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On Quiet Quitting

December 29th, 2022 · 15 comments

In my latest essay for The New Yorker, published earlier this week, I tackled the topic of “quiet quitting.” This idea careened into mainstream discourse last summer, powered by a viral TikTok video posted by a twentysomething engineer named Zaid Khan.

Here’s the transcript:

“I recently heard about this idea of quiet quitting where, you’re not quitting your job, but quitting the idea of going above and beyond at work.

You’re still performing your duties, but you’re not subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that your work is your life.

The reality is that it’s not. And your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.”

Khan’s earnest declarations earned him acclaim on TikTok, where numerous other videos took up the theme; some outraged in tone, others satiric.  As word of the trend spread beyond social media, mainstream commentators weren’t so nice. In a CNBC appearance, Shark Tank star Kevin O’Leary described quiet quitting as “worse than COVID.”

It was exactly this confused reaction to this trend that caught my interest. As I note in my article, when it comes to quiet quitting, “we’re simultaneously baffled and enthusiastic.” I set out to understand why.

I don’t want to spoil all of my conclusions, but here’s a high-level summary of my thesis: quiet quitting represents Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) taking their turn at a reckoning with work that older generations have already gone through.

It’s easy, in other words, for us Millennials to be smug about the college seminar sincerity of this movement  — your worth as a person is not defined by your labor! — but it wasn’t that long ago that we were convinced that running remote businesses in Tulum was the right response to economic disruptions of the post-9/11 world.

Every generation reaches a point where they begin to think more critically about what role, exactly, work should play in their life. This process often starts with wild ideas, but eventually settles down into something more nuanced. “Quiet quitting is the messy starting gun of a new generation embarking on this challenge,” I conclude. We shouldn’t be anything other than happy that Gen Z is now joining this race, even if this might require us to ignore the specifics of what they’re saying at the moment.

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In the latest episode of my Deep Questions podcast (#228), I tackle the possibility of a “world without busyness,” and answer audience questions on a variety of topics, from the role of social media in marketing, to dealing with demands for after-hours work.

15 thoughts on “On Quiet Quitting

  1. Tobias Klös says:

    Thank you for this idea. This is a good description.

  2. Jim the CFO says:

    I enjoyed the New Yorker piece and its insights, but I am not quite sure I understand the premise that, for Gen Z, “the personal had become intertwined with the economic.” This conclusion seems based upon the relatively very small few that were able to make their livings as social media influencers; they hardly seem significant enough in number to characterize a generation…

  3. Melanie says:

    I’m definitely in agreement with your take on this, but still and again find it so interesting that there are only three generations alive today, the Boomers and the Millennials and the Gen Zers who seem to be Zers because there was once a Generation X.

    Boomers had kids in the 70s too, and these were treated very differently. No one cared what I did, just that I’d better figure out how to support myself and be responsible and never really make much noise. Besides you weren’t really expected to amount to anything as a part of that generation. (You notice there was no following your bliss for people graduating in the 80s and early 90s.)

    We’re just kind of here in the middle. I do wonder if some of the pushback is the Xers who make up most of the management ranks now and those who’ve done all the hard work of not ever really figuring these things out, just working in a bunch of adverse environments (most talk about the Great Recession sounds like it only affected millennials, not people in their prime earning years losing jobs like crazy). In my environment, most of the leaders are my age and the tenured employees as well. There are few if any Baby Boomers, they are all retired.

    Yes Kevin O’Leary is a boomer, but he’s past retirement age, actually.

    1. Jim the CFO says:

      Thanks @Melanie – I am a Gen X’er myself and appreciate you highlighting the lack of mention of Gen X’ers in the New Yorker article. We seem to be the forgotten generation, between the Boomers and the Millenials.

