In the last few weeks, the term "quiet quitting" has taken the media by storm. The internet is ablaze with chatter about the supposed trend of workers vowing to do only the bare minimum at work and nothing more.
As ever, interest in the trend is in part driven by the media's insatiable appetite for the next shiny new thing to drive clicks. And certainly, the explosion in the interest in quiet quitting reflects how a lot of Americans are feeling about their jobs after more than two years of pandemic disruptions.
But while it's undeniable the media hungers for content and many workers are fed up, it's still fair to ask: Is quiet quitting really as new or as big a trend as the approximately eight gazillion articles written on it in the past six weeks or so suggest?
Quiet quitting: Do the numbers match the hype?
Recent poll numbers cast some doubt. Sure, a new Gallup survey finds that half of employees are "not engaged" at work and another 16 percent are "actively disengaged." This last group is defined as resentful and trying to stick it to the boss by doing as little as possible (so the ultimate quiet quitters). For entrepreneurs, those numbers should be a wakeup call to make sure your workforce is properly compensated and motivated. But as Quartz recently pointed out, these statistics aren't unprecedented.
"The portion of employees who identified as engaged was even lower between 2000-2014," the site's Sarah Todd notes. And American workers are "positively delirious with professional enthusiasm compared to workers in many other regions," she adds, highlighting significantly lower levels of engagement elsewhere in the world. Only 14 percent of Europeans are engaged at work, for example.
Todd goes on to argue that while the phrase "quiet quitting" sounds dramatic, what it actually describes is more workers turning their backs on cultural norms that you should find identity and fulfillment in your job (and therefore make yourself easy pickings for exploitation). As the pandemic exits its acute phase, many people are looking to other areas of their lives for meaning.
As I've written about before, academics have long divided workers into categories by their approach to their jobs. Some people see how they make a living as fundamental to their status and self-worth. These folks who derive great satisfaction from excelling at work have what researchers call a "career orientation." Others see their jobs as just a means to put food on the table. That's a "job orientation." A third group made of clergy people, artists, and similar professions see their jobs as a calling.
This framework is basically just a more academic version of the old "work to live or live to work" question, and it's been around for years. And as Todd describes quiet quitting, it sounds very much like a simple shift from a career to a job orientation.
If that's the case, it's nothing new. The vast majority of people throughout history have viewed their labor as means to an end. Quiet quitting might just be millions of employees, prodded by pandemic realizations, awakening from a fever dream of hustle culture to return to a common, traditional understanding of the role of work in most people's lives.
The problem is mismatched expectations, not quiet quitting.
"All in all, quiet quitting doesn't seem to have many concrete downsides for employees. It's a much bigger problem from the perspective of a boss," writes Todd. But that's not quite correct. A job orientation is definitely not bad as a well-considered approach from the worker's perspective. It doesn't have to be a negative from the boss's perspective either.
Professors developed the work orientations framework in part to encourage employers to better match their expectations with the expectations of employees. Many routine jobs are best accomplished by someone who wants to clock in at 9 and out at 5 and go home with a respectable paycheck. A few roles are best suited to those with a career or calling orientation. The trouble arises when the job and its occupant are mismatched -- a careerist will chafe in an assistant role with little scope for advancement, while a job-oriented employee will resent a position that demands total dedication.
Quiet quitting, a.k.a. seeing your job as simply a job, isn't a problem when everyone's expectations line up. Issues arise when you thought you were hiring an ambitious go-getter but your employee is in it only for stability and a paycheck. Which suggests perhaps the biggest lesson for entrepreneurs from the quiet quitting craze is to recommit to self-knowledge, openness, and communication.
If you're clear about which orientation you want to for a particular role (and the true scope of the job), and both you and prospective hires are open about your preferences, quiet quitting should be more media hype than actual business issue.