Move over cigarettes, Diet Coke is coming for your shtick. Gen Z and younger millennials are trading out the classic smoke break or coffee break for a new treat: “Diet Coke breaks,” the hashtag for which has 14 million views on TikTok.
This latest iteration of a work break allows them to escape the monotony of work, leaving their desks for a midday sunny walk in pursuit of a sugar-free, low-cal Coca-Cola. It might be odd to imagine Don Draper chugging soda like a 9-year-old instead of chain-smoking—but the inflated prices of cigarettes and coffee have left younger generations turning to a different delicacy as a modern way of escaping from corporate dregs.
“A diet coke break is something I do look forward to when I am in the office,” Dedrick Boyington-Warmack, a 27-year-old marketing manager, tells Fortune. “I usually don’t bring soda into my home.”
His TikTok video of his mid-afternoon diet coke break received over 1.8 million views and 240,000 likes, with comments like “No, there really isn’t a better high then [sic] going with your favorite work friends to grab a lil treat.”
It may seem like a little trend, but it’s a habit nearly as old as capitalism itself: The worker’s time away from their labor during work hours to recharge. Think less caffeine and nicotine, more aspartame. It doesn’t help that Gen Z is dealing with a new kind of workplace disenchantment. Over the last three years, it’s felt arguably increasingly tiring to clock in at work while a pandemic, climate disaster, and general rising global tension have been going on. And, the hours spent at work don’t feel like they’re making much difference in employees’ wallets, as inflation remains stubborn, making workers extremely pessimistic about the economy.
Dealing with the rise and grind of it all has fueled a number of workplace trends, with Gen Z purportedly at the helm, from the anti-work movement and lying flat to quiet quitting. On a smaller scale, some young adults are gamifying their life and finances as a coping mechanism, turning a simple walk into a “hot girl walk” or a quick trip to the corner store as a “Diet Coke break.” The idea is to make the most of the little things—a mini special occasion to disrupt nationwide malaise, if you will.
As one commenter on user @hauskris’ TikTok of a Diet Coke Break wrote, “Romanticize the little things.”
Young workers don’t want to pay for daily cigs and coffee
The Diet Coke break comes from a long lineage of timeouts in the workplace, a daughter of the coffee break that stemmed from the modern workflow. During the early 1900s, factories that instituted an eight-hour work day implemented coffee breaks. As unions began to mandate this break, the luxury became a standard practice and, eventually, a staple in corporate America as a way to develop better relationships with colleagues, a space to commiserate, and release some steam.
Also rooted in the industrial times, smoke breaks similarly allowed for some decompressing and bonding time. A bit more counter-culture than coffee, smoke breaks became so ingrained in the modern workforce that “workers across the postwar American economy came to assume smoking at work as a kind of right,” explains professor R. Todd Laugen.
But as smoking became less mainstream and inflation made coffee and cigarettes more expensive, younger generations turned to Diet Coke instead.
“It’s not a great vibe for the office,” Boyington-Warmack, who is based in Brooklyn, says of smoking. “I wouldn’t want to smell like cigarettes in the workplace. I only smoke on the weekend, socially. But Diet Coke you can sneak into your work day.”
Plus, he added, Diet Coke is a lot cheaper than a Blue Bottle coffee. It’s also less costly than the average pack of cigarettes that can run you more than $10 in New York City, according to Balancing Everything.
Now, taking breaks has been a longtime suggested solution to work fatigue; but whatever the outing might be centered around, small amounts of time off don’t get rid of burnout since underlying stressors remain unaddressed. A Diet Coke may not thus solve bigger issues, but it can certainly help the day go down more easily by providing a bit of a salve from the blinding lights in the office and perhaps a bonding moment with other coworkers.
As Boyington-Warmack puts it, “You get a little boost of caffeine, you get fresh air leaving the office, and most of all, you get to spend time with your coworkers (the cool ones of course).”
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