The term “quiet quitting” has become a thing. It all started with a seventeen second TikTok video that went viral, in which the narrator says “it is not outright quitting your job but quitting the idea of going above and beyond at work.” Since then, quiet quitting has been covered by The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other major media outlets. Aside from jumping on the zeitgeist click-wagon of a new term (but not a new phenomenon, more on this in a bit) and exploiting the momentum of a budding “anti-work” movement, the coverage to date doesn’t really say much of anything at all.
For some people work is just a job. You do it, you leave it, you live your life. For other people work is craft and mastery—it’s a large part of your identity and a big source of fulfillment. Both are totally fine. The truth is that people have phoned it in on the job since the beginning of time. Every workplace has at least a few individuals who master the art of creating the illusion of doing work while actually doing nothing at all. Sometimes these people are vice presidents, presidents, and executives.
While phoning it on stuff that actually matters is probably not good for anyone involved, there is nothing wrong with refusing to do meaningless work and attend meaningless meetings. If anything, it’s the sane thing to do. The anthropologist David Graeber found that over 40 percent of jobs are “bullshit,” providing no value to anyone. If you are in one of Graeber’s many bullshit jobs then quiet quitting makes a lot of sense. Why run around like crazy doing stuff for the sake of doing stuff? The problem here isn’t the people who are quietly quitting. The problem is there are way too many bullshit jobs.
Another issue is that many bosses and employers want their employees to treat work like it’s a craft but then they treat those same employees like they are just doing a job. You can’t really expect people to give their all if you don’t treat them like they are giving their all. Large swaths of research show that the best jobs (where people work hard and derive meaning and fulfillment from that work) all involve three characteristics:
- Autonomy: at least some control over how you spend time and energy.
- Mastery: a sense of concrete progress in which the results of one’s effort can be traced back to oneself.
- Belonging: a sense of connection and community.
Not wanting to work hard for assholes or in meaningless jobs doing meaningless tasks or attending meaningless meetings makes perfect sense. The fact that so many people have worked so hard for so long in these environments is crazy.
Meanwhile, quiet quitting in fields like teaching and medicine often results from administrators messing up autonomy, mastery, and belonging; and in the case of teaching, a society not valuing teachers nearly enough and paying them like crap for some of the most important work anyone can do. This isn’t on the teachers. It’s on all of us.
Where does this leave us? There are three solutions to quiet quitting:
Get rid of bullshit jobs. All of them.
Most workplaces require some level of redundancy, especially for large and complex systems. However, some level of redundancy is not the same as infinite redundancy, which is where too many organizations end up. The result: entire layers of the workforce where the whole point is a boss being able to hire people so they can feel powerful and have status thanks to a big team; but that big team doesn’t do much of anything outside of corporate kabuki, playing suited-up charades and dancing from one meeting to the next.
Give people autonomy, mastery, and belonging.
These are the building blocks of effective and meaningful work, whether it’s an individual craftsperson designing their own workflow or an organization of thousands. Make these core values and do everything possible to support them. (It’s no surprise that creatives burnout when too much of their time and energy is spent on administrative and marketing tasks instead of the actual work, where autonomy and mastery come from.)
Appropriately compensate people who are doing the ACTUAL work.
This is especially important in fields like education, where there are large administrative classes devouring resources. It is rare to find a coach or a general manager in sport who makes more than their players. Perhaps this mindset ought to apply to fields like teaching, too? (This doesn’t necessarily mean that administrators are over-compensated but rather that teachers are horribly under-compensated. Before you go knocking on the door of your school district’s superintendent, remember that much about teacher pay is decided at the state level.)
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