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The economics behind 'quiet quitting' — and what we should call it instead

Quiet Quitting
Mohamed Hassan
/
Pixabay

Over the last several weeks, the concept of "quiet quitting" has exploded like a supernova across the media universe.

The big bang began on TikTok, with a video uploaded by a 20-something engineer named Zaid Khan. With the sound of a piano playing a ragtime-style tune and summertime shots of New York City flashing across the screen, Khan narrates a 17-second video that has introduced millions of people to the idea.

"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."

Quiet quitting, in other words, is not really about quitting. It's more like a philosophy for doing the bare minimum at your job.

In Japan, there's a concept called shokunin, which refers to an artisan who is deeply dedicated to their craft, always striving for perfection in what they make. Quiet quitting is like the opposite of that. It's about divorcing your ego from what you do for a living and not striving for perfection. Setting boundaries and simply completing the tasks you're supposed to complete within the time that you're paid to do them — with no extra frills. No more kowtowing to your boss or customers. No more working nights and weekends, incessantly checking your email.

Workaholism is out. Coasting is in. Call it the work-life balance manifesto.

Tapping Into The Post-Pandemic Zeitgeist

Most observers seem to agree that the recent enthusiasm for quiet quitting says something about our post-pandemic zeitgeist. With a super-tight labor market giving workers multiple job options, and an ongoing battle being fought over the preservation and expansion of remote work, many workers seem to be reevaluating where and how they do their jobs.

Maybe quiet quitting is just an extension of "The Great Resignation" (or, as we rebranded it, "The Great Renegotiation"). Maybe a large chunk of our labor force was always phoning it in, but now they have a loud social-media presence and better branding. Maybe it's people feeling like suckers for going the extra mile pre-pandemic just to get laid off en masse. Or maybe quiet quitting is a BS pseudo-trend. To be honest, we don't know. But there is at least some data to suggest there's something real going in the psyche of the workforce.

"With layoffs and firings at a record low... people have unprecedented job security," says Julia Pollak, chief economist at the job-search website ZipRecruiter. "And so the risk of termination is lower. And that's also why the incentive to work harder is reduced. The consequences of being found to shirk have become much smaller. One, because companies can't afford to fire people. And two, because there are so many alternatives out there if you do lose your job."

Meanwhile, government data shows an historic drop in productivity over the last two quarters. There could be many reasons for this: the supply chain fiasco, a record rate of job switching, business hiring decisions during a weird time for the economy, scars from the pandemic, growing pains from the mass adoption of remote work, you name it. But some argue that something like quiet quitting might have something to do with it. It would certainly play into a sentiment expressed by some of America's biggest corporations: their employees just aren't being productive enough.

[Editor's note: This is an excerpt of Planet Money's newsletter. You can sign up here.]

Gallup recently did a survey about quiet quitting, counting workers who report being neither engaged nor "actively disengaged" at work. They found that these quiet quitters make up at least half of the U.S. workforce. Overall, Gallup's data doesn't really show a sizable shift in how workers feel about their jobs over the last few years, suggesting that quiet quitting could be a normal feature of the American workplace. One area where the data did show a somewhat significant change, however, was among younger workers. "The percentage of engaged employees under the age of 35 dropped by six percentage points from 2019 to 2022," Gallup finds, suggesting that while feeling meh about work may be par for the course for a lot of Americans, it may be gathering momentum among Gen Zers and millennials.

"It's clear that quiet quitting is a symptom of poor management," Gallup writes. The organization recommends that company managers do a better job communicating with their underlings. "Gallup finds the best requirement and habit to develop for successful managers is having one meaningful conversation per week with each team member — 15-30 minutes."

The Loud Reaction To Quiet Quitting

Since the concept of quiet quitting began ricocheting around the internet, there have been countless takes on it. Supporters argue that quiet quitting is a way to safeguard your mental health, prioritize your family, friends and passions, and avoid burnout. But many movers and shakers are against it.

"Quiet quitting isn't just about quitting on a job, it's a step toward quitting on life," complains Arianna Huffington, arguing quiet quitters would be better served finding jobs they are passionate about.

"People who shut down their laptop at 5... they don't work for me," says business thinkfluencer Kevin O'Leary in a CNBC video. "I hope they work for my competitors."

Others worry that quiet quitting is too passive aggressive, can't accomplish what workers really want, and puts an extra burden on coworkers. Kami Rieck, writing in The Washington Post, suggests "the people who tend to experience the highest levels of burnout — women and people of color — probably can't afford to 'quiet quit.'" Instead of silently refusing to put in extra effort, Rieck writes, "it would probably be more helpful to raise these concerns with your boss and brainstorm other solutions."

Hamilton Nolan, writing in The Guardian, stresses that workers in generations past also felt a "collective sense of malaise," but they channeled their frustrations into something more productive than coasting at their jobs: creating unions. "All of these working people did not quit. Nor were they quiet. They knew what was wrong, and they fixed it. Loudly."

Even U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh recently chimed in on quiet quitting: "If you are an employer, you should catch on early enough that your employees aren't satisfied, aren't happy, and then there needs to be a dialogue, a conversation."

