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Why Quiet Quitting is a Good Sign - The Future of American Work Culture

The internet can’t stop talking about “Quiet Quitting”–i.e. when an employee stops coming in early, leaves on time, and doesn’t do more than their actual job. Using this term to describe an employee just not exploiting themselves is hilariously revealing about American work culture. And while all this talk of quiet quitting and burnout sounds pretty negative, actually it’s a very positive sign–that collectively our attitude toward deep-seated toxic workplace expectations is shifting.

Transcript

Can America ever truly escape our toxic workaholism and dreaded “hustle culture”? The internet can’t stop talking about “Quiet quitting”–i.e. when an employee stops coming in early, leaves on time, and doesn’t do more than their actual job. So we can all agree the “quitting” part is pretty much a misnomer–but if you think about it, using this term to describe an employee just not exploiting themselves is hilariously revealing about American work culture. And while all this talk of quiet quitting and burnout sounds pretty negative, actually it’s a very positive sign–that collectively our attitude toward deep-seated toxic workplace expectations is shifting. While the 2010s glorified “hustle culture,” “rise and grind,” and phrases like WeWork’s “Thank God It’s Monday,” today we’re undergoing a crucial reset. So even if quiet quitting itself is probably overblown and not enough of a solution, this craze signals an opportunity to, as a culture, find a more enlightened understanding of the role work should take in our lives.

Nadia De Ala: “I think it is almost direct resistance and disruption of hustle culture, honestly, and I think it’s exciting that more people are doing it.”

- CNBC

But the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 completely shifted this picture–because, suddenly, for a lot of people, the office space was no longer the center of work. Remote work blurred the lines between on-the-clock and off, leaving many workers overloaded with unclear, unattainable expectations.

Katherine Berry: “I went from someone who really, really valued putting everything into my work–giving it my all. Suddenly I was at home with two times the amount of work.”

- PBS Voices

For others, removing the office and commute from their day offered some much-needed clarity on exactly how out of balance their life had been. This led to the Great Resignation–where many workers rapidly quit or changed jobs–but also what’s been called The Great Reflection. Being able to just stop and take stock of where our work lives were at spurred many to realize we weren’t happy with what we saw. People consciously considered what they wanted out of their careers. For some, their answer was clear: to pay for pleasant lives outside of work. Working began taking advantage of remote work, even relocating to exciting destinations overseas.

Dani: I get all day free. I can do whatever I want. I can go see my family, I can sight-see.”

- TikTok: lifewithdani

Others didn’t take as drastic steps, but questioned whether the sense of self should be so intricately intertwined with work-based productivity–and that’s reflected by our current cultural Zeitgeist, which simply doesn’t portray work as so sexy anymore. While dominant work myths were already starting to be challenged in narratives like 2018’s Sorry to Bother You, shows like 2022’s Severance are infused with a dark absurdity that makes the workplace feel like a mundane yet sinister dystopia. The sheer act of reflection has the potential to be deeply empowering for a lot of workers–and disturbing to many company owners and senior executives. People are widely resisting the agendas of many CEOs and upper management to get workers back to the office. And, yes, they’ve been “quiet quitting”–or simply, drawing boundaries in their lives, refusing to view going above and beyond as the “norm.”

Chapter Two –So does Quiet Quitting work?

Stepping out of a workaholic pattern can be part of a recipe for a more healthy balance in your life. Laura Vanderkam, the author of several time-management books, believes finding relief from work-related stress is best found outside of work. But it’s not just about the amount of free time you have, or simply that you check out from work. Studies have shown that when people intentionally take a few hours a week to themselves and spend it on something that is engaging, enriching and active, they feel as though they have more free time than people who do less active forms of relief, like binge-watching TV shows. They leave their activity feeling recharged.

If we don’t find that engagement somewhere in our lives, just disengaging at workis a recipe for hating our jobs and making us feel more tired out than ever. Amelia Nagoski, co-author of the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, believes quiet quitting may also be harder to do than many TikTok videos would have us believe–not just logistically, but emotionally and psychologically, especially if you’re someone who previously put a lot of your identity into your work. Quote: “ The real challenge is grieving the loss of something you thought was valuable, mourning the time and energy you invested into a relationship where you were not valued the way you deserved to be …” Moreover, not everyone has the ability to quiet quit. It’s an option mainly for white-collar folks who work remotely at a desk and others like teachers (to an extent) who’ve been deciding increasingly that they’re not going to put in the extra uncompensated around-the-clock hours that have long been expected from them. But many from migrant workers and day laborers, to people in medical and emergency services, to customer service reps and grocery store clerks face far more rigid expectations, and have to either comply or actually quit.

