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Quiet quitting - it’s probably not a real thing, but can we really blame young people for liking the idea?

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez September 27, 2022
Quiet quitting is a viral term to describe people - particularly those under the age of 35 - who don’t go above and beyond when at work.

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(Image by Jess Foami from Pixabay )

Quiet quitting wasn’t a thing until just a few months ago - and to be honest, it probably isn’t actually a ‘real’ thing now (more on that later). But the internet being the internet, the term has gained viral traction across a number of popular social media platforms - particularly Twitter and TikTok - and is now creeping its way into the lexicon of enterprise meeting rooms. 

But what does it mean? Well, confusingly it has nothing to do with quitting your job at all. Quiet quitting is used to describe employees who commit to only doing what’s asked of them in their job description. Nothing more, nothing less. No more late nights, no more going above and beyond a brief, and no more doing favors for other colleagues. Some might call it the bare minimum, others might say it’s doing what is asked of you when you agreed the terms of your employment contract. 

You go to work, you do your job, and you shut your laptop/down your tools/walk away when the clock strikes 6pm on the dot. 

The concept, in particular, has drawn praise from employees under the age of 35 (broadly speaking). Many of which have taken to social media to state that this is what work should be - setting healthy boundaries with your employer, maintaining a solid work/life balance, and essentially not doing additional work for free. 

On the flip side to this, management (and the media) have responded in outrage and panic at the thought that people would come to work to *only* do the work that they’re paid to do. If you spend any amount of time looking into ‘quiet quitting’ it won’t take you long before you come across some CEO or manager saying something along the lines of ‘well, they won’t go very far with that attitude’ or ‘this generation doesn’t understand the meaning of hard work’. 

This panic from the upper echelons of the corporate world is largely being driven by the fear that productivity is stalling in places like the USA and the UK, at the same time that costs are soaring for businesses, due to a number of factors including rising inflation, the war in Ukraine and supply chain woes. 

If your cost base is going up one way to counter this is by making your employees more productive. That is still possible if employees stick to their job descriptions, of course, but the fear is likely that employers aren’t getting what they could out of their workforce. If they just worked that little bit harder and went above and beyond…

And it’s becoming increasingly obvious that this concept isn’t going away anytime soon. My inbox is now full of press releases claiming that ‘quiet quitting is a big problem for organizations’. 

At this point I should say that I see very little evidence of quiet quitting actually being a thing at all. Not only in my personal life do I see people working as hard as they’ve always worked, if not harder - but the data out there suggests that it’s little more than a viral internet meme. Yes, productivity is stalling, but that has been happening since the 2008 financial crisis - and has been explained by a number of factors that include a deceleration in the working-age population, a stabilization of educational attainment, a stalling in the growth of global value chains, and a slow down in sectoral shifts to more productive sectors.

But it’s a much easier narrative to blame these big world problems on the fresh faced 22 year old that just isn’t working hard enough, isn’t it? 

The stakes have changed

Despite my pessimism about the validity of quiet quitting actually taking place in the workplace, I do think that the appeal it has attracted online by those of a certain age should be taken seriously. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that those under the age of 35 are being increasingly drawn to the concept (although, again, I think this is probably just online support, rather than real-life execution). 

And that’s because the stakes have changed for many young people entering the world of work, where none of it actually has much to do with an organization itself. Yes, I do think companies that want to attract and retain the best talent need to focus on employee experience, where they should think hard about what employees need to thrive at work in 2022 - but I don’t think any amount of collaboration software, free gym memberships, or work from home policies will shake the ‘quiet quitting’ appeal. 

You have to look outside the four walls of an organization to understand why this is attracting attention (in my humble opinion). 

For instance, real wage growth has either remained flat since 2008 - or has even fallen below those levels - in the USA and the UK. And that’s before you take into account the inflationary environment we are currently experiencing. Not only that, but at this point, someone in their mid thirties has now lived through how many global crises - three? Four? Each time they seem to make things harder to secure a stable future, which in the past was made possible by ‘hard graft’ and ‘going above and beyond’ at work. 

Look at house prices too. The average deposit needed to buy a house in London in 1997 was approximately £5,200. In 2021 to buy a property in London the average deposit size is now £150,000. And as we have just noted, wages have largely been stagnant for the past 15 years…

And it’s not just a capital city problem, before I get comments along the lines of ‘just live and work somewhere else’ - house prices have soared all over, consistently, for a number of years. Property used to be the end goal for securing long-term financial stability, but as we know now, younger generations are residing themselves to a lifetime of renting. Without the help of parents, it’s just not achievable for a large number of people. In fact, figures show that those in their mid-30s to mid-40s are three times more likely to rent than 20 years ago.

Couple all of this with the fact that the richest 1% in the world continue to accumulate wealth (the wealthiest Americans got 40% richer during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example), and the prospect of working way beyond your job description can start to feel like like a fools game. The argument stacked up when there was an attainable future to be gained, a solid path to stability and financial security - but can we really argue that’s the case for most young people still? I’m not so sure…

So yes, this is a broad and rather simple criticism of the economic structures that currently make the world go round. And yes, hard work can still pay off (it’s not impossible and people can obviously still succeed). 

But I think when CEOs, consultants, recruiters or middle management start throwing young people under the bus for ‘quiet quitting’ (which isn’t likely even happening anyway), perhaps they should ask themselves why the concept has attracted so much attention amongst this particular age group in the first place…

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