When hard work results in a headache

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Amid an uptick in unionization efforts, a tight labor market, and growing employee disengagement, an internet trend called “quiet quitting” has ignited another debate between old and young, boss and worker. But the phenomenon isn’t entirely new, and it’s not really about leaving your job.

“The term quiet quitting is confusing because it isn’t really about quitting,” said Liz Jane, a TikTok career coach, and marketing manager. “It’s about meeting the requirements outlined in your job description and not going above and beyond. It’s unsubscribing from the idea that in order to be successful in your career, you need to hustle to the point of burnout.”

Since quiet quitting emerged on TikTok in March 2022, content creators have uploaded hundreds of viral videos, and major outlets like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have dissected it in dozens of articles.

While the response to the coverage has been overwhelmingly positive on TikTok, the short-form social media platform dominated by Gen Z, corners of the business community have panned both the term and its message.

Understanding the Backlash

In a widely shared LinkedIn post, Arianna Huffington, the CEO of Thrive, wrote that workers shouldn’t “settle on quiet quitting.” And the popular businessman and “Shark Tank” star Kevin O’Leary described quiet quitting as “the dumbest idea” he’s ever heard.

“If you’re a quiet quitter, you’re a loser. You’re un-American,” O’Leary said on CNBC, adding that “your job is to find something you’re passionate about.”

Reactions like O’Leary’s explain why even those who support the quiet quitting philosophy are critical of the expression. 

@thelizjane quiet quitting isn’t just a gen-z thing or a new phenomenon - people have worked like this for years #worklifebalanced #worktiktok #worklifebalance #worklifestruggle #taketimeoff ♬ original sound - liz jane | work/life/balance

Repackaging an Old Idea

In a viral TikTok, Jane says that quiet quitting villainizes the worker for wanting something reasonable: a life outside of work.

“It implies that people don’t want to be successful in their careers because they don’t want to subscribe to hustle culture, but it's possible to have work-life balance while still achieving your career goals,” Jane told Cheapism.

In other words, some critics argue that quiet quitting recasts an old idea — healthy boundaries at work — in a negative light.

To counteract some of the negative press it has received, critics of the phrase have reintroduced similar concepts, such as work-life balance, coasting, and work-to-rule.

“Work To Rule is doing your job exactly to every single rule in the contract, every order managers give, to both slow down work and also remind managers that their orders are usually unhelpful and wrong,” the labor journalist Sarah Jaffee explained in a tweet in response to a quiet quitting story.

Shifting Attitudes About Work

The idea underpinning quiet quitting might not be new, but CEO and TikTok career coach Tessa White says that the anger and emotion that animate the quiet quitting discussion are.

“The pandemic made all of us a bit angrier. It made people rethink their life priorities. And it put a neon light on the unfortunate truth that companies will take as much as you are willing to give,” White said.

Signs of worker discontent are borne out in the data. According to a Gallup poll, employee engagement in the U.S. dropped for the first time in a decade, with just 16% of employees saying they’re actively engaged at work. Meanwhile, more and more workers across the country are unionizing, including some at Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, and Amazon locations.

The same post-pandemic shifts also inspired the Great Resignation, which saw an unprecedented wave of workers quitting in search of better opportunities. In November 2021, a record 4.5 million people quit their jobs.

“The theme is that executives are getting richer, with bonuses and incentives to make hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars while the everyday worker is being asked to do more and more, with not even a reasonable cost-of-living increase to wages,” White said.

In a popular quiet quitting TikTok sketch, Sarai Marie plays a call center worker called Veronica who not only quietly quits but also “acts her wage,” another trending expression that highlights low worker pay.

“We’re gonna act our wage until you learn how to take care of your employees. Until you learn how to treat us fairly,” Veronica tells her boss in one of Marie’s most popular videos.

Looking Ahead

Videos like Marie’s are why Robyn Garrett, a CEO and TikTok leadership coach, supports quiet quitting despite the expression’s shortcomings. She calls it a “rallying cry” for workers.

“One of the reasons that I am in favor of (quiet quitting) is people have been talking about work-life balance for the entirety of existence. However, it's usually viewed in a derisive way, and it's not taken very seriously,” Garrett said, adding that quiet quitting allows people to “reframe” the idea.

As for the future of quiet quitting and the pro-worker movement, Garrett is optimistic that progress is being made, in part thanks to the transparency that social media has provided. 

“I think that some of the very traditional power structures and narratives around work and workplace identity are fraying and falling apart,” Garrett said.

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