Quiet Quitting Doesn't Exist & Never Did
There’s just one small issue with "quiet quitting": there’s little to no evidence it's a real thing.
I breached Instagram’s community standards this week by posting a photo of the Queen.
Instagram said my story went against their guidelines on “hate speech or symbols”.
What hate speech had I decided to dish out? Well, I’d reposted a photo of Her Majesty The Queen in a McDonald’s kiosk. Someone else had captioned it, “They uploaded her soul to a kiosk and now she has to take burger orders for eternity.”
Despite images of the Queen appearing in every available bus shelter and billboard in London, the kiosk photo was definitely fake. But it was funny — and I struggle to see how it was hate speech.
I sighed, and moved on with my day. The internet feels like a real struggle sometimes, which is where we turn today.
Webworm hound Hayden Donnell has been doing some digging — and he’s discovered that the entire “Quiet Quitting” phenomenon every media outlet under the sun has been preaching as gospel is in fact a big pile of horseshit.
Like all of Hayden’s Webworm columns (you can read all of Hayden’s previous work here) it may seem silly — but it actually has a lot to say about how we perceive reality.
And more importantly — what isn’t reality.
Quiet Quitting Doesn't Exist & Never Did
by Hayden Donnell
‘Wtf is quiet quitting? And why is Gen Z doing it?’ demanded the headline to an article on WorkLife.news, going on to explain that the term is linked to a global rebellion against hustle culture.
An almost equally prestigious publication, The New York Times, was similarly insistent. ‘What Is Quiet Quitting and Who Is It For?’ it asked, in the tone of a fed up parent who’s just come downstairs to find you playing video games and not doing the laundry like it told you.
As usual, these explainers were trying to make sense of a gigantic unfurling rat king of social media debate.
Most people on Twitter were indignant about the quiet quitting phenomenon. “‘Quiet quitting’ isn't laziness. Doing the bare minimum is a common response to bullshit jobs, abusive bosses, and low pay. When they don't feel cared about, people eventually stop caring,” wrote organisational psychologist Adam Grant.
Others hedged their bets. “Quiet quitting happens when you're burned out and when there's work overload. And it's okay,” wrote ‘Your Millennial Psychologist’, before delivering an admonition. “But please, don't be a person who complains about work when you're an actual freeloader.”
The media provided a more definitive opposing perspective, with bald male Kevin O’Leary going on CNBC to stand against the trend.
Some news outlets tried to bring order and intellectual credibility to this escalating situation. They got university experts to furnish them with strange pseudoscientific murmurings about the reasons behind the new workplace phenomenon.
“The search for meaning has become far more apparent. There was a sense of our own mortality during the pandemic, something quite existential around people thinking ‘What should work mean for me? How can I do a role that’s more aligned to my values?’” University of Nottingham associate professor in organisational behaviour Maria Kordowicz explained to the Guardian.
Bloomberg told quiet quitters to check their privilege, reminding them that quiet quitting isn’t an even playing field. ‘Women and People of Color Can’t Afford to ‘Quiet Quit’’, its headline read.
Others took the debate into unexpected places. ‘What quiet quitting looks like in relationships’, read the headline on Psychology Today, above an article drawing on noted intellect John Mayer.
There’s just one small issue with this coverage: there’s little to no evidence quiet quitting is actually happening.
For all this content to be written by news outlets around the world, you’d expect there to be tangible proof this is a practice upending workplaces, or is at least one based in observable reality.
An academic study, maybe. A survey. A Twitter poll. One of those Facebook emoji offs where you post a love heart if you're working hard and a sad face if you’re quiet quitting.
That’s not the case.
The outlets that bother to trace the term ‘quiet quitting’ track it to a single viral TikTok by the 24-year-old engineer Zaid Khan. As it turns out, Khan isn’t an expert on evolving global labour practices.
The post following his viral one starts with staring into the camera, looking shocked. “It’s sinking in for me that the content you put out on the internet can be reported on,” he says. In another follow-up, titled ‘Terminology update!’, he notes that people have pointed out that there might have been better ways to describe the so-called quiet quitting movement. “That would have been nice to know before I made a viral video about it,” he says.
