OPINION: Quiet quitting is a call for workplace change

Credit: NYT

Credit: NYT

A former colleague once told me her strategy for coping with workplace stress: she would no longer invest any extra energy in her work. Her employer, she said, devalued her talents and therefore did not deserve her time or consideration beyond what was necessary to remain employed.

Since her job didn’t require her to be at the office full-time, she would show up only sometimes. Do her assigned job most of the time. And she had no problem telling bosses what she was not going to do, all the time.

I was reminded of that conversation last week when I heard the term “quiet quitting” and discovered what it meant to the Gen Z workers who helped the term go viral on social media.

Quiet quitting, loosely defined as doing only what your job requires and not going above and beyond to succeed, isn’t just a Gen Z thing. I know quiet quitters from every generation: Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and even members of the Silent Generation (shout out to the G’ma who told me she would crank up the music and dance in her office when she should have been working).

The spirit of quiet quitting may not be new, but the fact that millions of people across the country have been ruminating about it for several weeks, means it has at the least created an opportunity to take action.

Instead of focusing solely on employee burnout (which is real) and work-life balance (also important), we can use this quiet quitting moment to examine the very foundation of labor in America and decide how we might want it to change.

In the past two years, the national work ethic has been expressed in various memes and hashtags — “nobody wants to work”, “the great resignation” and now “quiet quitting” — but the root of the problem is the same no matter the name.

Workers at all levels, ages and industries expect more from employers. That expectation is an affront to anyone who thinks hard work alone is the pathway to success.

“Some still say that Americans ‘don’t want to work anymore,’” wrote Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh in a statement regarding Labor Day. “This sour view of workers seems rooted in the belief that they should be happy with whatever they get. A deadly pandemic exposed the limits — and the disrespect — of that attitude.”

Walsh went on to offer stats about labor in America, including 9.5 million jobs added to the economy since President Biden took office and an average unemployment rate of 3.5%, the lowest in 53 years.

In Georgia, the unemployment rate is lower than the national average at 2.8%.

But worker productivity is another story.

In 2021, labor productivity declined in nine states, including Georgia, due to a more rapid increase in hours worked than in output, according to data from Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This was the context when Walsh visited Atlanta in July to attend a roundtable discussion on the barriers to organizing that workers face across the South, and to emphasize the Biden administration’s commitment to supporting workers’ rights to collectively bargain.

When you look through a lens of productivity, quiet quitting starts to resemble an individualized version of work-to-rule, the form of protest long used by employee groups and unions to demonstrate their displeasure with working conditions and pay by limiting productivity.

The last time labor productivity matched real hourly compensation was in 1973. Since then, we have grown increasingly more productive, but wages have not risen at the same level.

Credit: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Credit: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Is it any wonder that workers of every generation have been rebelling, quietly or not, for the past 50 years? A recent survey of 1,000 employees from Resumebuilder.com found that 21% of workers said they are doing the bare minimum at work. That group includes more men than women and more employees between the ages of 25-34 than any other age group.

Of course, not everyone is on board with quiet quitting as a form of protest against workplace tyranny, and not everyone agrees on how quiet quitting should be defined.

In a much referenced LinkedIn post, Arianna Huffington, founder of health and wellness startup Thrive Global wrote, “Quiet quitting isn’t just about quitting on a job, it’s a step toward quitting on life.” Huffington frames quiet quitting as either a rejection of hustle culture or doing the bare minimum on the job as a response to workplace burnout.

But when workers discover that neither hustling nor doing the bare minimum deliver the desired or anticipated rewards, the result is still employee dissatisfaction.

Quiet quitting may be an act of self-preservation, but true change — the kind that brings impactful shifts in workplace culture and employee compensation — can only happen when we act collectively.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.