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The Revolt of the Meritocrats: The Quirks and Promises of ‘Lying Flat’

Rousseau wrote that “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Today, for many, a more apt diagnosis would be that everywhere, is that they are at a desk, or cubicle. Bored.

At least that’s what the originators of China’s Tang Ping, or “Lie Flat”movement seem to feel. These young people declare their disillusionment with a culture of working punishing hours at their white-collar jobs in pursuit of goals they find unfulfilling, and instead “lie flat”, that is, do something, anything else. In a viral social media post in the spring of 2021 called “Lying Flat is Justice”, a writer later identified as 26-year-old Luo Huazhong, decried the “996” work expectations, that is, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. The post reads: “I have just been hanging around and I don’t see anything wrong with this … these pressures keep popping up, but we don’t have to abide by these. Lying down is my philosophical movement.” This manifesto for kicking back and clocking out decried the stresses of contemporary life, renouncing what the author declared were unnecessary and unfulfilling criteria, pillars of an old and out of touch order commanding less and less fealty. Striking a chord, it was shared tens of thousands of times across social media in a matter of days. Luo, who, if the multiple profiles in major newspapers is any indication, is something of a hero, is referred to by his admirers as “the master of lying down.” His unorthodox protest has inspired songs and poems extolling the virtues of Lying Down. A popular music video shows a youngish man reclined on a sofa strumming a guitar, singing “lying flat is good, lying flat is wonderful, lying flat is right, lie down so you don’t fall.”

In the face of this movement that demands stillness, the admonitions of an older, baffled generation fall on deaf ears, sounding less like pleas worth listening to and more like the scolding, schoolmarmish tones of a clueless headmaster. An official in a part of Sichuan home to many office workers sounded evidently perturbed when an FT piece quoted him urging the lie-downers to snap out of it, that “there is only the splendor of struggle and endeavor. Young people, come on!”

What’s more, this nascent movement and others that bear more than a passing resemblance to it elsewhere signal a fundamental disillusionment with the meritocracy and a desire on the part of many young people for something else. The kind of college-educated 20-somethings who had for most of living memory raced to get a finger hold on the bottom rung of the precariously perched ladder of their chosen profession, not hesitating, or deigning to have a second thought before committing themselves to years trying to ascend that ladder. It was an attitude summed up pithily by the novelist Walter Kirn, writing that “As a natural-born child of the meritocracy, I'd been amassing momentum my whole life, entering spelling bees, vying for forensics medals, running my mouth in mock United

Nations meetings and model state governments and student congresses, and I knew only one direction: forward, onward. I lived for prizes, praise, distinctions, and I gave no thought to any goal higher or broader than my next report card. Learning was secondary; promotion was primary. No one had ever told me what the point was, except to keep on accumulating points, and this struck me as sufficient. What else was there?”

Even more despairing was the writer Robert M. Kaus, who, in recounting a reunion of his college class concluded that “Here we had done all that meritocracy demanded -- gotten good grades, gotten accepted into the best medical schools and law schools, obtained the precious slots that are so important they can only be performed by ‘IQ + Effort’ winners, only to learn that we hate them.”

The disaffected people making up the would-be army of layabouts are on-the-go professionals who have concluded that they’re done. For many, this involves a move to the country, where they’re sure a more pastoral existence also means one more conducive to lying flat. They make a living but focus on other things in life.

Call this the Kafka solution. Work minimal "day jobs" and seek satisfaction and fulfillment through artisanal, extra-market pursuits. (Kafka worked in an insurance company to pay the rent while he wrote on his own time.)

Not only are the meritocracy’s ‘losers’ unhappy, so, it seems, are the winners. Material success, for them, has been achieved and deemed ungratifying. To quote one “Lie-flatter”, “The process of clawing your way to the top is a cycle of hours, it’s very draining.”

Indeed, the phrase ‘rat race’ features prominently in attempts to describe the unhappiness of these office goers. Maybe such a race would be worth it for some larger purpose. Curing Cancer! Going to the Moon! But getting acquired by a larger conglomerate? Maybe not. What’s more, if the ‘winners’ AND the ‘losers’ of this ruthless meritocracy are both miserable, might its days be numbered?

While the particular grievances expressed and nature of the protest might be new, expressions of vague, existential tristesse by disaffected young people are not. 60s counterculture types, those who grew up to be the ones seemingly shocked by people opting out of the rat race, voiced concerns that rhyme with those of Lie Flat. Indeed, student activist Tom Hayden’s declaration that “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit” was written in 1962, but in its general attitude the Lie-Flat devotees would have little to quibble with. Even so, Hayden’s summation of the worries of his generation was a call for action. Those professing adherence to the creed of “Lie Flat”, on the other hand, would seem to countenance a less diligent way of going about things.

An obvious point about this nascent movement is its seeming simplicity. “You mean, choosing to relax more is … revolutionary?” Well, maybe. While the pandemic and its consequences perhaps go some way toward answering the question of ‘why now’, it wouldn’t be justified to see this as more than just one of many reasons sparking this reconsideration. What makes Lying Flat potentially transcendent, so well positioned to elicit sympathy from those far removed from the world of its origin, is a unity of sentiment. It is a solidarity born of common dissatisfaction, and the vagueness that often is evident is its articulation only contributes, rather than limiting, its valence.

Image: Daniel Foster, Flikr

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