Does ‘quiet quitting’ really deserve our attention?

The trend of ‘quiet quitting’ probably hasn’t much substance, but its media popularity suggests it captures the zeitgeist, writes UNSW Business School’s Frederik Anseel

By now, we all know what quiet quitting means: employees are psychologically throwing in the towel. Contrary to that other hype, The Great Resignation, a quiet quitting employee does not actually resign, but remains in employment and limits themselves to minimal service. The idea is to work as little as contractually possible without getting into trouble – and still get paid.

I’m sure you were rolling your eyes when you heard about it. That’s what I did when I first read about it. Nice story, but there is no statistical evidence that many people convert to quiet quitting. On the contrary, most studies indicate that employees are going the extra mile, often exceeding working hours agreed in their contracts, and struggle to cope with all the job demands.

“Nothing new under the sun”, behavioural scientists were eager to declare in their commentaries about quiet quitting headlines. “We have long known that people retaliate by scaling back their efforts when they feel they have been treated unfairly.”

Is quiet quitting nothing more than a good story that journalists blew out of proportion? No, there’s more to it. There are not only the Great Resignation and quiet quitting, but also the trend of “lying flat”. Chinese employees, especially young ones, are giving up as well, and are devoting themselves to a lifestyle of minimal effort. Why get up if you don’t really need to – you may as well keep lying flat? Are we talking about a small minority of employees? No doubt, maybe even just a few hundred. Is the phenomenon transitory? Absolutely. I suspect most quiet quitters and flat-liers are already back at work.

Frederik Anseel UNSW Business School.jpeg
UNSW Business School’s Frederik Anseel says “quiet quitting” presents an interesting paradox: while everyone is talking about it, in reality very few people are doing it. Photo: supplied

Is quiet quitting really a thing?

The intriguing question is why such stories go viral in the first place. Quiet quitting appears in all newspapers worldwide, each time illustrated with local interviews. Each time these local interviews result in thousands of clicks and comments in their home country. It is not so much intriguing that newspapers write about the phenomenon (they simply report what attracts attention) but that so many people react empathically and agreeably, without quiet quitting themselves. We have an interesting paradox: while everyone is talking about quiet quitting, in reality very few people are doing it.

Sometimes we don’t need statistics, but stories to capture the zeitgeist. In the 1980s, journalist Tom Wolfe perfectly captured the zeitgeist in New York with The Bonfire of Vanities. It contrasted the vanity in Wall Street with the racial inequalities and poverty in surrounding neighbourhoods. Generation X by Douglas Coupland was another game-changing book in the early 1990s. It expressed the change in the zeitgeist at the right time – that means, just a few months before everyone else was talking about it. His book signaled the end of the “greed is good” era. Boredom, nihilism and anti-consumerism became the themes of the early 1990s. Not coincidentally, “I’m not a target market” is the title of a chapter. Whitney Houston gave way to Kurt Cobain.

Read more: Are we seeing the Great Resignation – or the Great Exhaustion?

Why quiet quitting is like a meme

A meme is not just a viral image on social media. The original definition of a meme is a unit of cultural transmission. It is a compelling idea, a way of thinking, which is spreading contagiously and becoming commonplace. The Great Resignation, quiet quitting, lying flat are cultural memes that appeal to the imagination because they capture what got under our skin, but we can’t find words for. Many people feel betrayed and abandoned after the covid crisis.

For years, the dominant theme in companies was “engagement”: more effort, more teamwork, better results and all this driven by the conviction that personal growth is the recipe for success. For those who want to grow, there would always be opportunities. After the covid crisis, inflation and a climate crisis are emerging. Those promised opportunities may not materialise after all. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. The resulting disappointment and anger call for a stubborn expression of resistance and protest, even if it exists only in the mind.

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It is no coincidence that the marching orders in HR circles today are no longer engagement and commitment. The top priorities for HR are now mental wellbeing and inclusiveness. With The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the defining book of the roaring 20s. I’m waiting for the ultimate fiction book that captures the Zeitgeist of the 20s of the 21st century. The new ‘20s won’t be roaring.

Frederik Anseel is Professor of Management and Senior Deputy Dean (Research & Enterprise) at UNSW Business School. His research focuses on the motivational micro-foundations of how people contribute to organisational success. For more information, please contact Prof. Anseel directly. A version of this post was first published in De Tijd.