Remember the movie “Office Space”? When a depressed worker named Peter recalls how, in high school, the guidance counselor would ask what you would do if you had a million dollars and didn’t have to work.
“And whatever you’d say,” he laments, “that was supposed to be your career.”
Of course, few of us have a million dollars. So, like Peter, we had to find jobs. And, like Peter, many of us are sometimes less than thrilled about them.
That movie came to mind when reading about the newest workplace phenomenon: “quiet quitting.”
Quiet quitting supposedly began with a TikTok video that suggested young professionals today are becoming less interested in going the extra mile at work — and that should be OK.
The video went viral. And since then, quiet quitting has exploded into a national debate on everything from Generation Z laziness to corporate indifference.
The Wall Street Journal labeled it “not taking your job too seriously” and quoted a 24-year-old engineer who explained quiet quitting on a TikTok video: “You’re quitting on the idea of going above and beyond. … You’re no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life.”
This was rebuked by many successful business leaders, including Arianna Huffington, who wrote that quiet quitting was a step toward “quitting on life.”
Meanwhile, NPR found a British media consultant who said quiet quitting is actually the fault of greedy bosses. “It’s just capitalism crying … a way of demonizing workers who aren’t doing free labor.”
No matter what your take on this, can we all agree on two things?
- People are getting too worked up over a cute little phrase, and
- Quiet quitting is nothing new.
Another coffee break?
Loafing. Slacking. Goofing off. Ducking the boss. Phoning it in. Mailing it in. Cruising. Fake it ‘till you make it. These phrases go back decades. So does workplace indifference. Maynard G. Krebs. Harold and Kumar. Kevin in “The Office.” The concept of giving less than maximum effort at work has been around since the first sheepherder fell asleep on his watch.
Quiet quitting is being called a young thing. It isn’t. There are many people right now in their 50s and 60s who are zombies in the office, many 40-somethings yawning through plant shifts, many bored 30-somethings taking extra-long bathroom breaks.
The fact is, the average American worker, research shows, is only productive less than three hours in an eight-hour workday. If quiet quitting is really, as the TikTok world suggests, not doing one minute more than you’re hired to do, it actually represents a five-hour a day improvement!
It’s more likely that quiet quitting is just the latest effort by a young generation to rename something that already exists, so they can feel like they invented it. We did this in the ’60s with “the Generation Gap” (which wasn’t really new.) Tom Wolfe did it in the ’70s with “The Me Decade.” Kids do it today with phrases like “ghosting” (another word for not showing up) or “cheugy” (the latest in a long line of words for uncool or square.)
Which is not to say that quiet quitting doesn’t raise some worthy — if not new — issues. How much is enough on the job? What can an employer expect for writing a paycheck? What is the proper balance of life and work?
Careful what you wish for
The answer often depends on if you’re the employee or the employer. Young workers who think an eight-hour day is oppressive should remember that until the Ford Motor Company made it standard in the early 20th century, eight hours was much shorter than the average shift. Factory workers used to routinely work 10, 12 or 14 hours daily. And the current trend of working remotely and emailing in your pajamas is a new and historically radical concept.
Meanwhile, employers should remember that before email, the idea of contacting workers after hours was considered rude. People are entitled to their lives. And research suggests that those who balance work and home actually make good employees.
But when quiet quitters say they only want to do what they were hired to do, they are entering a big gray area. How do you measure “what you were hired to do?” Especially when employers believe they are hiring people to give their best effort?
Some rare jobs spell out the number of pieces or units a full day represents. Those are easy to measure. The rest of the work world is more subtle. Did you leave something for tomorrow that you could have finished today? Did you call the client back after you left a voicemail? Did you greet the customer with a smile and conversation, or just a mumbled “Can I help you?”
The quiet quitting employee may choose the lesser of those three examples and still feel “I did my job.”
The employer will look at it differently.
What’s your motivation?
Conversely, the Devil Wears Prada boss who expects her employee to be available weekends, nights and any time the phone pings is clearly overreaching — unless the employee agrees to all that when signing up.
I’ll tell you who doesn’t believe in quiet quitting. People who have their own businesses. Those folks routinely work nights AND weekends. They think about work even when they are nowhere near it. Why aren’t those people complaining, slacking or slowing down?
Because they are the beneficiaries of their own hard work. And if there’s anything to lament about quiet quitting, this is it. We’ve become so self-centered — sorry young folks, this applies to you — that the idea of doing great if someone else is the boss has lost its appeal. We all want to be the star. The subject of the selfie. The focus of the post.
Short of that, we’re less motivated. When Huffington suggested people should find “joy” at their jobs, she was mocked on the internet. But there are many jobs that can be extremely rewarding without you being the boss, the profit center or the main focus. You just have to find them. And believe that doing a job well is its own reward.
Quiet quitters often say they are just trying to put work in its proper perspective. Maybe. Or, it may be more like Peter in “Office Space” said: “It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.”
By the way, “Office Space” came out last century.