The disease is serious but it isn’t terminal yet
In The Guardian, writer Kari Paul described the novel, and appealing, idea of going full “goblin mode.”
If you’ve never heard of it, goblin mode is the polar opposite of seeking self-improvement.
It’s about dragging yourself out of the house in your pyjamas and stocks to the nearest store, only to buy a can of Coke.
Or staying up until 4 a.m. playing video games, hitting pause only to shuffle to the kitchen to grab another bag of chips.
Goblin mode’s still just an English-speaking world thing. The term’s most popular in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Ireland.
But there’s no reason why it needs to stay that way. The desire to scream “screw it all” is universal.
Take China, for instance. There, the appeal of “lying flat” has been surging in popularity over the last year.
Lying flat — derived from the idea that one should just lie on the ground and do nothing at all — gained traction after several viral posts on Chinese social media from people who described how their lives had improved after rejecting social pressures to work hard, earn a lot of money, marry, and have children.
The buzz surrounding the lying flat movement prompted the Chinese government to intervene and censor lying flat content.
Then, there’s also the escalating talk about the Great Resignation, that mid-pandemic surge in workers voluntarily walking away from their jobs.
What exactly is going on here? Is a new counterculture movement afoot, similar to the 1960s, but with a new generation of adults?
In the West, the traditional idea of a successful career was to get an education and then work for an employer for the rest of one’s productive life.
In return for lifelong service, the employer would reward their loyal employee with enough money to buy a house with a white picket fence and raise a family.
By the end of the employee’s career, the individual would have amassed enough asset value in their pension to live out the rest of their lives in relative comfort.
This social contract — a lifetime of service in exchange for financial security — was not unique to the Western world. China has a similar social contract, with some crucial differences.
Following the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese single-party state and its citizens reached an informal agreement that has served as the foundation of society since. The Chinese social contract works as follows: increased economic prosperity in exchange for political stability under the Communist Party.
The fundamental concept underpinning these narratives is that one should be willing to forego one’s prime physical years in exchange for stability in the twilight of one’s life.
This social contract may have worked long enough for people in a specific demographic — stereotypically, Boomers — to believe it is the natural order of things.
But, this social contract increasingly looks like a bad deal for those who didn’t get on board at just the right time during the post-World War II economic boom.
The over-inflated might of the financial industry in the West has gradually made the social contract itself more “financialised.” That is, obtaining the desired outcome — the house with the white picket fence, the children, the pension — has become increasingly reliant on financial market-style payoffs.
I don’t need to go all the way back to trace the start of this phenomenon. I only need to look at how things have progressed since I started my career in the 2000s. The trend is clear.
When I first started my career, the highest-performing students at university tended to look for jobs in the financial services industry. They gravitated toward the industry segments with the highest potential for huge payoffs, such as investment banking, venture capital, or private equity.
Alternatively, the top graduates who didn’t want to work in a corporate job tended to create startups. Frequently, the stated aim was to “create companies with the potential to change the world.”
The fact that startups face a highly contingent and financialised payoff, i.e. the potential to get rich off the proceeds of an IPO or a buyout, was left unsaid.
The rate at which these industries were sucking up talent was cause for serious concern. After all, there is limited talent at the very top of the pyramid.
Talent moving to the financial services industry or startup companies meant fewer qualified individuals to pursue socially valuable professions such as teaching or research, to name a few.
The trend already in place when I began my career has only accelerated. It feels less like a sinking ship and more like the vessel breaking up before it slips underwater and out of sight for the last time.
The traditional financial industry is not the same as when I started my career. Banks have grown fat from prolonged low interest rates and fiscal stimulus, initially in response to the Great Financial Crisis and, more recently, because of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, increased regulatory oversight of banks has pushed talent and speculative money to less-regulated entities such as hedge funds, family offices, and other privately-owned financial firms.
While this might seem to be an obscure distinction, it also means that talent is leaving the industry. Hedge funds and family offices tend to have leaner cost structures because they aren’t subject to as much regulatory oversight.
However, the unintended consequence is that the financial markets are now riskier than previously.
All of this harms pensions. With returns on safe investments like bonds lower than ever, maintaining generous pension structures as they were in the immediate post-war era is increasingly untenable.
Thus, people currently in the workforce find they have to work harder and take increasingly riskier bets to obtain the benefits they’ve been socialised to believe are the just recompense for their efforts.
The most obvious and logical way to do this is to invest their resources in increasingly speculative ventures. Thus, over the last few years, we’ve witnessed a surge in interest in speculative “assets”, like cannabis stocks, meme stocks, cryptocurrencies, and NFTs.
The increasing precarity in the jobs market also perfectly explains the rise of the side hustle. People are forced to give up their dwindling leisure time for side hustles to make ends meet.
This shift also means changing norms, such as breaking the long-held taboo of telling people how much you earn.
By sharing one’s earnings in solidarity with others struggling to make ends meet, people hope that, with strength in numbers, stressed-out workers can negotiate marginally better deals for themselves.
Essentially, the traditional social contract is fast becoming a shitty deal for people participating in it.
Goblin mode, the Great Resignation, or lying flat, are thus entirely understandable reactions to the tenuous situation more and more people are finding themselves in.
If people find that the deck of cards dealt to them is stacked against them, who can blame them for knocking the table over and opting out of the game completely?
The current situation cannot be sustained. Entire societies of working-age adults being forced to roll the dice to make ends meet is a recipe for disaster.
The current setup needs a serious overhaul. Ironically, Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine may be the jolt needed to kick-start change.
The past few decades have demonstrated that political elites have gone to unforgivable lengths to accommodate Wall Street and big business.
The interminably low interest rates and overly hospital environment for foreign investment have been fertile ground for shady people to stash their ill-gotten gains.
Including oligarchs who amassed fortunes by tying their fortunes to Vladimir Putin’s.
As the atrocities mount in Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine, the political elites’ incrementalist attempts to dissuade Russia is increasingly grating.
After decades of rolling out the red carpet for these oligarchs to bring their funny money to the West, the fact that political elites continue to find excuses not to impose tougher sanctions on people whose funds have likely gone to support Putin’s war is, to put it mildly, beyond the pale.
Furthermore, if these elites can bend over backwards to accommodate the oligarchs, why can’t they channel some energy toward benefiting ordinary folk, who are increasingly being forced to roll the dice just to make ends meet?
As goblin mode, lying flat, and the Great Resignation demonstrate, there is a lot of energy from people looking for a way out of their increasingly challenging situations.
As Russian atrocities in Ukraine escalate and elites’ efforts to stop Russia appear increasingly futile, all that energy currently directed towards speculative efforts like crypto and NFTs may shift. As Stephen Moore pointed out in OneZero, there are early indications that the NFT wave has crested, with attention moving elsewhere.
The question is where all this attention will settle. Whether this attention will go to fuel a 21st century Summer of Love and birth a new counterculture movement, as it did in the 1960s, remains to be seen.