Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

‘Let it rot’ or ‘the big quit’ … eventually it’s reality that bites

  • When people look at their phones, they are at the centre of the social universe. But at work, they are cogs in a machine. No wonder many want to quit

In China, it’s called “lying flat” and “letting it rot”. In North America, there is a similar phenomenon known as “the great resignation”, “the big quit” or “the great reshuffle”.

It’s not clear whether they are sustainable trends in employment and underemployment, or only a temporary movement induced by the isolation of the global Covid-19 pandemic that is bound to fade out as the world recovers from the heath crisis.

I didn’t pay much attention to it until my two children, about to graduate from university, said they wanted to “quit” before they had even joined the workforce. That seems like a mentality among some young people rather than their actual employment situation.

Many older people seem to be sympathetic, as they have had to struggle through the rat race all their lives and understand the constant drudgeries, frustrations and anxieties of employment. Who wants that?

Somehow, many young people think work should be meaningful and psychologically or spiritually fulfilling, and that they should enjoy autonomy and be given enough room to express creativity. Why should they waste their youth on “996”, the Chinese slang for unwritten but required overtime work, as in 9am to 9pm, six days per week.

When young people ‘lie flat’, grown-ups must ask themselves why

That has long been the norm in Confucian societies not just in China, but also Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore as well. In a way, it’s the adult extension of the fiercely competitive education systems in those places.

If people have rightly questioned the continuing viability and validity of such an education, perhaps they should question the 996 work ethic, too.

However, what I am about to write will no doubt be considered hateful, ignorant or at least insensitive. More likely, and I would agree with you, it’s the grumblings of an old work dog getting all cranky and losing his hair. My own children will be up in arms when they read it. Well, what of it? At my age, I just don’t care any more.

Now, with the preliminary over, I will argue that “let it rot” or “let’s all quit”, whether in Asia or North America, is all the fault of social media and online connectivity, in particular, the ubiquitous smartphone that has become the electronic bodily extension of many people, not just young ones.

In this globalised capitalist system – forget about Chinese communism, there is no such thing – most of us exist as workers/producers and consumers. As the latter, life has never been easier as gratification is almost instant. Banking, shopping, borrowing money, negotiating, socialising, “hooking up”, you name it – they can all be done on your smartphone.

Are China’s frustrated middle class ‘lying flat’ as wealth outlook changes?

And you can share your most insignificant moments as lived experiences such as eating your instant noodles with an egg this morning on social media. You think the world is at your fingertip.

At least for those who live in an urbanised setting with online connectivity, life has never been easier in the history of the human race. That gives you the illusions of freedom and autonomy. And mainstream social media – for which your data and usage are their revenue sources – are happy to propagate those myths.

Unfortunately, even at this point in human history with its unprecedented abundance, most of us still need to work to make a living. Unless you are very lucky or possess highly unique and bankable skills, the second you step back into the workplace, the harsh reality sinks in. It’s drudgery, tedium and highly repetitive work. It’s not spiritually rewarding. You are just a cog and nobody cares what you ate this morning.

I can understand why many people can’t accept the dichotomy between their two planes of existence. When they look at their smartphones, they are at the centre of the social universe. But all around them at work, they are just more cogs in the machine. No wonder so many want to quit.

Well, can you afford to?