‘Quiet quitting’ may be of the moment, but is it new?

A person wearing a cream shirt in Northeastern's ISEC building.
Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Few social media phenomena have managed to garner wide attention like the “quiet quitting” craze, popularized on TikTok, has this summer. 

What is quiet quitting? Contrary to what it sounds like, it’s not actually about leaving your job—or doing so quietly. As one TikTok user describes it, quiet quitting is instead about “quitting the idea of going above and beyond” in the workplace. In other words, doing only what your employer expects of you—and nothing more. It’s the “art of having a job without letting it take over your life,” Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic.

Headshot of Jamie Ladge.
Jamie Ladge, associate professor in the Management and Organizational Development Group of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

But some see quiet quitting as just “new packaging for old problems,” issues that different generations of workers have experienced in ways unique to time and place—but which are perennially the same. 

“Isn’t this just about boundary-setting in the workplace, or trying to figure out your work-life balance?” asks Jamie Ladge, associate professor in the Management and Organizational Development Group of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

Ladge acknowledges that those likely to identify as “quiet quitters” are millennials and Gen Zers, who are more in tune with social issues, such as gender inequality, mental health and injustice in the workplace.

“I think this is another social movement that goes beyond just worker’s rights, but bodily and personal rights also,” she says. “This advocacy is really just a form of protest on the part of employees, who are saying, ‘I matter just as much as the organization matters.’” 

Quiet quitting, Ladge says, runs up against another phenomenon often cited in the business  literature—and one that can be seen in offices across the U.S.—called “organizational citizenship behavior.” It describes situations where employees do, in fact, go “above and beyond” at work, on their own terms and without being asked to do so. 

The sudden popularity of quiet quitting comes as companies grapple with a still-tight labor market, pandemic shocks to supply chains and shifting attitudes toward remote work. It also comes amid a broader conversation about “hustle culture” that’s come to define the constant busyness and obsession with work and productivity. 

And as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers are finding they have more leverage than before. 

“In general, it’s a really difficult, tight economy,” Ladge says. “There are lots of jobs, and people are jumping around and switching careers more than before. But they’re coming back on their own terms, because it’s now the employee holding all the cards.”

Ladge says quiet quitting might be putting pressure on employers and companies to respond by evaluating retention strategies and normalizing compromise.  

“I’m not saying that companies shouldn’t focus on productivity, but they should also be focused on employee engagement and job satisfaction,” Ladge says. “There are countless studies that show when workers are engaged and happy at work, they’re generally more productive.”

That also includes, Ladge says, a greater focus on employee health and wellbeing that is at the heart of the quiet quitting movement. 

“The new retention strategy has to be about meeting in the middle,” Ladge says. “We talk a lot in management about job crafting, where employees and managers sit down and craft the roles based on the individual employee’s skill sets and passions. This is a really important retention strategy.”

One thing is certain, however: employers shouldn’t kowtow to a worker’s every demand, she says. Improving the workplace requires good faith negotiation and compromise between employers and employees.

“There needs to be some universal set of norms and professional standards in place,” Ladge says. 

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