Sorry Zoomers, Gen X Invented the "Quiet Quit"Breaking News
tags: labor, literature, cultural history, Gen X
American business leaders sometimes talk about workforce productivity trends the same strained way you might expect a perfectly healthy hypochondriac to check his body temperature three times a day. (Remember “nobody wants to work anymore”? The U.S. unemployment rate is 3.5%.) The new social media meme about “quiet quitting” — not actually quitting, but doing the bare minimum at your job — is the latest vascular twinge to send CEOs back to the carpet with two fingers to the neck, checking for skipped heartbeats.
“Quiet quitting clearly entered our work conversation, but here’s why we need to keep it out of our work lives,” famous boss Arianna Huffington, chief executive of Thrive Global, fretted in a LinkedIn essay last week. “Quiet quitting isn’t just about quitting on a job, it’s a step toward quitting on life.”
But once you exit the leather sofa inside LinkedIn’s glass office and stop by the open-plan bullpen of TikTok, it’s clear that the rank-and-file is quite open to the idea of a lighter workload. In a series of skits by user Sarai Marie that has accumulated more than 1 million likes, a character named Veronica plays out “quiet quitting.” “OK let’s see, goal for today — 500 calls?! We’re doing 50,” the character says, later telling a boss: “Respectfully, Susan, it’s 2022; we’re acting our wage, so don’t give me extra work.” She clocks out at precisely 5 p.m.
Strivers, grinders and hustlers hate them, but quiet quitters, slackers and work-to-rulers are treasured antiheroes in American folk culture.
In Herman Melville’s 1853 short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” a Wall Street clerk bewilders his manager by politely refusing to do basic tasks, including leaving the office. “I would prefer not to,” Bartleby says. “You will not?” his boss asks. “I prefer not,” affirms Bartleby. In a country obsessed with profits, productivity and becoming the boss of other people, Bartleby remains American literature’s patron saint of insubordination. “I would prefer not to” has been immortalized on anti-motivational coffee mugs and T-shirts, our merch of quiet desperation.
Coasting counterculture reached its true boom days in the 1990s, which were dotted with underachiever fare like “Slacker,” “Clerks,” “The Big Lebowski” and “Wayne’s World.” While the dot-com bubble was giving us rock-star tech CEOs, the 1999 film “Office Space” explored the box-checking cubicle hell populated by their underlings. Peter, a spiritually tortured everyman played by Ron Livingston, is transformed via accidental hypnosis into a carefree straight-shooter, suddenly immune to the minor humiliations and tedious managing-up of corporate life. His honesty about zoning out at his desk and hiding from his supervisors shocks the outside consultants, both named Bob, who had been sizing him up for layoff.
“My only real motivation is not to be hassled; that, and the fear of losing my job,” Peter tells them. “But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.” In the film’s most inspired twist, the consultants decide Peter has upper-management potential, somebody who could be energized by a nice employee stock-option plan.