Despite its dubious origins, quiet quitting has been almost universally accepted as a real thing affecting businesses. Just about every news outlet is covering what amounts to second hand news passed on by someone who never claimed to be an expert, never expected his TikTok to be reported on, and is now kind of regretting using the phrase ‘quiet quitting’ in the first place.
There’s at least some evidence for the sentiment underpinning this supposed trend. As publications have noted, there’s crossover between quiet quitting and the Great Resignation and antiwork movements, which have a far firmer evidential basis.
It’s clear that many people are tired of our punishing, extractive capitalist systems, cynical about the Instagram entrepreneurs and PR gloss trying to sell them on constantly upping their production in a way that ultimately serves the capital class.
But if viral TikToks were an indicator of actual real-world behaviour, you wouldn’t have been able to walk down the street without seeing groups of bearded young men singing sea shanties in perfect harmony for a two-week period in January 2021.
These weird polyps rise on the body of the internet every month or so. By October, it’s likely no-one will be talking about quiet quitting.
In short, it’s not real, at least as the kind of semi-coordinated global movement the news coverage would suggest. Given that, why are so many media outlets carrying stories like it’s an observable trend, even while listing the clearly scant evidence for that claim?
Perhaps it’s partly because young people are an unknowable mystery to them. Headlines like the ones in WorkLife.com or The New York Times should be familiar to Millennials. They’re how we were treated back in the old days, before we became hollowed out husks pushing 40, begging our landlords to let us have a cat or put a piece of small art on the living room wall.
When we were still too young to be in positions of influence in the media, reporters covered us like a strange bug they’d just placed under their microscope, or the giant worm this boy found in his Christchurch backyard.
If they approached us, they did it like Amy Adams in the movie Arrival, holding up a sign saying Human. We were oddities to be studied, and sometimes feared.
It was clear these media outlets didn’t know us, and weren’t writing for us. As a result the way they covered us seemed laughable and foreign, bereft of insight or nuance.
Gen Z seems to be in a similar place, with aging Millennials and Gen Xers implicitly talking about them rather than to them in stories. If you don’t actually work closely or interact with the people you’re writing about, you’re vulnerable to thinking a single TikTok is representative of their entire experience.
Or maybe it’s just an internet problem.
Social media is so pervasive, it’s sometimes hard to tell it apart from material reality. Recently David wrote about The New Zealand Herald running a story on an eight-year-old who identifies as a cat. It was based on a lie made up online and laundered through the press, creating a conga line of fake stories across the globe.
This is a pretty common occurrence.
Everyone on social media is being blasted by a firehose of fakery every day, and that includes reporters. A handheld epistemological nightmare that would have driven our cave-dwelling ancestors instantly insane is beeping right now in your pocket.
It’s not just the fakery that’s warping our brains though. Many of us locate a large part of our identity online now. The internet is so entwined with our lives that it is, in meaningful ways, reality.
In these conditions, it’s easier to place a viral post on the same footing as an actual movement. A slow untethering is taking place, where less and less of what we debate and consume can be traced back to observable reality.
We’re becoming adrift in a bottomless sea of content generated by content; media human centipedes with someone like Khan at their head, and Psychology Today burbling about John Mayer at the end of a tube of increasingly diluted shit.
The lines between the computer and our brains are blurring. Quiet quitting stories are just the start. Mark Zuckerberg is betting on our continuing enmeshment with the online by sinking $10 billion into his horrible VR Sims knockoff.
Maybe the Metaverse won’t succeed, but he’s probably right about society’s general direction. As Ryan Broderick writes, the VR trend is likely a cynical bet on a world where we can’t go outside anymore; where reality is finally fully embedded within the online experience.
One day we’ll all find ourselves dribbling in a retirement home saying ‘today’s suppository was cheugy’ or ‘I’m quiet quitting today’s bingo’. Our weeping grandchildren will pat our hands, and tell the attending nurses to switch off the life support.
As the machine’s beeps slow and finally flatline, a doctor will enter and solemnly pronounce us quiet fired.
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David here again.
That last piece from the Huffington Post isn’t a joke — it popped up at the end of last week: “If you have ever felt like your boss is giving you no choice but to quit your job to advance your career, you may be getting ‘quiet fired’” it began.
It was based on a single LinkedIn post.
And it’s spread… everywhere.
I sighed, switched my phone to “do not disturb” mode, and went to bed.