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What Is ‘Quiet Quitting’? It’s Literally Just Working!

Coworkers listen to a team leader speak with slight grimaces on their faces.

According to a new rash of economic think-pieces, there’s a wild new trend sweeping Gen Z and threatening the workforce: doing your job as described.

It’s been given the name “quiet quitting,” which sounds like a sort of “Irish goodbye” but actually just describes the process of going to work and doing your job while also setting healthy work/life boundaries.

A TikTok video posted by user @zaidleppelin in July of 2022, which has amassed 3.4 million views at the time of this writing, decribes the idea well: “I recently learned about this term called ‘quiet quitting,’ where you’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life. The reality is it’s not, and your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.”

The origins of quiet quitting

The concept is nothing new—people have been just doing work for work’s sake for as long as paid labor has existed. But the COVID-19 pandemic (and likely a lot of other factors including the growing emphasis on hustle culture and the massive shift to a gig economy in recent years) has led a lot of workers, especially young workers, to either hit burnout or realize the need to prevent it.

China also had its own version of the trend—dubbed “lying flat”—recently sweep its exhausted workforce. “The idea of ‘lying flat’, or tang ping in Chinese, means taking a break from relentless work,” the BBC wrote in February of this year. “The tang ping movement took off during 2021 as many felt they were coming under increasing pressure to work even harder and out perform their peers.”

But the term “quiet quitting” has gotten a lot of attention on TikTok this summer. The video from @zaidleppelin and others like it spurred debate over whether the concept was “effective,” with many calling it a “waste of time.” It didn’t take long for that conversation to spill over into pearl-clutching op-eds.

Fortune framed the concept as another one of “the ways Gen Z is rebelling in the workplace.” The Telegraph wrote that “the experts are warning that embracing a quiet quitting approach may itself be the cause of poor job satisfaction,” rather than the other way around. It quoted one of those experts, saying quiet quitting “can lead to less satisfaction at work, lack of enthusiasm, less engagement.”

It’s not quitting, it’s doing a job

A lot of these “experts,” as well as a ton of the comments going around TikTok and Twitter, insist that the better option to quiet quitting is to find a new job that you like more—which completely misses the point that this isn’t about individual jobs, it’s about the capitalist system that expects workers to go above and beyond in every role or makes them feel substandard.

That system is inherently exploitative and that’s never been more clear than when a global pandemic hit and the system itself was treated as being more important than the individuals existing within it.

We’ve been told that “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” The reality for most is that if you manage to carve out a career doing something you’re passionate about, you will never stop working because you’re expected to make it your entire life, for as little compensation as possible because you’re supposed to be grateful for the opportunity to the point of constant self-flagellation.

Even the term “quiet quitting” is a ludicrous misnomer, since it literally describes doing work, basically the opposite of quitting. But we’ve been conditioned to believe that if we’re doing our job as described (and in line with how we are compensated) rather than aiming above and beyond, it’s closer to unemployment than it is to actually fulfilling our roles.

If we manage to find jobs we love, that’s great. If we want to work just to earn a paycheck, that’s also valid. We’re allowed to treat both versions like what they are, which is still just jobs and are supposed to pay accordingly.

(image: Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.