September 14, 2022

The Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting: What is Going On?


This seems like a good follow-up to the last post about "Bowling Alone" and a social shift that is putting the individual ahead of the group. As the comments made clear, while not always the best approach, it is becoming increasingly common.

In the spring of 2021 millions of workers began quitting their job. The pressure of being deemed "an essential worker,"  and the strain of continuing to work even as the death toll from the pandemic mounted pushed many over the edge. Even though well before deciding to retire was an option, unemployment seemed a wiser course of action than continuing to be exposed to such a grave threat. 

Just as Covid was releasing its death grip on our minds and routine this past spring, this behavior did not lessen. Rather, with three or four million people voluntarily leaving the job market every month, the upheaval continued. There are projections that by the end of this year up to 20% of workers will have resigned.

There are all sorts of ideas why these folks are not agreeing to go back to how things were before. For many, working at home for a year or two brought into focus the toil that daily commuting has taken on their lives. Others, tired of poor pay, indifferent bosses, rude customers, and a lack of meaningful benefits, realized the power in the marketplace had begun to shift toward them. With so many businesses desperate to restaff, those who walked away were not as willing to accept things the way they were. They were holding out for a better shake.

My initial reactions were "what are these people thinking? How are they going to pay their bills?  You can't just walk away from work!" Well, they could and they did.

After a time, I had a clearer understanding of why these millions of people made this decision and the rationales behind it. Understanding why someone would not want to return to a job that was unfilling, undervalued, underpaying, and risky were the first realization that struck me. With the overall unemployment rate low but lots of openings for workers in almost every field, this was the time for these folks to better their future. 

More recently, you may have read about "Quiet Quitting." Somewhat of a misnomer, QQ doesn't involve leaving a job. Rather, it means deciding to do what someone is paid to do, and nothing more. 

The unpaid Saturday morning staff meeting, the staying until 8pm to finish chores, or a stack of paperwork even though the payday ends at 5, are the quiet quitter's targets. "A fair day's work for a fair day's pay" still applies. But, going above and beyond is not part of the bargain. The line that should exist between work and life becomes one that is constantly shifting, or even erased.

Again, only an educated guess on my part, but I think the goal of the quiet quitter is a better life-work balance. Employees are realizing there are parts of living that can never be replaced: the kid's school plays, time with the family on a weekend picnic, having time for indulging in a hobby, or a weekend getaway. 

A recent Pew study indicates that 63% of American dads say they spend too little time with their kids. Grinding away at a desk, at the counter, or the horribly misnamed mandatory overtime shift puts someone in the "living to work" instead of "working to live" bind. 

I have philosophical problems if someone leaves a job and decides to never rejoin the ranks of the employed. Or, a quiet quitter who slacks off during work hours; that is dishonest and a form of theft.

But, if the goal of these two movements is to better one's working conditions, to be treated with respect and as a valued employee, and to try to keep a better balance between one's life and one's employment, I am all for it.

It is a position I wish I had adhered to when I worked for myself. My work-life balance was poor. I am eternally grateful that I am married to a woman who kept things running so smoothly and didn't let the kids feel marginalized or left out.

After retirement, I gained an entirely new understanding of how warped my use of time had become. While I can't make up for all those mismanaged years, I can do my darndest now to avoid going off the deep end for any one reason. Time is limited and as the cliche says, "no one complains on their deathbed that they didn't spend enough time at work."

38 comments:

  1. Before I retired, I worked in a home office for about five years when I wasn't traveling for work. It was a real challenge for me to walk away from my desk most days. Some of the ability to quiet quit depends on the individual IMO, but I suspect Covid shifted many things including that dedication. We have family members who were forced to work from home and it's a real challenge with small kids. OTOH, they are really not keen to return to offices full time after tasting the flexibility that a home office allows. This is a real time of change in society on so many levels.

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    1. The term "quiet quitting" bothers me because it implies taking money for an unequal commensurate level of work. But, semantics aside, too many employers have taken advantage of employees for too long. by threatening consequences for not working longer than being paid for. I agree that Covid and working at home, has opened many eyes. Working to live should be the goal, not living to work.

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  2. The phrase quiet quitting is ridiculous. It's just another punch to expecting employees to give up personal time for no pay being branded as lazy. Now, this doesn't mean people on the clock should do the bare minimum. There should still be ways for exemplary employees to show they deserve raises, promotion, better schedules etc. But demanding unpaid time, or lower pay when requiring duties that should be compensated higher is theft. I too am trying to think about how hard I work. Extending my day past hours my salary was based on is where I'm trying to rein in. I get there might be the occasional crunch time, but every dang week should not be that.

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    1. AS I noted above, the phrase implies someone is gaming the system. That is not it at all. "Working as compensated" may be a more accurate description. The employer should expect exactly what they are paying for. Otherwise, it would be no different than them expecting a supplier to throw in an extra 15-20% of the product for the original price.