The Economics Of Quiet Quitting

One of the more simple models in neoclassical economics says that, in a competitive market, workers are paid their "marginal product." That means the more productive they are — the more extra widgets they make per hour — the more they get paid. In this cartoon world, there would be strong incentives against quiet quitting. You work harder, you get paid more: You coast, and you get paid less. And, we should say, for some workplaces, that may actually be a good approximation of how the world works. You're more likely to get raises and promotions when your boss believes you're working hard.

But, of course, the world is much more messy than workers simply getting paid for how efficiently they work. A more sophisticated cartoon of the workplace is known as "the principal-agent model." In this model, the principal (the boss) enlists an agent (the worker) to do a specific job for them. The problem: the principal doesn't have complete information on exactly what their agent is doing. Is their agent being productive on the job? Or are they slacking? In order to make sure the agent is doing their bidding, the principal must figure out ways to incentivize and monitor them. The model has implications for the dramatic changes in office life — or lack-of-office life — we've seen in recent years. With the mass adoption of remote work, many managers seem to be struggling with how to effectively monitor and motivate their employees.

But companies are trying. A recent investigation by the New York Times finds "eight of the 10 largest private U.S. employers track the productivity metrics of individual workers, many in real time." And they document a surge in companies investing in "digital productivity monitoring" to oversee their white-collar employees. "Many employees, whether working remotely or in person, are subject to trackers, scores, 'idle' buttons, or just quiet, constantly accumulating records. Pauses can lead to penalties, from lost pay to lost jobs." It's all a bit icky.

Workers Tell NPR What They Think

Of course, the mantra of quiet quitting, at least according to TikTok, is not really about failing to do your job. It's about "quitting the idea of going above and beyond." But the concept has drawn much criticism — for being a misnomer, for example. Or for overshadowing the "quiet firing" trend, where companies passively aggressively make their employees' work lives unhappy, and "quiet fleecing," which refers to workers' pay lagging behind their increased productivity for decades.

NPR reached out to listeners and readers to get their perspective on quiet quitting. Some dislike the name. It's pretty confusing. So they offered some rebranding alternatives:

Reverse hustle

Work-life integration

Acting your wage

Workforce disassociation

Corporate coasting

Working at work

DYJ: Doing Your Job

Working to rule

Working to thrive

Morale-adjusted productivity

Our audience members also shared their real-life experiences with setting boundaries at work. Below are some of their comments (with two people asking to shorten their last names for fear of repercussions at work).

Sara M., department manager: "Since COVID, I feel like my priorities, values, who and what are important to me have shifted drastically. I now leave my office at the end of the day not thinking about what I need to work on when I go home at night. I set boundaries for checking my emails and reaching out to co-workers during non-office hours. Most importantly, I do not feel any bit of anxiety when it comes to requesting time off, taking personal days or especially taking sick time. Before it was something I would agonize over. Now it's something I can do without hesitation or worry."

Lane Sheldon, attorney: "Many of my friends work in Big Law and while they're paid very well, the expectations placed on Associates are extremely demanding and often unfair/emotionally abusive. They can't or won't draw similar boundaries, often for fear of retaliation, but they all recognize the toll it takes on their mental AND physical health. Many have left their positions as a result."

Christy G., administrative assistant: "I do not interact with anything from work before 7:00 or after 4:30, which is the time my office is open. I work in a corporate setting so my tasks are not life or death. If someone asks for something, like maybe a file scanned or something like that, at the end of the day — it can wait until the next day. My colleagues do not feel the same way. They answer their phones and answer emails outside of work and on vacations. Sometimes I'll come in on Monday morning and will see 5+ emails from co-workers sent at 7 pm on Saturday."

James Holverstott, laborer: "I have zero ability to do anything but do as I am required by my boss. The idea that 'quiet quitting' fits any jobs besides ones laden with keyboard strokes, spreadsheets, and meetings is patently foolish. It feels like more of a realization by people who have been more than happy to work 24/7/365 to chase the almighty dollar that their lives are being wasted in the pursuit of more stuff, and now they are presenting some laughable notion of 'I just realized I work too much, but luckily I can afford to do less because no one will notice anyway!' as somehow a paradigm shift in worker's rights. I am disgusted that this has even become something people believe could be effective for the bulk of the workforce."

Nick Ivanov, university research assistant: "No boundaries. I will do whatever necessary to make it possible to get a green card in the future. I cannot return to where I am originally from. I have to work 10 times more to be entitled to one tenth of what U.S. citizens take for granted."

Adrian Brothers, school bus driver: "The company I work for wants me to voluntarily put an app on my personal phone. I don't put it on there. ... If they want to communicate with me about work, they can either give me a phone call, a text-message, heck, even send me a letter in the mail. But I will not give the company access to my phone. If they want me to sign on to an app so they can message me every day, they can shell out the money for the phone to come with it."

Misty Moore, nurse: "I have the boundary of accepting as many assignments as I can handle and yet still provide excellent results. I do take on extra work but that is 100% my choice. No one should be looked down upon for not doing extra work."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Since 2018, Greg Rosalsky has been a writer and reporter at NPR's Planet Money.
Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.