The hottest labor narrative right now is that everybody’s “quiet quitting.” Starting this summer, popular videos on TikTok with millions of views have used the term to refer to the art of having a job without letting it take over your life. The alliteration crawled out of that social-media petri dish into the mainstream-media landscape. Since August, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg have published more than a dozen articles and podcasts about the phenomenon. In the past month, I’ve received countless PR pitches on quiet quitting, many of them referring to the same Gallup study alleging that quiet quitters make up “more than half” of the U.S. workforce. Quiet quitters are allegedly an “epidemic” that is allegedly changing the workplace and, allegedly, making bosses very mad.
I’ve repeated the word allegedly because I want to convey that statistically speaking, quiet quitting is not actually a thing. Or, at least, it is not a new thing.
Every year, Gallup asks thousands of American workers about their commitment to their job. From 2010 to 2020, engagement slowly increased. In 2022, it declined so slightly that it’s still higher than it was in any year from 2000 to 2014. Look at the chart below and tell me that this is anything more than two stable lines jostling within a margin of error. As a workplace phenomenon, workers’ mild disengagement is about as novel as cubicles, lunch breaks, and bleary-eyed colleagues stopping by your workstation to mutter, “Mondays, amirite?” What the kids are now calling “quiet quitting” was, in previous and simpler decades, simply known as “having a job.”
I acknowledge that quiet quitting would seem to solve a major contemporary labor mystery. Labor productivity is falling after it surged in the first year of the pandemic. The best explanation for this decline, however, is not a sudden outbreak of TikTok-transmitted laziness. It is that record-high rates of job switching in the service sector have created an inexperience bubble such that many new workers at restaurants, hotels, and so forth aren’t fully trained.
Still, the term has taken off in part because burned-out or bored workers are simply desperate for a fresh vocabulary to describe their feelings. Quiet quitting sounds to some like worker empowerment. Amelia Nagoski, a co-author, with her sister Emily Nagoski, of the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, told my colleague Caroline Mimbs Nyce that the term “makes a lot of sense” because it comes “from the perspective of folks who have been selling not just their time, but their selves to their employer."
But realistically, the term is more likely to validate managers who think that their employees are slackers than to help ordinary workers reclaim their soul. The sheer number of quiet-quitting articles from the perspective of bosses in The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg strongly suggests that the term is current among managers too. It offers a convenient explanation for ostensibly lazy workers. Complex questions such as “Am I running my team effectively?” and “Is hybrid work actually working out for us?” can be reduced to the confident diagnosis that young people just don’t want to work.
For some reason, news media seem eager to confirm these managers’ worst fears. Earlier this year, several media institutions—The New York Times, New York, Teen Vogue, Kim Kardashian—tried to convince Americans that “no one wants to work,” even as the economy added hundreds of thousands of jobs each month. The best evidence they had wasn’t evidence at all, but rather a misunderstanding of government data. As the official “quits rate” surged to all-time highs and the phrase Great Resignation made its way into headlines, some commentators perceived an overall disinclination to work. But most people weren’t quitting to retire; they were quitting to take a new job. The labor force, total jobs, and hours worked increased throughout a period of time when news organizations were telling everybody that work was dead. It was weird.
The popularity of these empty-calorie labor trends suggests a divergence between statistical and deeper emotional truth. Several weeks ago, I wrote about another quasi-trend: the supposedly catastrophic national teacher shortage. Despite many news articles about a sudden scarcity of classroom teachers, I couldn’t find a single education expert who agreed with the media presentation of the story. What seems to be happening is that long-standing issues in public education—such as the difficulty of hiring special-ed teachers—are colliding with the fresh politicization of public school and the burnout of teachers to create an overwhelming feeling of badness. That feeling has found purchase in the idea of a national teacher shortage.
Put another way, these quasi-trends are bad-vibe vehicles—delivery mechanisms for ineffable negative ideas about the world that demand the news-headline treatment. When people are looking for permission to feel their unnameable bad feelings, they’re satisfied when cheeky TikTok accounts or dyspeptic trend-chasing journalists give it to them. Just as the national teacher shortage is an overblown trend that marks the spot of a real phenomenon (declining job satisfaction among teachers), quiet quitting is a bit of novel nonsense that might stand in for chronic labor issues such as the underrepresentation of unions or a profound American pressure to be careerist.
When a phrase takes off, it's often because the new words fill a space of uncertainty, like the coining of a new diagnosis. A lot of workers are seeking an efficient way to describe the colliding pressures of wanting to be financially secure, but not wanting to let work take over their life, but also having major status anxiety, but also experiencing guilt about that status anxiety, and sometimes feeling like gunning for that promotion, and sometimes feeling like quitting, and sometimes feeling like crawling into a sensory deprivation tank to make all those other anxieties shut up for a moment. If quiet quitting is fake, the popularity of anti-work neologisms is its own data point that deserves to be taken seriously as a cultural phenomenon.