Quietly Quitting is Neither Quiet nor Quitting

As of this writing, a popular catch phrase has emerged. If you are anything like me, the whole concept was profoundly confusing, at first.

The phrase is known as ‘quietly quitting.’ 

On one hand, advocates favor something useful and important: healthy work boundaries that help avoid burnout. Although a more critical interpretation might note that these thought patterns could devalue the importance of work and work ethic. 

Even the most elite US publications have taken notice. The Wall Street Journal devoted an episode of their daily ‘Your Money Briefing’ podcast to this topic. NPR, The Washington Post, New York Times, FOX News, and a host of others have all provided coverage. Ariana Huffington, Kevin O’Leary, and many prominent columnists have weighed in as well. 

If you have somehow missed all of this, it may be surprising to learn that ‘quietly quitting’ does not mean that someone leaves a job.

It is unclear how many people are implementing this into their approach to work. For all we know, it could just be internet jabber.

But one thing is for sure. Many people are not being quiet about the topic of quietly quitting. 

How to Quietly Quit a Job

As it turns out, the quiet quitters advocate something that most providers of career advice would also encourage. Adherents merely stick to the exact duties that are expected of them. Working extra hard, ambitiously taking on extra tasks, and suffering through longer hours than necessary is no longer fashionable to the quiet quitters. In the right cases, this is advisable.

This is especially true if the extra work does not provide additional status, prestige, recognition, or career advancement opportunities.

NPR explains it this way:

“Quiet quitting doesn’t actually involve quitting. Instead, it has been deemed a response to hustle culture and burnout; employees are “quitting” going above and beyond and declining to do tasks they are not being paid for.”

One thing proponents of the movement make clear, paradoxically, is that they do not encourage anyone to quit their job. If you are like me, you may be wondering: if ‘quiet quitting’ does not refer to actually quitting a job, then why is it called quiet quitting?

Who invented this madness, and what might it suggest about modern attitudes toward work?

The Origin of Quiet Quitting

“It’s not that I’m lazy… It’s just that, I don’t care.” Peter Gibbons in Office Space

According to Wikipedia: “Quiet quitting is a term and a trend that emerged in mid-2022 from a viral TikTok video.” 

Wait a minute… a viral TikTok video that generates online buzz is enough to capture the attention of career experts and mainstream journalists? Seriously?

Yes. That appears to be the world that we live in now. 

From TikTok to Mainstream Thought

On TikTok, a fairly wide range of opinions are available on this topic. For example, one popular video portrays this as a liberating and positive force. Another makes it clear that quiet quitters are NOT outright quitting their jobs. Okay, we got it. Well sort of…

Here is a self-proclaimed anti-capitalist’s explanation. According to this user, quiet quitters are merely resisting being stolen from by the capitalist companies they work for.

Another user proposes that the original quiet quitter was the character Peter Gibbons, from the classic portrayal of office life, popularly known as Office Space. 

Quiet quitters don't quit.

“The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy. It’s just that, I don’t care,” Gibbons famously stated.

Viewers will recall that the statement was delivered in a meeting with corporate consultants who were deciding on budget cuts and mass layoffs. If you haven’t seen that movie (spoiler alert), an ironic twist follows this scene. Peter’s ‘quiet-quitting’ and carefree attitude gets him promoted. 

Will the same tactic work for those who quit quietly? It’s unlikely. Office Space is a movie. Life is real.

A Critic’s Guide to Quiet Quitting

Perhaps the reason that the “true” meaning of quiet quitting (according to TikTok), takes a minute to register is because objectively speaking, the definition is wrong. Even if we accept TikTok users’ consensus definition, there are other glaring problems.

Here are a couple of key flaws with the phrase:

Staying quiet keeps important channels of communication closed.According to the quiet quitters, you are not actually quitting. But you kind of are.

To the extent that the quietly quitting craze continues to advance among America’s workforce, the movement’s shortcomings deserve some criticism. The criticism has actually been quite fierce.

One critique that is largely overlooked in the current literature relates to an underlying trend in modern online discourse. The trend is especially relevant with ideologically-charged topics like this one.

