“Quiet Quitting” And Labor Day

Happy Labor Day! On this day set aside to celebrate working people–and give them a day off, too–it’s worth spending a few minutes thinking about work and jobs and a supposedly recent development in the labor sector: “quiet quitting.”

“Quiet quitting” has been the subject of a lot of discussion recently, in articles like this one. It’s a seemingly elastic concept that can mean different things to different people. For some, the notion is all about setting boundaries; you will work hard during the normal workday but not take on additional responsibilities that would intrude into your private life and produce burnout. For others, it means doing the least amount of work needed to avoid getting fired by an employer who recognizes that, in the current labor market, it may not be able to find someone better to fill the position. “Quiet quitting” evidently got that name on TikTok, where “quiet quitters” have been posting videos about their decisions.

Of course, “quiet quitting” might have a modern brand, but the underlying idea is nothing new. Anyone who has worked for any length of time has had “quiet quitters” as co-workers. I remember some from my first job, as a “bag boy” at the Big Bear grocery store in Kingsdale Shopping Center circa 1973. They were the guys you didn’t want to get matched up with on a project, like retrieving abandoned carts from the parking lot so the in-store supply was fully stocked. You knew they would retrieve a few carts at a deliberate pace, but you would do most of the work so the two of you wouldn’t get reprimanded by the boss. I quickly decided that I didn’t want to be a “bare minimum” guy, always at risk of getting canned, but since then I’ve also been fortunate to have jobs in my working career that I found interesting and well worth the investment of some extra, “off the clock” time.

Is “quiet quitting” a bad thing? I don’t think it is, but in any event it is a reality. The labor market, like the rest of the economy, is subject to the law of supply and demand. “Quiet quitting” is a product of the invisible hand at work; it reflects the fact that the demand for workers right now exceeds the supply. There is nothing wrong with sending a message to an employer that employees won’t put up with having new responsibilities piled on their plate without fair compensation–that’s one of the signals that allows the invisible hand to work.

But “quiet quitting” also has a potential cost, and a potential risk. The cost might be the impact on your self perception and your reputation among your co-workers, as well as the chance you might be developing the habit of settling rather than going out and finding a new job that is better suited to your interests. The risk is that the balance of supply and demand in the labor market shifts–giving the employer the option of upgrading the workforce, leaving the “quiet quitters” without a job and, perhaps, without a recommendation as they look for a new one.

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