Sammy: “It finally clicked to me how absurd it is that bedside practitioners work 12h shifts and get a 30 minute break.”

- TikTok: sammyyyh

Undocumented or disabled folks may also feel that their life depends more on their jobs than the average worker because of healthcare and immigration status. And even in fields where quiet quitting is possible, many Black and brown people say they don’t feel that this is a safe or useful tool for them when they’re already looked over for promotions and more readily seen as “trouble makers” because of racial bias.

“Quiet quitting doesn’t work for black women because in the us people are taught from a very young age to lean on black women for labor.”

- TikTok: housesittersschool

Even if you can do it, quiet quitting isn’t the best long-term solution–you’re better off finding a job you like and care about (at least somewhat), and if you’re really phoning it in, your employer’s not likely to put up with it forever. Still–if we look past quiet quitting as an individual choice and think about what it signifies collectively–this could be used to change our work landscape forever.

Chapter Three–What the Future of Work Looks Like

In sectors where “quiet quitting” is less of a thing, we’re seeing many actually quit–there’s a big shortage of teachers, nurses, and workers in the retail, food service and hospitality industries. People are leaving jobs that require in-person presence for low wages, instead seeking roles in more lucrative fields that allow hybrid or remote work. This concrete action can potentially force entire industries to restructure–to face the truth that certain highly essential jobs have long been systematically undervalued, and this needs to change.

Kelse: “I didn’t realize how toxic being a teacher in the United States was until I left the profession”

- TikTok: kelsewhatelse

While quiet quitting is a pretty solitary activity, organizing could be the next collective step for white-collar and blue-collar workers. Support for unions is at a 57-year high in America. Tons of corporations from Amazon to Starbucks are witnessing their employees push back against unfair, exploitative work environments. Employee strikes have seen an uptick since the pandemic and in cases like the 2021 John Deer Strike, they’re actually winning.

Shepard Smith: “The issues are being debated very widely from different industry to different industry but there’s one constant: Workers want more money.”

- CNBC

It’s also important to remember that, while we consider our individualistic everyone-for-themselves hypercapitalism of today’s America the norm, the country’s history hasn’t always been this way. The generations of our country’s past believed strongly in labor unions that provided real benefits to many.

“the poor folks haven’t got a chance unless we organize”

- Which Side Are You On? - UMW Song (1941)

And there have been waves in the public attitude toward work; after the “greed is good” mantra of the 80s, the 90s saw the rise of the Gen X slacker, who questioned whether the point of life could be something more or different than just amassing material wealth. And again, the negative label these youths were given–of “slacker”–is revealing. It mirrors the impulse today to frame all these developments in bad-sounding terms like quiet quitting or burnout, or the rhetoric that’s mocking or critical of Gen Z workers who assert their boundaries or don’t believe they must blindly fall in line with every repressive workplace norm their bosses take for granted. In truth, we’re now presented with a really hopeful opportunity to address our long-standing work-life balance problems in the US. If we take our frustrations and channel them into something productive, we can do something to create a more equitable workplace for everyone. That’s why some are rebranding this moment “The Great Renegotiation”. Maybe this shift in attitudes can even extend to accepting and advocating for things most Europeans consider normal–like taking actual vacations and supporting real paid family leave.

Outro

With the advances in technology of the past couple of hundred years, we should be working less than any other time in human history—not priding ourselves on how much “nonessential” work we can pack in. If we enact change together, we don’t have to hate where we spend most of our lives. Burnout is a sign that something’s not working right–so let’s listen to these red flags, and make the concrete changes needed to make this picture brighter for everyone.

Leslie Knope: “I’m gonna work until I’m 100 and then cut back to four days a week. Oh, God. I’m already so bored thinking about that one day off”

- Parks and Rec: Season 7, Episode 1