      Many of us Gen X’ers have worked hard throughout our careers, paid our dues, and thought that by now, as senior managers or executives, we could delegate, scale back a bit, and be paid for our knowledge, not for our long hours of labor… But we find ourselves working as hard as always, because we have to pick up the slack from the younger generations, which don’t have the same attitudes we did. The younger generations see how hard we work, and say to themselves, “If that’s what I have to look forward to when I’m an executive, no thanks,” and they Quiet Quit. It has become a vicious cycle.

      1. Kris says:

        Gen X here as well. The generation that seems to be making up quite a bit of the comment section…interesting, but not shocking as we are the only Gen left that experienced that incredible analog/digital transformation during our formative and early adult periods, so we see things very uniquely compared to the all other Gens. And we’re the only link remaining that knows to understand/revere the past(Boomers) AND connect/embrace the future(Gen Z & beyond). It is said in Proverbs…in all thy getting, get understanding. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t acknowledge where you’ve been. *tv pans to the American flag playing the Star Spangled Banner and then it simply goes…off*

  4. Hi, Cal

    I found this very interesting to think about. I was on the tail end of baby boomers and went into the chaos that makes up today’s world. While I wasn’t in the overtime crowd, I was raised with the work ethic that made me take everything employers threw my way. If I didn’t have enough to do on one day, I hustled and found something to do (also a habit instilled by the military. You never wanted to get caught doing nothing or you would find yourself on a detail).

    But I understand quiet quitting. I was laid off three times by one employer who had praised me for the great job I was doing–until the contract ended. I’ve had supervisors tell me they understood I was overloaded and do nothing else. It really is up to us to tackle the problem because employers aren’t motivated to help. And no one tells employees they do have agency. It was such a profound realization that I wrote a book called Time Management for Fiction Writers: What No One Tells You…because everyone only talks about jamming in as much work as possible into your time.

    My “quiet quitting” started with not being seen as an information source for everything. If someone emailed me a question outside of my specific job, I just said, “Sorry, I don’t know anything about that. I handle X. Do you have a question about that?” I couldn’t provide a point of contact for them because they would only remember that I was the information source. It took more than five years to get off this merry-go-round.

    Since I was data-responsive (if I see it, I do it), I had to get in front of the firefighting that my job had turned into. I looked for anything I could do early in the week that would prevent a crisis from happening on Friday at quitting time where I might have to work late to resolve–and go home stressed. All of this is running reports. Sometimes it’s making minor corrections or submitting a ticket to get something fixed, most of which doesn’t take that long to do. I was rewarded for this when I got a task from another office that had a short deadline (and for no real reason as far as I could tell). My first reaction was that this was going to be a lot of work. Firefighting tried to engage. Then it hit me: the task was done! All those little things I’d taken time to correct had paid off in a major way.

    Quiet quitting doesn’t mean that the job isn’t getting done. It’s just a sanity check.

  5. JR says:

    I think “quiet quitting” is just another corporate euphemism for hiring one employee to do the job of two or three until they are utterly exhausted and disgusted. Managers are blaming the victim accusing them of “quietly quitting” when in reality they just used up another human resource through bad management and over work. The boomer generation is just lying about what is really happening long enough for them to retire with a fat retirement check.

    I worked the required 60 hour work weeks while getting paid a fraction of my market value until I couldn’t keep up the pace and was disgusted by the criminal activity of my past employers. Once, I reported misconduct to the ethics compliance officer, and the corrupt HR goon squad said “they no longer required my services.” Fortunately, I was not around to assist HR explaining to Federal law enforcement why nothing had been done to stop the criminal activity. The lie that “management didn’t know” is beginning to sound cliche to law enforcement and to juries. (Note: I am a Gen X; not Gen Z.) OK boomer, time for you to alter your retirement plan to living in a penal institution instead of next to a golf course.

    1. JR says:

      New BBC article “[s]ome employers look to hire and continually turn over junior employees – sometimes harming young workers’ careers before they’ve even begun” by Alex Christian 12th January 2023 confirming my opinion. We need to regulate the workplace in the US which is permissible under the commerce clause of the US Constitution.

      https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20230111-the-companies-that-churn-through-young-workers

  6. Gwinne says:

    As Melanie asks more eloquently than i have time for, I’m shocked you make no attempt to account for Gen X.

