In Herman Melville’s 1853 short story Bartleby, the Scrivener, the eponymous Wall Street clerk embarks on a mysterious go-slow, and then a complete strike, while remaining at the office. “I would prefer not to,” becomes his refrain when asked by his boss to write documents.
Some of today’s equivalents are adopting a less defiant tactic by “quiet quitting”. The idea has rapidly found fame after Zaid Khan, a 24-year-old software developer, posted a TikTok video of himself sitting in a New York subway station, reflecting on his own interpretation. His gentle narration over soft piano music had an appropriately soothing effect.
“You’re not outright quitting your job but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You’re still performing your duties but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality where work has to be your life,” Khan mused in July. His post struck a chord, generating 3.4mn views by this week, and countless sympathetic responses on social media.
It may be infuriating for companies and managers to face a new generation of passively compliant staff who do just enough to get by and clock out when their contracted hours are completed. But it has some logic: after decades of deepening work intensity, stretch targets and the hustle culture, young employees have developed an efficient way to push back.
The phenomenon is not really new. Workplaces were always filled both with the ambitious seeking promotion and others who paced themselves. Although management journals offer advice on how to motivate workers, and engage them in teams to achieve what the author Jim Collins once called “big, hairy audacious goals”, not everyone wants to shoot for the moon.
But work has became more stressful for many following the pandemic, the switch to remote working, and a wave of resignations. There are severe staffing shortages in transport and other industries, intensifying the pressures on those who remain. Gen Z may be quiet quitting, or what one former teacher calls “quiet working”, but many older workers have quit entirely.
“Workers are now being asked to do more than is sustainable,” says Sim Sitkin, professor of management at Duke University. “It is like running a sprint — you cannot keep up that pace for an entire marathon.” He cites a door attendant he met recently in New York, who was having to work an 80-hour week because of staff shortages.
Young professionals already face high expectations. In some professions, such as banking and the law, junior associates are required to work long hours and be intensely committed in return for high starting salaries. There is a constant risk of burning out before being promoted to jobs with greater autonomy.
Companies have also brought rebellions on themselves by outsourcing jobs and limiting employment security. This has given younger workers the incentive to develop a “side hustle”, dividing their time between working to pay the bills and creative projects in which they are passionately engaged. That makes them more likely to quit quietly and to devote more time and energy to their own ideas.
Quiet quitting is a moderate response compared with “tang ping” (lying flat), the youth rebellion against mind-numbing work that emerged in China last year, to the alarm of the government. The term was coined by Luo Huazhong, a 26-year-old who left his job to go travelling: “I have just been hanging around and I don’t see anything wrong with this,” he wrote.
But anyone thinking of quitting quietly should be careful about it. If a company notices that its workers are stealthily disengaging, it might take the enlightened view that it should increase pay and adopt a gentler managerial approach. It could equally decide to tighten job contracts, introduce more monitoring and eliminate the scope for individuals to go slower.
Some professionals get plenty of freedom, compared with delivery drivers or warehouse operators, whose work rate is tracked with technology. This latitude is partly due to the less quantifiable nature of many professional jobs, but is also a deliberate strategy to foster initiative and creativity. If one side opts out of the implicit work bargain, the other one might too.
So, here is my advice for quiet quitters. First, come into the office regularly and be observed in person, rather than lurking too much at home. Offices are perfect places to appear to be working, while drinking coffee, chatting to others and taking a break from the grind. Simply turning up physically sends a message of commitment to the job these days.
Second, ease off by doing your job well for the agreed hours, rather than slacking off constantly (workplace chatting excepted). The former places the onus on employers to hire more people, while the latter often requires co-workers to cover the gaps. It does not count as an ethical rebellion if those worst affected are fellow employees.
Last, do it discreetly. If you change course too abruptly, managers will notice and things could get awkward. Making it obvious also invites others to join in, which will definitely set off the alarm. If you are going to quit quietly, you must work at it.