A Global Urge to Lie Flat
Bloomberg Businessweek|December 13, 2021
Burned-out millennials and Gen Zers are quitting their jobs by the millions
By Tom Hancock, Katia Dmitrieva, Carolynn Look, and Yuko Takeo, with Allen Wan and Amanda Wang

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 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 ’90s) 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 at tech companies and in other industries. So is unrelenting pressure from family, society, and even the government to keep climbing the ladder.

While the country’s economy has doubled in size over the past decade, 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 movements 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 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.

In China, what started as a witty expression of youthful rebellion has become a movement that even Xi Jinping has acknowledged. In a speech in August, the president urged the country to “avoid involution and lying flat” and instead “open channels for upward mobility.”

“I haven’t been working for two years, and I don’t see anything wrong with this,” read the April post on the Baidu Tieba platform that sent lie flat viral. “Pressure mainly comes from comparisons with your peers and the values of the older generations. But we don’t have to follow them.” The poster, who went by the name Kind-Hearted Traveler, drew a comparison to the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, an ascetic who lived in a barrel: “Lying flat is my philosophical movement.”

The movement’s spiritual home may be Shenzhen, the booming technology hub in southeastern China that’s home to 18 million people, many of whom have moved there from other parts of the country to work at giant electronics factories or at companies such as Huawei Technologies Co. and Tencent Holdings Ltd.

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