From ‘sweet lives’ to ‘silent dropouts’, COVID has created a new workforce
Remove all bot-generated content and social media — or more specifically, trending content on social media — can be used as an insightful window into the cultural mood.
Take for example the recently trending “sweet living” or “silent shutdown” lifestyles circulating on various social media platforms. What these trends have in common is that they represent a consciously pursued or aspired balance between work and life. Still, there seem to be some discrepancies when it comes to the respective audiences they move with.
For example, the sweet life seems to resonate more with non-white young adult women, and in contrast, quiet surrender seems to have more appeal with middle-to-upper-class white-collar workers. Regardless of demographics, together these topics stand in stark contrast to the mindset around work-life balance before the pandemic.
That’s not to say there weren’t any warning signs.
In the year leading up to the start of the pandemic, a trending topic of interest on social media was the concept of ‘workism’. First introduced by Derek Thompson, workism referred to a growing tendency among many workers to put in hours beyond what was required of them. Thompson believed that the impetus for this was the increased integration and dominance of our professional life into our social identity. As he so aptly noted in 2019, such pursuits of linking work to identity were meant to leave workers feeling empty, that no accomplishment in this capitalist society would ever be internally fulfilling.
Much of the conversation on social media about workism was philosophical in nature, assessing the role that work plays in relation to our social identity. In contrast, post-pandemic social media conversations about sweet living and silent shutdown are trending topics for redefinition and action.
They directly question the virtue of America’s ethos of hard work and its spirit of materialism. Social media provides an amplified forum for rigorous cultural debate about the extent to which we should allow our professional lives to control and define us.
Compared to many of our OECD peers, American workers put in more hours each year. Some argue that this hard work ethic is what makes the United States the wealthiest nation in the world. Yet the gap between the valuation of what workers produce and what they earn in return has continued to widen.
This means that American workers have continued to see the value of their productivity increase only to end up with stagnant wages and salaries as a reward for their efforts. This stagnation has worsened given the escalating costs of goods and services. For decades, workers have seen their work-life balance shift away from home and family life in an effort to materially follow the cultural “Jones.”
Not surprisingly, the pandemic has served as a wake-up call for many workers. Despite early wage growth at the start of the pandemic, the data suggests that this growth was short-lived. It has since regressed to its former form. Since January, workers have actually experienced negative wage growth. The shutdown of workplaces and the closing of hours and places of work have brought into stark contrast the extent to which many Americans were aimlessly treading water in their previous work roles with little to show in terms of reward or satisfaction. .
The pandemic has caused many Americans to take stock of their work-life balance and wonder if their years of hard work have produced the kind of balance they seek. The pandemic appears to have accelerated the undercurrent of lingering worker dissatisfaction. This seems especially true when employers have issued the clear call for a return to action and workers have realized that this will mean a return to the status quo of an imbalance between work and personal life.
It would be foolhardy to assume that social media was the causal mechanism for such a collective re-examination. What the trending topics of soft life and quiet shutdown reflect is our ongoing public negotiation regarding the collective sentiment surrounding work and its place in our daily lives. These are lifestyle movements, and social media amplifies the discussion, bringing together individuals who can live quietly in a similar milieu. Their popularity as hot topics indirectly bolsters the legitimacy of workers’ lingering dissatisfaction with maintaining their work-life balance.
Critics might say that the sweet life is actually the embrace of materialism, or that silent surrender is the surrender of a work ethic. It is understandable that the business class finds the underlying sentiment of these messages potentially threatening.
The sweet life is antithetical to the status quo of materialism for nothing more than consumerism. The pandemic has laid bare how meaningless our hardware-driven activities have become. Leaving quietly is not the refusal to work, but rather the refusal to be exploited by paying only the amount that is demanded of them and agreed with their employer.
This lack of fulfillment in the real life of work and the supposed fruits it bears seem to be moving the needle, as a recent Gallup poll estimates that nearly 50% of the American workforce are now silent dropouts. . These social media trends do not reflect a declining American work ethic or an abandonment of material desires. As a recent study suggests, quitting smoking in silence highlights just how bad the work environment is or was for many workers.
The pandemic seems to have awakened a new form of worker consciousness that social media is harnessing and helping to amplify. The hot topics of sweet living and quiet surrender ask workers to grapple with the all-important question of whether we live to work or work to live.
Kent Bausman, Ph.D.is a professor of sociology at Online Sociology Program at Maryville University.