A new generation discovers that it’s hard to balance work with a well-lived life. The whirlwind surrounding “quiet quitting” first stirred in July when Zaid Khan, a twentysomething engineer, posted a TikTok of himself talking over a montage of urban scenes: waiting for the subway, looking up at leaves on a tree-lined street. “I recently learned about this term called quiet quitting, where you’re not outright quitting your job but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond,” Khan says.
“You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life. The reality is it’s not. And your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.” The #quietquitting hashtag quickly caught fire, with countless other TikTokers offering their own elaborations and responses.
Traditional media outlets noticed the trend. Less than two weeks after the original video, the Guardian published an explainer: “Quiet Quitting: Why Doing the Bare Minimum at Work Has Gone Global.” A few days later, the Wall Street Journal followed with its own take, and the traditional financial media piled on. “If you’re a quiet quitter, you’re a loser,” the CNBC contributor Kevin O’Leary declared, before adding, “This is like a virus. This is worse than COVID.” Quiet-quitting supporters fought back, mostly with sarcasm.
Soon after O’Leary’s appearance, a popular TikTok user named Hunter Ka’imi posted a video, recorded in the passenger seat of a car, in which he responds to the “older gentlemen” whom he had seen dismissing quiet quitting. “I’m not going to put in a sixty-hour workweek and pull myself up by my bootstraps for a job that does not care about me as a person,” he declares.
As we approach the sixth month of debate over this topic, what’s interesting to me is not the details of quiet quitting, or even the question of how widespread the phenomenon actually is, but our collective reaction to its provocations: we’re simultaneously baffled and enthusiastic. To understand this complicated reality, it helps to adopt a generational lens. Though quiet quitting has gathered diverse adherents, its core energy comes from knowledge workers who are members of Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012).
This is reflected in the movement’s emergence on TikTok, and in the survey data. A recent Gallup poll found that the largest group of workers reporting being “not engaged” are those born after 1989. Today’s young employees, however, are far from the first population to go through a period of sudden disillusionment about the role of work in their lives. Indeed, a look backward reveals that knowledge workers in every previous generation seem to have experienced a similar pattern of work crisis followed by reconceptualization.
The baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) entered a newly emergent knowledge-work sector that had been formed by a postwar migration to the suburbs. Their parents found a substitute for civic engagement in an Organization Man-ethos centered on loyalty to corporations that could offer lifetime employment in return.
This subordination of the individual to the greater cause fit with the ethos of a generation that had banded together to fight fascism in the nineteen-forties, but to their children, surrounded by the social disruptions of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the sentiment began to seem stiflingly conformist.
The boomers responded with a countercultural movement that recast work as an obstacle to self-actualization. The rise of back-to-land, voluntary-simplicity, and communal-living experiments were all, in part, attempts to find meaning outside the structure of employment.
Cal Newport is a contributing writer for The New Yorker and an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University.
Source: The Year in Quiet Quitting | The New Yorker
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