Over the past three years, social media has become awash with buzzwords aiming to define the millennial work experience. “Impostor syndrome”, “productivity dysmorphia”, “hustle culture” and “burnout” have all become unavoidable terms when reading about modern work; a shorthand for the experiences of an overworked generation that has endured some of the worst economic circumstances of the past century. But while emphasis is placed on the overarching problems with work, the solutions offered are almost always personal ones. Rather than addressing the reality that these experiences are the consequences of systemic problems – and as a result, require big, structural changes – popular media seems only to respond with shallow, self-help “hacks”.
Take the latest example: “quiet quitting”, a term to describe a means for employees to regain more of a work-life balance by doing the bare minimum in their job and resisting the widespread encouragement by bosses and senior staff to work beyond the requirements of their role. The term rose to prominence after a TikTok video explaining the concept went viral: on this platform, the hashtag #quietquitting now has more than 70 million views. The concept has since been covered by many media outlets – often in the format of explainers setting out what the term means or think pieces delving into its political implications. Among others such as the “Great Resignation” and the “YOLO economy”, the notion has almost overnight come to represent the widespread belief that younger generations have fallen out of love with professional ambition.
Articles in GQ, Grazia and the Independent have argued that the trend is a welcome relief in the “hustle” of the modern workplace, while writers published in the Evening Standard and by the BBC claimed that the very existence of a new buzzword describing a “working to rule” approach – a form of protest often used by trade unions in which employees do exactly what is stated in their contracts, and nothing more, in order to slow down production – highlights how normalised overworking has become. But despite the subtle anti-work sentiment at the heart of the trend, and its enormous popularity, “quiet quitting” means little for those struggling in the current work climate. Instead, it only helps to obscure the structural issues that got us here in the first place.
It’s true that employers are regularly asking workers to go beyond their listed role requirements, and that many workplaces breed a competitive atmosphere in which workers are constantly encouraged to take on responsibilities above their pay grade. Most employees end up doing more for less money, and the number of staff members in the same situation makes it harder for individuals to negotiate salaries that reflect the work they are already doing. Seeking boundaries for workers is an understandable response.
However, by crowbarring these issues into social media-friendly life hacks we are suggesting that workplace problems are within our power to solve. Even the language used in the discourse around “quiet quitting” – that it’s resisting “hustle culture” and is a means to practice “self-care” – is riddled with trendy but often meaningless catchphrases, obscuring what workers are experiencing: a neoliberal, capitalist system doing exactly what it was designed to do. By turning it into a meme or a hashtag, it morphs into a “trend” rather than a near-global issue in need of widespread change.
Reduced to twee tabloid fodder, the problem of overwork and the response to it can be simply labelled as “something those Gen-Z kids are doing” – nothing more than a passing fad. It also makes it easier for older generations (as well as the managerial class) to use the “trend” as evidence to enforce their pre-existing belief that young “snowflakes” just don’t want to work at all. Despite being such a widespread phrase in the media, the concept of “quiet quitting” ends up meaning very little to the average person. It doesn’t explore or address the systemic workplace issues that led to its creation.
Yet it does feel apt that “quiet quitting” has risen to cultural prominence during a time when, across the UK, we are witnessing a dramatic uptick in industrial action. Union-led strikes – rail workers, postal staff, bin collectors – are sending a powerful reminder not just to bosses but also to other workers about the effective tools available to reclaim control over professional life. While terms such as “quiet quitting” may feel punchier, and by many measures may gain more cultural prominence, they ultimately have little socio-political impact. Reducing these systemic issues to social media-friendly buzzwords only serves to obscure the problems for which workers are evidently desperate to find solutions.