Thou Shalt Court Attention at All Costs

Could it be possible that the primary purpose of using this phrase is to be provocative? By using the word “quitting” to describe the advisable, and widely agreed upon act of setting appropriate work boundaries, the phrase may provoke those ‘old fashioned’ dinosaurs among us, who tend to think of words by their objective definitions, to experience a heightened, emotional reaction. I must be a dinosaur, because this is what happened to me.

Why call it quitting, if you’re not quitting?

Handling Dissent

When the quiet quitters feel the backlash from critics, a curious thing happens. They tend to blame the system, or associate critics with their deeply entrenched and often negative views of capitalism, demanding managers, and bad business ethics. Through this lens, the critics become straw men. Adherents to the movement react as though outsiders are all saying the same thing.

Unfortunately, the dynamic shifts to an us vs. them model. This is unfortunately quite common in our modern discourse, especially through online platforms.

The problem is, if the movement was called “don’t work too hard, for no reward” would anyone pay attention? More neutral and accurate words like ‘coasting’ or ‘establishing healthy work boundaries’ could have been used.

But quiet quitting is mysterious and controversial. Quiet quitters are objectively saying one thing, that is to quit your job without telling anyone. Yet, we are told that this is not what is meant. The onus is on those who react, to get it “right.” But according to them, the only definition of “right” is what they meant. Not what they said. It gets a bit messy.

No wonder there is so much controversy.

If you do not adhere to or accept this largely irrational definition of the words, you are deemed guilty of taking them out of context. You are less hip. You are a dinosaur. It is a curious dynamic that is deeply emblematic of the world we currently live in where definitions of words routinely change on the informal whims of counter-cultural movements.

In reality, not all dissenters are saying the same thing and not all quiet quitters are bad employees. If the goal is to court attention, it is better to use language that fuels tribalism.

Social media users on places like Twitter, TikTok and other platforms would never be provocative in their efforts to court attention. Or would they?

Does Work Matter?

There may be something more grim lurking beneath the surface here. And it is worthy of some serious scrutiny. Behind the movement is the idea that mere act of working for a living is unimportant, and to some, even anti-human.

Could a yearning for a postmodern world where people only work if they choose to, be fueling this trend? A well-known and more extreme movement, known as ‘anti-work’ does exist. You can learn about them by observing their popular subReddit page.

One thing that these folks, along with much of today’s youth are correct to point out that we are more than our jobs. Our identities are not defined by our jobs, nor should they be. 

A Lesson from a Friend

I was recently reminded of how people my age or younger think about the role of work in their lives when I visited an old college friend in Denver, Colorado. The first thing I asked him about was his job. I blog about career-related topics, so it makes sense that I would be curious. But as a Millennial, I did feel awkward saying it; largely because I share the view that there are usually better things to talk about.

My friend immediately called me out and provided an on-the-spot, informal training on how the good people of Denver interact with each other. 

“Really Ryan?” My friend said, “I haven’t seen you in years and that’s the first thing you want to ask me about?”

My friend went on, “We don’t really talk about work like that around here. That is something I like about living here. We talk about hobbies like hiking, skiing, etc. Fun things.”

I have found that many people, including myself agree with this sentiment. Work should not define an individual’s identity. But when this logic is taken too far, it can cause problems. This appears to be happening within the quiet quitting crowd and its followers.

There are more important things in life that matter far more than work. For example, forming meaningful relationships with others, getting married, being a member of a family, having kids, mastering a skill, being a good person, a good citizen, etc. These are all important.

Take your pick of whichever items resonate with you and feel free to add more to your own list. But work still matters. And it matters a lot. Work should be on this list too.

Among many other positive effects, work allows for the accumulation of material wealth. It is also how we individually contribute to the collective progress of civilization. We should not be so quick to dismiss the value of work and the collective benefit it provides for humanity.

Just because it is fashionable to say certain things in a certain way at this time in our culture does not mean that these are the ways that things should be said.

Work Lessons from a Teenager

When I was a high school teenager, I worked several jobs. One was as a busboy on weekends. I was 16 years old and this role was in addition to my other job, also as a busboy at a local steakhouse. It was a grueling summer of hard work that took an immense physical and emotional toll on me. I vowed never to repeat this sort of work load. At the time, I felt the same way many quiet quitters do about their jobs.

