Perhaps you’ve heard of “quiet quitting.” It’s telling that the phrase has taken off on social media -- but this is the fakest of fake “workplace trends.”
Think of it as the third iteration of dubious pandemic work-related fads. After the original COVID-19 variant, we heard about the Great Resignation, but the data didn’t support it beyond a few sectors hit hard by lockdowns such as hospitality. Then came the delta wave and the “lie flat” movement, another trend based largely on anecdata and a catchy phrase. In the aftermath of omicron, we’ve got quiet quitting.
The reason for bosses to concern themselves with these trends isn’t that they’re describing real behavior, but that so many people find them appealing. They speak to employees’ fantasies, not their actual career plans.
As with all spurious trends, the definition is impossibly broad. Some describe quiet quitting as “doing the bare minimum,” while others say they’re “meeting all their obligations.” Some are “coasting,” while others are “leaving work at 5 p.m.” Some are just hoping for better work-life balance.
But these are pretty different from each other. Consider someone who routinely works from 9 to 5, but typically avoids putting in overtime. Is that person “doing the bare minimum” or are they just incredibly efficient? Should someone who is meeting all their obligations really be considered a slacker? Is it fair to call any of these a form of “quitting”?
Quiet quitting is also something we’re probably talking about more than we’re actually carrying out. A recent Axios poll of younger workers found that 15% were doing the minimum at work, despite large majorities admitting that it sounded “appealing.”
Even if it’s true that some segment of the workforce is mailing it in, this isn’t new. Workplace engagement has been pretty stable for years. Polling organization Gallup has been tracking it for over two decades, during which time the percentage of “actively disengaged” employees has held largely steady, at between 13% and 20% of employees. The percentage of engaged employees has also been stable for decades, at around 30% of employees.
While Gallup recently rebranded the middle -- the people who are neither engaged nor disengaged -- as “quiet quitters,” that seems like a leap. Lots of people neither love nor hate their jobs, and they’re not quitters.
Every company needs some people who are content to do their jobs reasonably well and who don’t badger management for bonuses or accolades, people who accept a slower career path as an acceptable price for a lower-stress life. Teams also benefit from long-tenured members who know how things work. If everyone is hustling to move up and out as fast as possible, who is the custodian of the team’s collective knowledge? Who transmits team culture?
Perhaps the TikTok-ers in Generation Z who coined “quiet quitting” have simply discovered what their elders eventually learned: that for a sizable number of people, work can be … work. A job is sometimes just a source of income, not deeper meaning. And to get fired, some people have to be actively bad at their jobs -- not just quietly coasting. (Although as my colleague Kami Rieck points out, this is a privilege not everyone gets to enjoy.)
Few of us keep our foot on the gas 100% of the time. Those who do may find themselves at a higher risk of burnout or workaholism and its attendant health risks. There’s an assumption that the most engaged employees are the least burned out, but that’s not always true -- sometimes, a high degree of engagement is what makes disconnecting from work so tough. A study at Yale found that one in five employees reported high levels of simultaneous engagement and exhaustion. Lots of engagement can push you into overdrive for too long.
It’s also normal for workloads and motivation to ebb and flow. Sometimes, the cause is random, but often it’s seasonal. A tax accountant is going to be busier in March than he is in July, for instance -- we don’t accuse him of quiet quitting just because he has less to do. I used to feel anxious earlier in my career when I’d have a slow day. (What if someone found out and I got fired!) Now I’m wise enough to know that a fallow period never lasts long.
Instead of managers worrying about quiet quitting, I think they should take away one lesson: Don’t rely so heavily on employees going above and beyond their job description.
It’s common for companies to expect employees to take on work outside their normal jobs. But that assumption hurts people who haven’t gotten the unwritten memo. And it leads to the same people always getting saddled with thankless tasks like taking notes and scheduling meetings.
Seen from that perspective, quiet quitting is an understandable response to a workplace in which much is silently expected.
Then there are the disgruntled employees taking a much louder route. Cornell’s Labor Action Tracker found roughly 265 major work strikes in 2021. There have been 273 already in 2022. Among the major complaints we’ve seen recently from workers are 24-hour shifts (where workers are only paid for 13 hours); overwork caused by persistent staff shortages; and having to remain on-call for days or weeks at a time, and called to work at a moment’s notice. Those are legitimate grievances and failures of management.
Maybe bosses should worry a little less about quiet quitters and a little more about that.
Ideas such as lying flat and quiet quitting will keep taking off online, even if they’re not widespread trends in real life. Perhaps just talking about them is a necessary corrective to an era in which work has often taken on outsized importance -- shaping our identities, providing a source of meaning, even reassuring us that we are, in fact, good and virtuous people. In previous eras, it was often religion or family that offered these things. But your family -- unlike your job -- probably loved you back.
Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor. Previously, she was managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.” This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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