Four weeks ago, no one had heard the phrase “quiet quitting”. In recent years there has been a lot of discussion, speculation and uproar over other aspects of working in the United States, but this particular phenomenon had barely registered in the public consciousness. Now, thanks to the arguably overstated influence of TikTok, we have such venerable institutions as the Wall Street Journal (1) and National Public Radio (2) sounding off on what could either be a revolutionary step towards toppling global capitalism and rewriting the rules of work or it’s just a trendy name for performing at a modest level and not struggling to excel.
First, let us acknowledge that we are approaching or maybe have arrived at an interesting crossroads in labor history. The COVID-19 pandemic sparked enormous shifts in the American workforce: working from home became a reality for millions; cashiers and delivery drivers became heroes; we saw what jobs really were essential. As the pandemic has waned, we have seen many employers, especially in the food service and hospitality sectors, struggling to attract and retain staff. A new sense of self-worth seems to have taken hold of many ‘unskilled’ and ‘entry level’ workers and they appear no longer content with being droplets in a boundless sea of cheap and expendable labor. At least that is what we have been led to believe.
There is ample anecdotal evidence to support the idea of a modern-day labor movement the likes of which we haven’t seen in a century. We have witnessed unionization efforts succeed at Amazon fulfillment centers and Starbucks cafes. We have seen retailers like Walmart and Target increase their base wage to almost unheard levels. We’ve heard phrases like “work-life balance” tossed around by fast food chains eager to fill vacancies left in the pandemic’s wake. TikTok is rife with examples of people walking off the job in dramatic fashion or posting long-winded diatribes as to why they are taking this bold step and redefine work. All of this is important and certainly hints and significant changes. The importance is underscored by the fact multiple news platforms latch on to these stories and present them as proof that the very foundations of Work are being shaken and that employees are finally taking power. Pro-business politicians and capitalism apologists decry these developments as evidence anarchy and socialism are on the rise.
If we take a moment to really think, though, we can easily spot the hyperbole coming from all sides. There hasn’t been any major increase in either union membership or in employees deciding to quit (whether quietly or otherwise). While criticism has become amplified by and evidence disseminated through social media, there has been little to indicate any serious systemic changes between labor and management (3). There has been no shortage of griping about long waits at grocery stores or local restaurants because of staffing issues, but there doesn’t seem to have been a wave of closures as one might expect if “acting your wage” was having a real impact on business. Instead, what seems to have happened is employers have doubled down on the old practice of doing more with less. Anyone who has worked in community pharmacy over the past decade is no stranger to this — pharmacies (especially major chains) are expected to be vaccination clinics, health testing centers, insurance help desks and medical advice hotlines in addition to handling all the main business filling prescriptions. All this with no more (and oftentimes fewer) staff members. To be clear: business still very much has the upper hand and can adapt much faster than labor, plus the former tends to have time and government officials on its side.
All this is a roundabout way to return to the issue of ‘quiet quitting’. Like so much that originates in the depths of social media, quiet quitting seems like one more fad or trend whose influence has been overblown by the mainstream media. I’m sure there are plenty of people who do, whether consciously or unconsciously, practice quiet quitting and I’m sure there are many people who practice it as a political statement. The reality, however, is that quiet quitting is not going to cure the chronic toxicity often experienced in workplaces and it is disingenuous, possibly dangerous, for news outlets and social media influencers to pretend like it will. In the majority of cases, quiet quitting will not be seen as an effort to reclaim one’s time or lessen the stress of work — it will likely be viewed as underperforming, not being a team player or simply slacking. We are still in the infancy of an era in which employers recognize work for work’s sake is not as attractive as it may have once been and that employers want recognition and support as well as more tangible benefits like a decent paycheck and good insurance.
This is not to discount the intention behind the action. Constantly trying to outperform or excel or go above and beyond is exhausting. The frustration and stress compounds when taking on extra work or responsibilities becomes an expectation and is treated as just part of the job. Supervisors and managers can be experts in the art if persuasion, framing requests as personal favors of good for ‘the team’, even if there is no attempt at reciprocation. The minimum requirements for a job can easily become suboptimal when an employee establishes him or herself as someone who regularly takes on more than their fair share. Saying no after a hundred yeses can be taken as insubordination — the precedent, once set, is hard to safely reset.
But this highlights the pressing need for a change in the culture of work, not just the appearance of work. Take nursing, for example. Like pharmacy staff have seen more recently, nurses have a long history of being overworked and under-compensated. First: the educational and licensure requirements to become a nurse have become more expensive and more time-consuming. Second: continuous consolidation in the healthcare industry has pressured facilities to cut staff to offset the the expense of mergers. Third: capital expenditure (e.g. remodeled lobbies and fancy specialty clinics) are great for high-prices procedures and advertising campaigns but do little to relieve the stress of emergency nurses tend to five or six patients on an empty stomach and no backup. Fourth: if nurses were able to practice nursing and just take care of sick people there would be less frustration. However, nurses are increasingly called to be social workers, therapists, security guards, babysitters, legal aids, waiters and housekeepers on top of all the ever-changing policies and procedures inherent in the field — and nurses can’t ‘quiet quit’. Their profession demands vigilance, quick reaction and being ‘always on’. That alone would be stressful, but to have all the extra work heaped upon them while simultaneously seeing wages stagnate and respect decline… it comes as no surprise that so many hospitals are struggling to attract and retain quality nurses.
Quiet quitting is, in some ways, giving a new name to what most employed people do every day at work. Most people don’t give 115% every moment they’re on the clock. We scroll Facebook on the company WiFi; we chitchat with coworkers during downtimes; we take a few extra minutes on our half-hour lunch breaks; we overstate how bad our headache is to leave a little early or inflate a family crisis to avoid coming in at all. We all have ways to snatch back moments from our jobs without making it into a crusade and most employers don’t make a huge deal of it. What quiet quitting cuts to is the desperate need for employers to adopt policies that have real work-life balance built in and not something that has to be achieved through duplicity or subterfuge. Whether or not the practice is a widespread or concerning as reported, it brings to light very real problems that need addressing, whether through organization or legislation.
On a final note, quiet quitting is another tool in the employee’s box, if they choose to use it. It will not, even with the help of Fight for $15, the Great Resignation or even unionization, solve the core issue that plague workers: that all virtually all forms of employment is in the service of an inherently exploitative and unsustainable system known as global capitalism. The quest for eternal economic growth has given rise to the 24/7 world where every moment of our lives is to be spent either consuming or helping others consume. Every second has a value attached and if we are not using those seconds to enrich ourselves or someone else, we are left to find our own way to detach from ‘hustle culture’ and are often chastised if we manage to find a way. Quiet quitting does not cure the disease, but it might make the symptoms less debilitating, and it might show how to develop such a cure. However, until we can divorce work from life, we will almost certainly be doomed to always favor the former over the latter.
(1) Dill, Kathryn and Angela Yang. “The Backlash Against Quiet Quitting Is Getting Loud.” The Wall Street Journal, 25 August 2022. Online at http://www.wsj.com
(2) Kelly, Mary Louise and Amina Kilpatrick. “A look at ‘quiet quitting’ – and whether it’s a good or bad thing.” All Things Considered, radio broadcast 22 August 2022. Online at http://www.npr.org
(3) Hiltzik, Michael. “Opinion: ‘Quiet Quitting’ is just a new name for an old reality.” Los Angeles Times, 25 August 2022. Online at http://www.latimes.com