  7. Derek says:

    I have had discussions online – well, if you can call them discussions – with Gen Z’ers who seem to have fallen into this idea that the word “work” is toxic. Many seem to reject the premise that work has value at all, and reject any philosophy that suggests it does.

    While I agree that labor done for someone else that has no meaning to you should not define your worth as a person, it does not seem to have occurred to many of these folks that without work, you cannot have any impact on the world. It is extremely difficult to live a life that means anything without “work” of some kind. They’re trying to skip over the hard part (finding meaningful work, or making work meaningful) and get to whatever might be on the other side. I don’t think it will serve them well.

    1. Dinwar says:

      “… labor done for someone else that has no meaning to you….”

      There’s the problem. We as a culture have associated work with meaningless labor. The reality is that work, properly done, is a manifestation of the division of labor that gave us the Industrial Revolution and the modern world. I like rocks. I love fossils. I hate hate HATE payroll. So I trade some of my autonomy to have someone else handle those aspects–in other words, I found a company that’ll pay me to be a geologist/paleontologist. It allows each of us in the company to focus (primarily, anyway) on what we love and are good at, which in turn allows us to accomplish more than any of us could individually.

      This is what having an Entreprenurial mindset means. Yeah, I work for a company, but within that company my career is MY responsibility. I’ve done crap jobs–mucked hog stalls, ran a cash register, been a sample grunt–but always with the view towards improving my career, leveraging my experiences to put me in a better place (or at least make money while I’m killing time between opportunities). I may get paid by someone, but it’s a trade–they pay me for my work, and I work for them because they deal with the stuff I don’t want to deal with.

      Contrast that with the attitude today. “Wage slavery” implies a total lack of agency. Slaves don’t choose anything about their lives, or if they do their owners can remove it on a whim. The way work is discussed clearly divides between immutable castes–the owners and the workers. (Puts folks in middle management in a fun position: we’re too high up to be workers, but too low down to be owners.) They assume, a priori and as a universal truth, that working for someone means the work is meaningless. They create in their heads–because it absolutely does not exist in any reasonable company–a sense of hostility between these castes, which quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      As long as young people view productive activity as necessarily evil, they’ll never be happy. As long as they consider themselves members of the lowest caste they’ll lock themselves into misery.

  8. Jim the CFO says:

    Most of the current writing around Quiet Quitting, including Cal’s New Yorker article, appear to focus on Gen Y and Gen Z. Cal notes that every generation has had to figure out how work fits into their lives; the implication is that this is an exercise for the younger workers, those that are just a few years into their careers.

    But I propose that this is a struggle that continues throughout a career, and renews itself in each phase of life. Wrestling with the role and meaning of work in one’s life is connected to much larger issues, such as the definition of “success,” what’s important in life, reconciliation among conflicting goals and values, and the meaning of life itself.

    I think it would be interesting to explore how people deal with this at various stages of life, rather than just considering how younger people have come to grips with work in each generation. As a culture we remain obsessed about what the younger generations are doing, but there are Boomers and Gen X’ers still trying to figure it all out. And even within each age group, the perspective of high-level executives is much different from middle managers and from individual contributors.

  9. SGR - GenXer says:

    Another GenXer really tired of being forgotten and overlooked. Seriously? Again? Whatever.

  10. Chris Creighton says:

    I’m amused by your reference to a boomer not understanding the concept of ‘quiet quitting’. We may not have had a word for it but we invented it.
    I spent 30 years in several Atlantic City casinos and they were and are staffed en mass by ‘quiet quitters’ do to the disfunction of management in general. Until I moved on to the Post Office I didn’t fully grasp the extremes management disfunction could reach. Now there is a national workforce doing the least they can to get by.

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