I learned to strike the right balance between an appropriate work ethic and personal sanity. It was a crucial lesson.

When I finally decided that this extra work was not worth the money, I quit. But I did not do so quietly. I told my manager that I was overworking myself and needed to quit. The truth is, he wasn’t thrilled with me. The summer tourist season was not over and he would need to find someone else. But I gave him 2 weeks notice and I know he appreciated this more than if I had just stopped showing up, or shown up too tired to perform. It was the right thing to do.

Saying positive things about the value of hard work has become strangely unpopular on social media. But work will remain a necessary activity for human societies to flourish in the future. Although imperfect and worthy of appropriate regulations and boundaries, work is a net good for just about everyone. We should not ignore, nor forget this traditional perspective.

Advice from a Grumpy, Old Restaurant Dishwasher

One last illustrative example which is worthy of mention happened while working at this same weekend job. On a regular morning shift, I was complaining to the grumpy old dishwasher in the kitchen. As I unloaded dishes, I told him about how I wanted to slack off because I was so tired. I was joking. Just venting, really. Complaining.

But the old grump didn’t care what anyone thought of him so he said something simple, yet profound. I immediately knew he was right. And little does he know, his words stuck with me.

First he shook his head. Rejecting my negative sentiments.

Then he proclaimed, “You should do every job to the best of your ability.”

It reaffirmed a lesson I had long been taught by my working class family. When you work somewhere, people depend on you and they expect that the job gets done to the best of your ability. After all, they do pay you to perform the duties you agreed upon. If you don’t like that dynamic, the least you can do is to formally quit so they can find someone who is a better fit.

Quiet Quitters Never Win

Perhaps we do not need to accept things as people declare them to be on the internet. If there is no room to discuss and debate topics as important as work and work ethic, then we must create the space to have these conversations. It may be unnecessarily harsh and similarly attention-seeking to dub quiet quitters, “losers,” as the so-called, “Mr. Wonderful,” Kevin O’Leary, has said. 

There is room for an infinite number of perspectives on this topic if we let people express themselves.

However, it is worth warning that engaging in thought patterns similar to the quiet quitters I have listened to, will decrease the likelihood of winning in your career. Luck may still strike, but wouldn’t it be better to maximize the chances of success? To quietly quit a job is to flirt with a career disaster. You may not be a loser if you think this way but you could very easily develop a loser’s mindset if this sort of thinking becomes a habit.

In closing, here is a more productive way to think about quiet quitting.

Appropriate assertiveness wins. Instead of sending out mental messages via some unrecognized telepathic channel, communication should be direct.If overwhelmed, you can quit. However, if you stay, honor your commitment and do your best. Don’t stress yourself out by overachieving when there is no reward.

Someone needs to remind the quiet quitters that there are times when doing more than needed can help you get promoted. If you know your strengths, understand your intrinsic motivations, and align your career interests with the interests of your company or clients, magic can happen. Life-changing opportunities can easily be missed if you allow yourself to get caught up in the cynicism that underlies the quiet quitting movement.

If you feel you are working too hard for too little pay, you do have options. When your hard work is not being rewarded, you should think very seriously about scaling back your level of effort and monitor your stress levels.

Adversity can be a Gift

When our limits are tested, human beings have a remarkable capacity to rise up. Healthy adversity should be recognized and nurtured, rather than belittled and feared. As the famous author and MIT professor, Nassim Nicolas Taleb says, we must remember that although life is hard, unlike glass, which shatters, human beings are anti-fragile. Another way to think of this is the popular mantra, ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’ This is more often true than untrue.

It is through adversity that we become stronger people. During our lifetime of work, each of us must learn to recognize when we are faced with either a growth opportunity (healthy adversity), or a toxic minefield that must be avoided at all costs. No matter how seductive, succumbing to an ‘anti-work’ or ‘quiet quitter’ attitude will almost certainly lead to inaccurate judgment of these scenarios.

To succeed in the modern work world, we need to maximize the value we add to colleagues and the companies with whom we associate. The ability to recognize opportunity is a super power. It can easily transform your career journey.

Successful people learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy challenges. If they decide to give up on a commitment, they are communicative, open, and transparent. They don’t coast. And they don’t slack off. Although they may quit when the time is right, they would never quietly quit.

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