What the bosses and boss-loving pundits get wrong about ‘quiet quitting’
As the corporate propaganda outlet par excellence, it is no surprise that The Wall Street Journal recently decided to weigh in on the viral phenomenon known as “quiet quitting” with a much-discussed article, coauthored by Kathryn Dill and Angela Yang, entitled “The Backlash Against Quiet Quitting Is Getting Loud.” While it seems to pair well with the COVID-era phenomenon known as the Great Resignation, quiet quitting is a term of less recent vintage. The phrase was coined in 2009 by economist Mark Boldger in the wake of the Great Recession, long before the pandemic completely transformed the world of work. However, only recently has the term been picked up by media pundits to describe workers who have opted to labor only to the letter of what their job description entails.
From the outset, The Wall Street Journal betrays its bias toward white-collar workers and professionals—describing the so-called quiet quitting phenomenon as a movement that originated in the offices of America. If the WSJ thinks that office employees are the only ones who have found reason to do the bare minimum of what is required of them at work, they are sadly mistaken. As someone who has worked on both sides of the collar line over the course of the pandemic, I can confidently say that it was not just “office workers looking to draw firmer work-life boundaries” who have decided to cope with burnout by working-to-rule.
More importantly, by characterizing professional slackers as individuals who are risking their own careers—individuals who, like Bartleby before them, have preferred shirking extra work to staying in the exhausting, ultra-competitive rat race—the authors fail to see how and why quiet quitting is a collective phenomenon. When I worked stocking shelves at a grocery store during the pandemic, our main job was to make sure that goods got on the shelf as soon as we could get them there. Whenever we completed our primary objective, management always made sure to make extra work for us—often it was the most unpleasant jobs in the store that nobody else wanted to do. One Saturday morning, I not only removed and scrubbed our bulk bins, but also cleaned all of the old—and, in some cases, rotting—refuse that falls behind the bins as customers clumsily scoop food into their bags.
It was this dirty work that pushed us hourly workers to plan the flow of work together so as to limit, as much as possible, the amount of time management could find new tasks for us to do. While it is not unheard of for stockers to move their way up to middle management, most who attempt to climb the corporate ladder don’t reach such heights, and many more don’t even make it off the ground. Given the lack of upward mobility in those kinds of dead-end service jobs, going above and beyond isn’t really a question of “achieving success,” as Kevin O’Leary (aka “Mr. Wonderful”) of Shark Tank fame argues in the WSJ piece. It is, instead, a question of being able to go in and do the same thing over and over again every shift without going insane. Working-to-rule not only protects your sanity, it brings you closer to your coworkers; it fosters a kind of collective resistance that can get far bigger results than just aiding the dereliction of the worst workplace duties.
Another millionaire quoted in the WSJ piece, Ariana Huffington, follows O’Leary’s supposedly sage career advice with some of her own. She contends that “coasting” on the job is a recipe for mediocrity in “today’s hot job market,” which has, according to Huffington, opened so many opportunities for workers to find “meaningful work.” It’s interesting that Huffington gives counsel for workers who are unfulfilled in their current jobs to leave their job now, especially as the Federal Reserve acts to douse the hot job market in the cold water of rising interest rates. For those who remain in their jobs, rather than doing what is minimally required for the job, she recommends that workers should instead set boundaries. How and when to draw those lines is not clear, and since Huffington departed the news outlet that is her namesake long before its employees ratified their first union contract, we don’t know whether she sees unionizing as a viable method for setting such boundaries, though somehow I doubt it.
While the WSJ authors do air the opinions of a few people in favor of the practice, most of the piece concerns itself with making justifications for the current culture of work and its focus on grit and hustle. One particularly jarring example comes when they pick up the cudgel of systemic racism to try to beat back capitalism’s critics by arguing that the consequences of quiet quitting will fall the hardest on people of color. Since workers of color already have to contend with negative stereotypes, they would bear the brunt of the “backlash” if they choose to do the bare minimum. While there is no doubt a certain amount of truth to that, it again shows the shortcomings of “quiet quitting” as a concept, especially given how that concept is understood by professionals. Most obviously, this kind of logic prescribes acquiescence to the status quo and acceptance of the notion that there is no moving beyond it; however, on a less abstract level, this condescending interpretation of working-to-rule misses the fundamental possibility that this kind of resistance can start individually and become collective over time. An endless grind aimed at individual advancement is not the only answer, solidarity is possible (if the recent uptick in union activity is any indicator).
Moreover, not only do the authors fail to acknowledge collective forms of quiet quitting, they highlight voices that seek to frame the current anti-work moment in such a way that makes that solidarity less likely. They point out that it is the workers who do not opt to “quiet quit” who will end up picking up the slack of those who do. However, this makes more than a few faulty assumptions. First among them is the assumption that a worker cannot do what they need to do within the confines of the workday. Many people bring their work home for whatever reason and so they assume that if someone is not doing the same they are not doing what they are supposed to.
This assumes that, if their burnt out coworkers stepped up and went above and beyond what is required of them, there would not be extra work for them. This fundamentally misunderstands the current structure and culture of work, in which the ultimate directive is to squeeze as much productivity from a worker as possible (for as little compensation as possible). Even before the pandemic, companies purposefully short staffed themselves to save on labor costs—just look at the situation on the railroads, in healthcare, in education, etc. That is to say, pushing people to the brink is a feature of our economic system, not a bug. (This is particularly true in the retail and service sector where labor tends to be one of the highest costs for an employer.)
At the same time, much of that work is not easily automated. Unlike on an assembly line, work in a warehouse or grocery store is a series of often simple but contingent tasks—meaning they are dictated by the needs of the moment and are not easily routinized. For example, you never know when your stocking is going to be interrupted by a bewildered mother with child in tow looking for the dairy aisle, or by a clumsy customer knocking over a display of cheap wine. It is for all these reasons that employers in that sector are incentivized to squeeze workers. They do this by purposefully scheduling a skeleton crew during times they believe will be less busy while keeping other employees on call. In addition, they save on their labor budget by having part-time workers scheduled enough to fill the bare minimum of the business’s needs, but not enough for said workers to be eligible for healthcare benefits. My former employer, Whole Foods, infamously raised the threshold for their part-time employees to receive any benefits in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
These cost-cutting measures are most evident in retail and service sectors, but squeezing employees by piling more work and responsibilities onto fewer people by no means stops there. This is just as true for white-collar workers in an office setting. For instance, a salary might ensure more security if a worker gets sick; however, it is often simultaneously a guarantee that they will work much longer than 40 hours per week with no overtime pay or any other kind of additional compensation for their labor. And as convenient as working from home can be, it has also meant that many workers are perpetually at the beck and call of their boss—the barrier between work and home has completely broken down. With all of this added pressure on American workers, it should be no surprise that they are opting to shirk the extra duties they never asked for in the first place.