The Year in Quiet Quitting

The whirlwind surrounding “quiet quitting” first stirred in July when Zaid Khan, a twentysomething engineer, posted a TikTok of himself talking over a montage of urban scenes: waiting for the subway, looking up at leaves on a tree-lined street. “I recently learned about this term called quiet quitting, where you’re not outright quitting your job but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond,” Khan says. “You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life. The reality is it’s not. And your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.” The #quietquitting hashtag quickly caught fire, with countless other TikTokers offering their own elaborations and responses.

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Traditional media outlets noticed the trend. Less than two weeks after the original video, the Guardian published an explainer: “Quiet Quitting: Why Doing the Bare Minimum at Work Has Gone Global.” A few days later, the Wall Street Journal followed with its own take, and the traditional financial media piled on. “If you’re a quiet quitter, you’re a loser,” the CNBC contributor Kevin O’Leary declared, before adding, “This is like a virus. This is worse than COVID.” Quiet-quitting supporters fought back, mostly with sarcasm. Soon after O’Leary’s appearance, a popular TikTok user named Hunter Ka’imi posted a video, recorded in the passenger seat of a car, in which he responds to the “older gentlemen” whom he had seen dismissing quiet quitting. “I’m not going to put in a sixty-hour workweek and pull myself up by my bootstraps for a job that does not care about me as a person,” he declares.

As we approach the sixth month of debate over this topic, what’s interesting to me is not the details of quiet quitting, or even the question of how widespread the phenomenon actually is, but our collective reaction to its provocations: we’re simultaneously baffled and enthusiastic. To understand this complicated reality, it helps to adopt a generational lens. Though quiet quitting has gathered diverse adherents, its core energy comes from knowledge workers who are members of Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012). This is reflected in the movement’s emergence on TikTok, and in the survey data. A recent Gallup poll found that the largest group of workers reporting being “not engaged” are those born after 1989. Today’s young employees, however, are far from the first population to go through a period of sudden disillusionment about the role of work in their lives. Indeed, a look backward reveals that knowledge workers in every previous generation seem to have experienced a similar pattern of work crisis followed by reconceptualization.

The baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) entered a newly emergent knowledge-work sector that had been formed by a postwar migration to the suburbs. Their parents found a substitute for civic engagement in an Organization Man-ethos centered on loyalty to corporations that could offer lifetime employment in return. This subordination of the individual to the greater cause fit with the ethos of a generation that had banded together to fight fascism in the nineteen-forties, but to their children, surrounded by the social disruptions of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the sentiment began to seem stiflingly conformist. The boomers responded with a countercultural movement that recast work as an obstacle to self-actualization. The rise of back-to-land, voluntary-simplicity, and communal-living experiments were all, in part, attempts to find meaning outside the structure of employment.

By the time the boomers began having kids of their own, in the nineteen-eighties, their countercultural dreams had long since crumbled. They had to figure out what new message about the meaning of work to pass on to their children, the so-called millennials (born between 1981 and 1996). In looking for a compromise between corporate conformity, which they still distrusted, and their own failed attempts to reject work altogether, the boomers came up with a clever solution: telling the millennial to seek work that they loved. This advice might sound timeless, but its arrival can be connected to this specific period. As I document in my 2012 book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” it’s hard to find references to the phrase “follow your passion” in the context of career advice until the nineteen-nineties, at which point the adage explodes into common usage. This passion-centric perspective attempted to thread the needle between the extremes that the boomers had experienced: get a job, they told their kids, but make it one you love. Seek self-actualization, but also care about making your mortgage payments.

It’s hard to overstate the degree to which millennials—the generation to which I belong—were bombarded with this message during our childhood. This passion culture shaped our initial understanding of work and meaning, but, as with our parents, world events eventually disrupted its influence. The destabilizing impact of the 9/11 and the financial crises that followed cast doubt on the idea that our jobs should be our ultimate source of fulfillment. Employment had become too precarious to leverage in such a self-indulgent manner. When I finished graduate school, in the fall of 2009, American unemployment was near ten per cent. Millennials my age who had nurtured dreams of becoming journalists, or lawyers, or entrepreneurs retreated during this period into whatever fallback jobs they could find. Just a few years earlier, an author named Elina Furman had been making the TV rounds talking about her book “Boomerang Nation,” which documented the rising trend of young adults moving back in with their parents. Many in my generation responded by adopting a new and more pragmatic ethos of “hacking” work to serve a vision of the good life that expanded beyond the details of a particular job.

This was the decade of the blog-fuelled minimalism movement, which argued that if you simplify your life, you can simplify your career, leaving more time for other meaningful pursuits. It was also the decade in which a formerly burned-out entrepreneur turned life-style guru named Tim Ferriss dominated the best-seller lists with his surprise hit, “The 4-Hour Workweek,” which advanced a vision of using automated online businesses to support “mini-retirements” that included exotic travel and adventurous hobbies. In the early twenty-tens, the millennial philosophy of work as a means to an end was further boosted by the arrival of newer, slicker social-media platforms that made it easier to show off curated scenes of aspirational living.

Gen Z entered the workforce with a mind-set that was notably distinct from the millennials who preceded them. As the first group to fully come of age with smartphones and social media, Gen Z formed an understanding of the world in which the boundaries between the digital and real were blurred. Every experience was a potential cyber-palimpsest of self-documentation, and reaction, and reaction to the reactions. Whereas millennials, who had gained access to these tools later in life, used social media to keep track of the adventures and accomplishments of acquaintances and celebrities, this new generation embraced a voyeuristic digital vérité, characterized by the short video of a subject talking straight to camera about both everything and nothing at all. This new style of lo-fi influencer shifted the center of gravity of youth culture and began, for a small core of highly visible examples, to generate substantial financial rewards. “Every waking moment has become pertinent to our making a living,” the artist and writer Jenny Odell explained in a 2017 speech that, appropriately enough, went viral and which eventually turned into a book. For this generation, the personal had become intertwined with the economic.

Then the pandemic arrived. Though this disruption negatively affected knowledge workers of all ages, for Gen Z it delivered an extra sting. The depredations of pandemic-induced remote work—the crush of constant Zoom meetings, the sudden uptick of e-mail and chat, the loss of the redeeming social aspects of gathering in offices—stripped the last vestiges of joy from these jobs. For older employees, these conditions created a professional crisis. For Gen Z, which had so thoroughly mixed work and self, this suffocating grimness hit at a more personal level. It became clear to many that they needed to separate their personhood from their jobs. It is this transition that generates much of the angst exhibited in quiet-quitting videos. “Your worth as a person is not defined by your labor,” a defiant Zaid Khan concludes in the original quiet-quitting TikTok. To a millennial, with our work-as-a-means-to-an-end ethos, this statement sounds obvious and histrionic—like something you’d pronounce in a sophomore-year seminar. But, to Gen Z, declaring a distinction between the economic and the personal is a more radical act.

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