifestyles” — likely aided by the tilt in labor force dynamics in favor of workers — will last forever.

“It is hard to know exactly how much each of the factors mentioned above is weighing on participation,” Goldman wrote.

Brian Cheung is a reporter covering the Fed, economics, and banking for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @bcheungz.

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