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Why 'quiet quitting' is a dead end

The term itself is a window into its limitations and vulnerability to being co-opted.
Photo illustration: Partial view of a woman in a suit levitating above a work desk against the sky in the background.
'Quiet quitting' is about rejecting overwork. But does the term undermine itself?Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Have you heard the news? “Quiet quitting” is all the rage among young Americans who are burned out and fed up with being overworked. Quiet quitting's underlying ambition to draw clearer boundaries between work and life is a healthy one in a society that fetishizes endless hustle. But the term deserves some skepticism. It’s a self-undermining concept, and it’s acutely vulnerable to being co-opted by managers. And unless it’s coupled with a broader understanding of why many people feel a compulsion to martyr themselves to the workplace — and how unions are a worker’s best bet for a dignified working environment — it’s a dead end.

There isn’t a consensus on the precise meaning of quiet quitting, a buzzword that took off on Tik Tok this summer. Zaiad Khan’s viral Tik Tok video in July with more than 40,000 shares describes it like this: “You’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond.

Quiet quitting is a misnomer insofar as there’s no interpretation of the term that actually involves quitting.

“You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life,” he continues. “The reality is it’s not, and your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.”

That’s a useful summary of the concept, although the interpretation of what it means to reject going above and beyond varies depending on who you talk to and what you read. It could mean anything from declining to leave the office late and answer emails at midnight to mentally checking out from work and doing the bare minimum to keep a job.

The emergence of the term tracks with a downturn in how engaged employees have felt in their jobs in the past couple of years — a disengagement that is most pronounced among younger workers. It’s probably not entirely a coincidence that this downturn has taken place amid a global pandemic that’s blurred work-life boundaries and dampened the socially enriching parts of work for people who work from home. It also makes sense that the current strength of the labor market makes workers feel a bit more confident about coasting at work without fear of being fired.

But quiet quitting is a misnomer insofar as there’s no interpretation of the term that actually involves quitting or trying to get fired from one’s job. And while the underlying concerns about overwork deserve attention, the term itself is a window into its limitations — and a reminder of how collective action in the form of labor organizing is an essential tool for achieving better work-life balance.

If one labels the idea of working reasonable hours and declining to exceed expectations as quitting, that implicitly reinscribes the very ethos it’s pushing back against. It’s an admission that it’s transgressive to do something like leave the office or sign off at the time a manager told you it was OK to when you were first hired. It frames drawing boundaries and standing up for oneself as reneging on duties.

It’s not hard to see how the term can be appropriated by the managerial class. Consider who benefits most from describing something like declining to work later than a shift requires or producing more goods or services than one was hired to do as “quitting.” We are in fact already seeing corporate backlash against the term in this vein — a career coach told The New York Times that having the audacity to decline to go beyond minimum job requirements merely because one is "entitled to it" amounts to being "passive-aggressive" in the workplace.

Some commenters on the r/antiwork subreddit for critiquing work under capitalism have proposed “act your wage” as a substitute for quiet quitting, and drawn attention to the notion that there’s a need to discuss quiet quitting as a response to the indignity of being quietly fired — not getting wages or promotions commensurate with labor or the rising cost of living.

Setting aside the merits of the term, the quiet quitting advocates are actually right that it can feel downright transgressive to say “no” to overwork. But it’s not just because of hustle culture. It’s because in a capitalist economy, companies achieve bigger profit margins in part by wringing as much as possible out of laborers in a manner that exceeds the companies' costs. Companies are understaffed by design, and a culture of pushing employees beyond limits or forcing them to meet unfair quotas helps cover the gap. That anxiety some of us feel about looking lazy even when we’re doing more than we’re formally supposed to is baked into the very structure of how most profit-seeking companies operate.

Quiet quitting is always going to run-up against structural economic forces.

In other words, quiet quitting is always going to run-up against structural economic forces. Quiet quitting on an individual, ad hoc basis is not really an option for many people — particularly in industries with lower and unpredictable profit margins, and especially for people from marginalized communities. And even to the extent that it is an option for some people some of the time, it’s not something that can typically be sustained as a longer-term strategy. Most people cannot afford to risk voluntarily making themselves vulnerable to being fired or laid off in a society with a weak social safety net, even when they need to scale back energy spent at work for their physical and mental health.

The grievances that lead to quiet quitting can be more productively and sustainably dealt with by forming unions. Unions can act as advocates for workers, reduce arbitrary firings, clarify labor expectations in a way that counteracts the drift toward overwork, and serve as a platform for collective action — including work slowdowns that, yes, involve doing only what the job requires and nothing more. Experts on organized labor note that while forming a union definitely entails risk, it ultimately triggers a higher level of legal protections and creates a foundation for coordinated action that will be far more effective than individual attempts to draw a line with a boss. And ultimately a more unionized citizenry is far more capable of lobbying for policies that raise wages and in some cases even pass laws that formalize work-life separation, such as "right to disconnect" laws.

Doing whatever you can to fight burnout as an individual is necessary and should be encouraged. But creating a workplace that isn't defined by domination of workers involves leaning into thinking as a collective.