The concept of gradually withdrawing from overwork has gone viral. This ‘quiet quitting’ has been going on for decades, but its recent popularity says a lot about work today.

Gemma, 25, decided on a recent Monday morning that she needed to revamp her professional life. “I opened my inbox to a slew of negative emails from the company’s founder,” explains the London-based public relations professional. “At the time, I was expected to deliver big results on a tight deadline. “I’d had enough.”

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Gemma, whose full name is being withheld for professional reasons, did not resign. Instead, she chose to stay in her current position; she completes her duties but no longer goes the extra mile. “I think it’s pretty clear that my spark has faded, and I’m just getting by,” she says. “I used to be online hours before I started work; now, I don’t log on until after 0900. I used to work so late that I didn’t have time for myself; now, I shut down all work apps at 1800.”

Gemma has ‘quietly quit’ her job, following in the footsteps of a TikTok trend. The phrase was popularised by user @zkchillin in a July 2022 video, which has 3.5 million views and has spawned an online phenomenon. “You’re not quitting your job outright, but you’re quitting the concept of going above and beyond,” he explained. “You’re still doing your job, but you’re not buying into the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life; the reality is that it isn’t, and your worth as a person isn’t defined by your work.”

According to Gemma, quiet quitting has captured the zeitgeist: employees feel overworked and underpaid in the aftermath of the pandemic and amid rising living costs. “I believe a lot of people are tired,” she says. “They’re realising they’ve put in a lot more effort than their pay reflects: no one should be working themselves to exhaustion for a wage that causes personal stress or worry.”

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Quiet quitting has sparked widespread media interest, with extensive coverage examining the workplace trend. It’s not a new phenomenon in many ways: coasting, or clocking in and out while doing the bare minimum, has long been a feature of the workplace. Dissatisfied employees have always found ways to leave their jobs while still collecting their pay. However, the buzz surrounding the newly coined concept of quiet quitting appears to have struck a nerve right now. Why is this so, and what does its popularity say about our broader cultural attitudes toward work and careers in the long run?

A decades-long phenomenon

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Although the term is new, the concept of quiet quitting has been around for a long time, according to Anthony Klotz, associate professor at the University of London’s School of Management. “Although it has come from a younger generation and in new packaging, this trend has been studied for decades under different names: disengagement, neglect, and withdrawal.”

Workers have always sought to simply get by in their jobs for a variety of reasons, he continues. “Many people are unable to leave their jobs because they have non-transferable skills, have accrued flexibility and benefits that they cannot obtain elsewhere, or live in a small community with few other options.” He adds that the economy can also play a role in keeping dissatisfied employees at work. “Because of the weaker job market, slowdowns increase the risk and cost of quitting.”

In these cases, coasting can make sense for workers who feel they can’t progress, or no longer prioritise their career. “Always going above and beyond the call of duty consumes mental resources and causes stress,” says Klotz. “And there’s little reward for doing so if someone perceives they’re stuck at a company. So, quiet quitting doesn’t just speak to younger generations – it’s anyone who has ever felt stuck in a job but has little reason to resign.”

However, unlike coasting, an employee who quiet quits may not necessarily slack every day at work. Instead, Klotz says workers tend to strip back the above-and-beyond aspect of a job to its core nine-to-five. “Arriving early to work and staying late, helping a colleague out at the expense of your own tasks, showing as much dedication to your role as possible – these are extra behaviours that go the extra mile for an organisation, but can take a personal toll.”

Why ‘quiet quitting’ is booming

Because of the pandemic and increased conversations about mental health, Klotz believes that the idea of quiet quitting is particularly appealing right now.

Employees are taking action to avoid burnout in many cases, according to Klotz. “Quiet quitting is effectively redrawing boundaries back to the job description so that people aren’t thinking about work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Instead, they are devoting time and energy to more meaningful aspects of their lives, resulting in increased well-being.”

Although this has come from a younger generation and in new packaging, this trend has been studied under different names for decades: disengagement, neglect, withdrawal – Anthony Klotz

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Working through the pandemic may have also resulted in an increase in employee disengagement, fueling the quiet-quit phenomenon. Early-career employees, according to Jim Harter, chief scientist for workplace management and wellbeing at analytics firm Gallup, based in Nebraska, US. “Typically, younger workers report higher levels of engagement, but this is now declining,” he explains. “Following Covid-19, they may now have a higher bar than previous generations when it comes to working for a purpose-driven organisation.”

According to Harter, there is also a growing disconnect between employees and managers. He cites Gallup data from June 2022, which show that only 21% of 15,001 US workers believe their company cares about their overall well-being – as opposed to half of employees during the pandemic’s peak. This feeling may have become even stronger as real wages have fallen in the face of rising inflation. “We’re seeing a cultural schism that’s driving employees away from their employers,” he adds.

Gemma’s quiet resignation stemmed from underlying issues with her employer and a sense that her job performance was consistently overlooked. “I’ve been unhappy for a long time,” she says. “My workplace has a terrible and toxic work culture. Despite the fact that I was always working harder and longer than my peers, my pay never reflected this.”

Rather than forcing her way out of the company and possibly landing in another job she doesn’t like, Gemma is content to take a break for the time being. “I don’t think it would take much for me to make a drastic change,” she adds.

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