NEW YORK - The pandemic upended the world of work, and produced a string of new buzzwords along the way, including WFH (work from home), RTO (return to office), the Great Resignation and, more recently, “quiet quitting”.
The terms all reflect shifts in the balance of power between employers and employees, as a record-breaking spike in unemployment in 2020 was followed by an unusually tight labour market a year later.
Now predictions of an economic slowdown are raising questions about whether “quiet quitting” can survive a widely predicted rise in job insecurity – if it ever existed at all.
1. What is ‘quiet quitting’?
It doesn’t mean a fed-up worker who walks out the door (or clicks “leave” on one final Zoom call) without a word, though of course that happens. It’s about worker engagement – about people deciding to just do their jobs without going above and beyond or working well past official close of business. The number of finance workers, for example, who say they’re “very likely” or “extremely likely” to try their hardest to do a good job has waned since 2021, a survey released in October found. Other surveys found increases in the number of workers who said they felt less connected to their organisation’s mission, had less clarity about what was expected of them and saw fewer opportunities to learn and grow. In mid-2022, according to Gallup, about half of United States workers could be described as “quiet quitters”.
2. Why do people quiet quit?
The pandemic focused our attention on burnout, work-life balance and the role of work in our lives more broadly. For many who step back from a 110 per cent commitment to their job the goal is stronger boundaries. They’re divesting some of the emotional energy poured into making PowerPoints, for example, and instead saving some of that for friends, family and a fulfilling life outside of work. It might also reflect built-up resentment: The pandemic, including its forced breaks and layoffs, led many to view the demands of their jobs as exploitation.
3. Why is it in the news?
Before Covid arrived, the prevailing labour buzzword was “hustle culture”. Workers’ value was largely determined by what they were willing to sacrifice in the name of ambition. While every generation has a moment of reckoning with the diminishing returns of overtime, in 2020 everyone lived through it together, including millions who were jettisoned by their employers as the economy froze. Then the rapid thawing of business conditions in 2021 gave rise to a historically tight labour market lasting into this year, with 3.5 per cent unemployment in September. This gave workers greater leverage. That led some to quit outright in a wave that became known as the Great Resignation, while others took action in a less obvious way, staying in their jobs but quietly shifting their priorities.
4. Is this just slacking off?
To managers who expect employees to put in unpaid overtime and to be reachable nights and weekends, this could certainly look a lot like slacking off. What’s especially worrisome to employers is the invisible nature of quiet quitting, which might just show up in slowly sinking productivity. But to the employee who hasn’t gotten a raise in three years amid decades-high inflation and is losing quality time with their kids as they begin to commute again, taking a step back looks more like self-protection. Some of those who adopt this ethos argue that they still do excellent work between 9am and 5pm – and that it’s not and never was sustainable to keep asking workers to do more with less. They point to a similar dynamic playing out in other places where jobs had become increasingly stressful, as in the “lying flat” movement in China.
5. Could an economic downturn force a ‘quiet’ rethink?
According to projections from the Bloomberg Economics models, a US recession is effectively certain in 2023, as the US Federal Reserve has rapidly increased interest rates in a bid to cool inflation running at levels not seen since the 1980s. By the fall of 2022, employers from Amazon to Philips had already begun signaling hiring freezes and even layoffs.
For some workers, a temporary economic slowdown won’t be enough to change a determination to find a better work-life balance. But for others, the confidence that another job awaits may vanish – and with it, their confidence in being able to keep work demands in check, especially if their jobs depend on overtime or extra work.
It’s not just that employers could regain the upper hand. Quiet quitters may have second thoughts, akin to some who quit for real during the pandemic, with surveys showing that for some, the Great Resignation morphed into the Great Regret. BLOOMBERG