It is no secret that the culture surrounding work has shifted in the wake of the Covid pandemic. The American labor shortage has occurred in tandem with the ‘Great Resignation,’ but this shortage is not just happening in the United States. Labor shortages have been reported across the globe in countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, and China. The pandemic has revealed what many have known to be true for a long time: With stagnating wages and rising costs, passion is no longer enough to compensate for substandard working conditions.
More and more workers are becoming disengaged from their jobs. Gallup reported in 2022 that those actively disengaged in their jobs increased to 18 percent in the second quarter of 2021. The most disillusioned, according to Gallup, are younger workers. Gen-Z and young Millenials are reported to have dropped 10 or more points on a poll regarding the belief that their employer’s care about their personal success at work.
The current global situation is no doubt the catalyst for the rise of a new hot topic taking the media by storm: “quiet-quitting.” The term, and the concept, shot to prominence with one viral TikTok video by Zaiad Khan. Here, framed by videos of him wandering New York, he explains as follows: “You are still performing your duties, but you are no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life.”
At its core, quiet-quitting is a separation of work from the ego. It marks a fundamental shift in the way Americans have historically thought about their careers.
The situation surrounding quiet-quitting in America echoes the Chinese “lying flat” movement that sprung up just a few months before. While the situations of American workers and Chinese workers are different, the root is the same. Chinese youth are tired of “996” culture, a popular idea that you should work 9 AM to 9 PM six days a week. The cost of living is skyrocketing in China and America, as cultural factors influence the popularity of the idea of working yourself to the bone for your job. The lying flat movement in China has picked up so much steam that Xi Jinping himself published a warning in the Communist party journal about it.
Many have argued that American society is built on the “Protestant work ethic,” which refers to the glorification of discipline and diligence in your career. The effects of the Protestant work ethic can be felt in all facets of American life. The idea that suffering and success are intertwined, and that the more you suffer the more you are deserving of success, is the core doctrine. We can see this glorification of suffering in the way that work culture has traditionally operated in America. Professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and investors are infamous for their particularly brutal treatments of new hires.
The cyclical idea that you have to suffer to earn experience—and perhaps more importantly, prestige—leads to a confusion of your job with your identity. It’s only natural to believe in the culture of suffering to succeed when that is constantly reinforced by peers, mentors, and even doctrine. A doctor who has suffered through medical school, residency, and the early years of their career is proud of this pain—it is earned because they are a doctor. This incredibly harmful celebration of suffering parallels that of hazing in college Greek life: Senior authorities reinforce cycles of suffering upon younger, more junior members because they suffered through that same trauma themselves. In the same way that hazing can easily lead to disastrous normalizations of cruelty and suffering in order to join a group, American corporate culture encourages young employees to sacrifice their time and wellbeing for the sake of accomplishing their work and being part of a community.
However, the conversation surrounding quiet-quitting has uncovered an even deeper and more enduring truth. Because the reality is, quiet-quitting isn’t for everyone. In workplaces where opinions are already often stacked against them, women and people of color cannot afford to quiet-quit. Studies have shown that female leaders are twice as likely as male leaders to be mistaken for someone in a position more junior to them, and women are more often expected to perform various unpaid tasks at work, including keeping track of birthdays and organizing office parties. However, they are not being recognized for that extra labor, as 40 percent of women reported. Women and people of color are also more likely to be underestimated by their bosses, which means should either of these groups slack off they would get noticed faster by a boss already predisposed to not accurately valuing their labor.
These issues should not be understated. What also should not be understated is that quiet-quitting can put undue burden on colleagues, especially those who may not have the privilege to quiet-quit themselves. Quiet-quitting should not replace more effective forms of labor reform, like unionization, which lifts up everyone.
Still, in many ways the introduction of quiet-quitting into our cultural zeitgeist is quietly revolutionary. Quiet-quitting takes a fundamentally different approach to the nature of the relationship you’re meant to have with your work. It emphasizes that work is work, rather than who you are as a person. It is simply a means to an end. It is something you need to do to financially support your life, which exists outside of work. While this separation has existed in other cultures, it’s a powerful new message for many Americans.
While quiet-quitting is definitely a step in the right direction for labor movements in America, especially given traditional American values surrounding work, it is not flawless. The core idea of separating your job from your ego is important. Certainly, the American working class can rest assured that they’re challenging social norms due to the outrage expressed by many business owners. However, quiet-quitting is a privilege, and it’s a privilege that most Americans are not afforded. Workers feeling disenfranchised should also serve to lift up their fellow workers instead of putting undue burden on them.