Anti-capitalism is flooding TikTok as young people question a life that prioritizes productivity over well-being

Anti-capitalism is flooding TikTok as young people question a life that prioritizes productivity over well-being
Americans have had it with productivity.Images: @simplifying.sam/@ramalauw/@therapyjeff, compiled by Ben Winck
  • Work is life and life is work for many Americans in the 21st century.
  • TikTok users are calling out capitalism for the toll it takes on their mental health.

In a TikTok video with 1.8 million views, a user who calls themselves Rama beams at the camera.

"Like many young adults, I used to want an enjoyable and meaningful life," Rama says with a smile. "That is until I discovered capitalism. Now I live in a society where my productivity matters more than my well-being, and so I'm just depressed and anxious all the time. I'm smiling, but I'm deeply wounded. I work three jobs, and I still feel like I'm not doing enough."

Anti-capitalism is taking over TikTok as users like Rama denounce America's glorification of the rat race. The pandemic prompted many American workers to rethink their life's purpose, and the youngest among them are questioning a life that endlessly pursues the next accomplishment.

@ramalauw Ever since I started subscribing to ✨Cap1talism✨ I have never rested without feeling guilty #Free99 #Capitalism #fypシ ♬ Infomercial music - QUINNY Z

"When you live in a capitalist society, no matter what you do, it's never enough," Jeff Guenther, a therapist, said in one of his many TikTok videos analyzing the link between work and self-worth. "Under capitalism, you derive value by doing something, not by just being human."

The American way of working for passion and a sense of productivity is taking a toll. It's why the World Health Organization diagnosed burnout as a clinical syndrome in 2019, why people are advocating for a four-day work week, and why America loves the flexibility of working from home. It explains the post-pandemic shift we've seen in work as employees quit by the millions every month.


But some people quitting might feel bad about it because it feels like a failure under American work culture. "That feeling of guilt and not being good enough is going to pop up when you prioritize your well-being over work," Guenther said.

Passion, a paycheck, and a feeling of productivity

Erin Cech, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, said this melding of work and self stems from the role productivity and hard work play in culture: They're status symbols. Look no further than the worship of hustle culture, girl bosses, and unicorn entrepreneurs.

"There's a sense that the morally valuable way to have a career is aligned with a sense of passion," Cech said. "When people are working, they're doing it out of a sense of needing fulfillment in their own lives, not just to bring in a paycheck."

This mentality is a byproduct of a certain set of American ideals in which being busy is romanticized, working more than 40 hours a week is often the expectation, and jobs are people's passions. It has roots in the Protestant ethic, which sees hard work as a sign of good character. In 1905, the German sociologist Max Weber argued that Calvinism, the theological framework of America's first major settlers who laid the initial foundation for the US economy, gave rise to capitalist success. The theory has been much debated, but research has shown it has legs.

@therapyjeff When you live in a capitalist society, no matter what you do, it's never enough. #therapy #capitalism #america #mentalhealth #covid #therapytiktok ♬ original sound - TherapyJeff

"The notion of productivity as a sense of self-worth is a social construct of our cultural space," Cech said. "In the United States economy, particularly with the white-collar workforce, there is a strong link between needing to not only be productive but to show one is productive, and a sense of self worth."


The reason people find this self-worth in their jobs, Cech explained, is because they spend so much of their time and energy there. Younger generations are leading the way. In her book, "The Trouble with Passion," Cech documented how college students pursue a career based on their passion over income and job security.

Millennials have a history of picking passion over paychecks. Gen Z is turning out the same: 42% of Gen Z respondents to a survey this month by the talent firm Lever would rather be at a company that gives them a sense of purpose than one that pays them more. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey that polled American teenagers (many of whom are now in today's workforce) about their aspirations for the future found that 95% of them said having a job or career they enjoyed was extremely or very important to them.

But the expectation to be productive out of a personal sense of meaning ties the link between productivity and self-worth even more tightly, Cech said. It might explain why both millennials and Gen Z experience more anxiety and stress than older generations.

The pressure to produce haunts the wealthy and poor alike

One way the need for endless productivity manifests, said Guenther, the therapist on TikTok, is when people feel they should be more accomplished in life compared with others. He said this shows up differently for people of differing socioeconomic statuses: Those with a privileged background face pressure to live up to their families' expectations, while those with a less privileged background feel they need to be productive to survive.

Cech pointed out that people from working middle-class backgrounds, like first-generation college students, might also feel the need to get the most prestigious, well-paying job in order to climb the socioeconomic ladder.


"If you are poor, you need to make ends meet, and every day is a struggle," said Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at Columbia University. "If you are rich, your status anxiety keeps pushing you to do more because you think your worth is dependent on your net worth. And if you are in the middle, you feel that salaries have stagnated but life gets more expensive, so all the money you spent on studies and your career is not giving you what you dreamed or a home."

@simplifying.sam Do nothing, live more #ihatecaptialism #capitalism #marxism ♬ original sound - Samantha

He said there are clear trade-offs between professional and personal success. Working long hours might mean a bigger paycheck, but it might come at the sacrifice of relationships, health, and life itself.

"For the vast majority of our existence, we worked to live rather than lived to work," Chamorro-Premuzic said over email, "but now that competition for talent (including workers' loyalty) is fierce, the top employers are willing to pay a lot if people devote their lives to their job or careers."

Some are rethinking their self-worth amid the Great Resignation and anti-work wave

To be sure, productivity is a core tenet of a capitalist system that has spurred economic growth in the form of more jobs, consumer choice, and innovation. It's designed to reward hard work, giving paychecks to those who provide value and profits to leaders who run the most efficient businesses.

But it also creates a system that relies on consumer spending to drive 70% of the economy, supporting those businesses and, in turn, their workers' paychecks. And it leaves behind people who aren't seen as productive enough. After all, in the US, access to basic needs like healthcare and a home rely on one thing: having a job.


America's dependence on productivity reframed the reverence of hustle culture as peoples' personal lives took more precedence over their jobs during the pandemic, as Insider's Aki Ito recently explored. Look no further than the Great Resignation, the antiwork movement, and Gen Zers slowing down their output.

Some are dedicating more time to loved ones and meaningful hobbies, which Chamorro-Premuzic said is where we find true happiness. But, he added, "The reality is that most people struggle following this advice, at times because they don't believe it and at times because they are less interested in being happy than we think, and even than they say."