From the Great Resignation to Lying Flat, Workers Are Opting Out

In China, the U.S., Japan, and Germany, younger generations are rethinking the pursuit of wealth.

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Around the world, millions of people are rethinking how they work and live—and how to better balance the two.

The Great Resignation has U.S. workers quitting their jobs in record numbers—more than 24 million did so from April to September this year—and many are staying out of the labor 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’s 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’s a reaction against a system in which a grueling “996” work schedule—9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 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.

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’s arrived unexpectedly early in the economy’s development. Others argue it’s more of the 1960s-style counterculture moments that cropped up in the U.S. and parts of western Europe, with ordinary people seeking a lower-pressure society that’s 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 Corp. survey. About 4 in 10 millennial and Gen Z respondents say they’d leave their job if asked to come back to the office full time, a global survey by advisory company Qualtrics International Inc. found—more than any other generation.

Some among older generations have criticized 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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