The ‘Quiet Quitting’ Trend Has a Branding Problem
A 17-second viral video is both a perfect and imperfect articulation of our collective lament of love and labor. “Quiet quitting” is the name, started in digital corners, given to work culture where people do what they are paid for, and don’t valorize overwork. It is not as much a revolution as it is a characterization of our exhaustion with hustle culture, which always rewards workers for going above their pay grade. The trend is perfect for the reality check it offers to millions of Gen Z and millennial workers. As the TikToker says: quiet quitting is about “[not] subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life.” The reality, they add, is that your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.
But its imperfection also rises from the trend’s phrasing. To show up, do your work, and go home without succumbing to extra labor is just…working? Are people really “quitting” — a term rife with cultural disdain around defeatism — if they favor healthy boundaries at the workplace over a culture that demands unquestioned hustling?
The principle and the branding don’t quite match. This is not to say people’s rejection of overwork should be perfect, but that an ode to healthy boundaries is simultaneously being misheard and misrepresented as incompetence or doing the “bare minimum.” When we label adhering to one’s job description as “quiet quitting,” we risk normalizing a culture where this isn’t enough — in effect achieving the opposite of what we set out to do with the term.
We know younger workers are in tandem with the misery at the heart of quiet quitting. Most recent survey data from Gallup shows worker engagement is falling across generations. Another found almost 60% of young people’s idea of “ideal employers” has them prioritizing work-life balance over all else. LinkedIn’s individual survey too showed that 33% of people are striving for a better — nay, some — work-life balance; with some even willing to compromise on their pay for healthy work culture.
The groan of “quiet quitters” draws from an acute state of exhaustion. “Our desire for happiness at work is one that has been constructed for us, and the world that constructed that desire is falling apart around us,” as writer Sarah Jaffe put it. People are competing for more, doing more, being expected to be “on the go.” There is burnout — pandemic-infused or otherwise — along with limited growth opportunities and even more limited pay. Perhaps, there’s a gnawing disillusionment as Jaffe reasons. There is guilt about not raving with passion about the work or embracing it with loving arms. But this is also a guilt that villainizes limiting one’s work to their job descriptions, while manipulating people into deprioritizing their own space and sanity. Quiet quitting in theory is to stop doing work that people think is beyond what they were hired to do and not getting compensated for. It’s an eschewal of going above and beyond ad infinitum.
Every now and then work cultures catch a bit of zeitgeist and are borne aloft into the mainstream conversations around productivity and labor. The conversation, since when “quiet quitting” was first articulated on TikTok, is playing out rather jumbled.
For one, “quiet quitting” carries implicit defeatism in the phrase — almost as if people aren’t quite living up to the challenge, or are expressing a collective disinterest in doing the bare minimum at work. Work cultures globally, and in India, have sufficiently stigmatized quitting; quitting is bowing down in a world that sees “hard work” and “persistence” as the only way to succeed, even in an economic setting where inheritance and wealth are unequally distributed.
A “quiet quitter” may then be one who is working as per the job description, but the cultural baggage around quitting follows them still. Moreover, the phrasing taps into the vagueness of the bare minimum: the minimum takes on a different appearance for different people, and in this case, an advocacy for maintaining healthy boundaries at work is being confused with people just doing the minimum work. This underplays the actual labor and effort that people are actually doing, distorting the idea of work, value, and compensation. The media legitimizes the trend and articulates it in a way that loses the actual articulation: that is, people are tired, and want to do just what they are paid for, go back at 6:30, and have a life.
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Two, the corporate response is then to start attributing credible exhaustion to misplaced ideas of “laziness,” or worse, chalk a plea for boundaries up to a fad. This is reflected in op-eds as a response to quiet quitting already: “quietly” quitting is not helping anyone, muses one. It hurts the company and people’s long-term prospects. The logic goes that productivity takes a hit, the company goes into decline, and it reflects badly on the employees who are seen as “underperformers” in the larger narrative of the corporate world. The mental gymnastics come full circle; what is forgotten is how frequently and swiftly people’s workload has increased especially during the pandemic without raising questions of adequate compensation. People’s rejection of the “rise and grind” culture is misconstrued as a rejection of the “rise” in itself; these are people with “bad attitudes” who refuse to put in the extra.
This stops employers from meaningfully introspecting why people are burnt out, or how the systems of work as they stand now may be failing to respond to a demographic whose motivations and lifestyles stand drastically altered. People aren’t bowing out of career progression, but the idea that their career is their life. Someone at a start-up company noted how before the pandemic, they worked 50+ hours per week — weekends and evenings were for being productive instead for the self. The lockdown allowed for re-prioritizing the desire to “work to live instead of live to work.”
“Slowly, over the past year I have put more boundaries in place at work. I try to work my 37.5 paid hours, have taken my emails off my mobile phone, and no longer work weekends – ever. I believe the phrase for what I’m doing is called ‘quiet quitting’ but I like to call it ‘doing my job in the hours I’m paid,'” the person noted.
This is not to say there is anything wrong with TikTok being the new “virtual water cooler” — it gives a new generation of people the tools and space for dialogue. Quiet quitting doesn’t have to address the actual problem of burnout and uncompensated labor, and can still be a potent crystallization of a moment where people are realizing the possibilities of a world where labor is duly compensated. Some three years ago, before the pandemic and before quiet quitting, a writer aptly noted it is young people who will save work from itself and us form office life. This is a cluster of people who no longer express fealty to exploitative institutions, who don’t want to give their whole life to work.
“Quiet quitting” is as much about resignation from exploitative demands of the workplace as it is about a reawakening. If there were a new-age treatise around modern work, it would start with three reckonings: work is a part of our lives, any engagement with it deserves adequate compensation, and extra work warrants extra pay. Call it what you may: quitting, maintaining boundaries, or just living.