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  3. Several years ago after our company was bought out by another bigger company, I worked overtime one night and my manager told me, "don't work overtime, they don't pay it so don't work it." It wasn't called quiet quitting at the time. We were sent to work from home in March 2020 after a year they were talking on wanting everyone to go back to the office. I had a discussion with the VP of HR and when my manager told me we were all going back to the office, I told him I was waiting to hear from the VP before that. I also told him I would work remotely until forced to return to the office then I would retire that day. I worked all day to quitting time in my home office that was it. I did not look at email or anything at night or on weekends or holidays. I consider that quiet quitting. My wife use to check her emails on her phone until her boss told her if there is ever an audit in her department she would have -to turn over her phone to the auditors, she uninstalled outlook and stopped using her phone for work. Sorry for my long windedness today. I grew up in a Mill town, When I would walk by the Mill houses & Mills I was reminded of the Tennessee Ernie Ford song, Sixteen Tons I owe my soul to the company store. The original mill workers lived in Mill houses, bought from Mill stores and their pay from the mills was always less than what they needed to buy. It was much like sharecropping in the south. Workers couldn't quit because they'd have no where to live or food to eat. What I've read of quiet quitting it is not being lazy but it is not burning the midnight oil for the company when you are not going to be paid.

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    1. Your explanation is the one I adhere to. Pay a fair wage and offer benefits for the very best I can give you during the hours I have agreed to give you my very best. Afterward, my time is not for sale, and certainly not for free.

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  4. Too many of us use work to define who we are. And people who choose not to have a job are looked in differently with the exception of those with younger kids. I have no problem with someone not returning to employment. Traditional or otherwise assuming they have enough to live on and support themselves. Many of those folks will do gig work, drastically downsize, be a stay at home partner even if they have no kids (something I support entirely) or other alternatives. I also think Quiet quitting is a misnomer. With few exceptions. You should be able to do a job in the hours provided or your employer should hire a second person. It may be hard to walk away from a desk at home, but a the mandatory meetings, business lunches and watercolor visits take away from time worked which is why the majority of people are more efficient at home.

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    1. Like others have said, the QQ label does a disservice to what is happening. We don't expect a restaurant to give us a plate 25% bigger than we paid for. We don't think the gallon of gas we are pumping in the car is really 5 ounces more. Why, then, do we ask someone to give us something we are not paying for?

      If retirement has taught me nothing else, it is the irreplaceable nature of time and its limited quantity. I am the only one who can make that time of the highest quality.

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  5. I did a QQ back in 1999. Hub and I were on our way to an appt we had rescheduled 3x because my boss needed something done "today" but hadn't made that decision until after 3pm. This was back in the 'pager' days so I had to find a pay phone. I said NO (stating the above). She told me to cancel. I said NO. The next day I went into her office and said: I will work up to 55 hours a week (for my 40h salary). No more 70-80 work weeks. "That is not the job". My response? That's fine. Tell me I no longer have a job and I will go look for something else. She never did and I said no more often. Less than 2y later I left the organization to start a brand new one. My bosses frequently checked in to be sure I was NOT working in excess of 45h/week. How refreshing.

    I don't blame anyone doing the QQ-I completely understand. Abuse is not a reasonable working condition.

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    1. So far, we all seem to be of the same mind. Covid was a horrible disaster. But, like every negative experiences, something good can spring from the ashes if we are open to a new way of seeing things.

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  6. I love all these comments and the original post--so many good phrases, like "the payday ended at 5 pm"; "using work to define who we are"; "QQ as a misnomer", etc. Since retiring a year ago from 35 years of public school teaching, I have had time to reflect on how I approached my job. I have found that A) I used work to define who I was; B) it was so easy as a teacher to NEVER be done with work; and C) to realize that I chose to be "special"--in my dedication to my job, my performance there, etc.--rather than to be happy in all the other aspects of my life. This last realization came from reading Arthur Brooks' book From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life (I highly recommend it!!)

    As the sole wage-earner in my household, I felt the need to work hard, work extra, etc. But, I had my personal need to be the "special" teacher, fulfilling many roles, being involved in many aspects of my school, and ALWAYS, ALWAYS, being creative and effective in my classroom--which takes tremendous hours of preparation and work.

    I see now that I did all this at the expense of my family. I, too, had my husband, who was older and took his Social Security, in order to be the stay at home parent. Yet, I was still too absent. For the last few years of my work life, I did slowly relinquish and retire from some extra positions and jobs I had taken on, mostly bc my son was done with college, so I didn't need the extra income, and I was planning for retirement and needed to see younger others pick up some of the positions, as well as needing to start to combine being more present and available for my husband, who needed caregiving as his Dementia developed, with working. But, I think so many of us, in many professions, careers and lines of work, have that personal need to prove, be perfect, perform at our jobs--and it drives our work performance at the expense of much and many else.

    However, the COVID pandemic, in all ways, interrupted that way of approaching life. I did my 1 1/3 years of COVID teaching, and then I was done--I could not bear another year that was not a return to what and how teaching had been, both for students and myself, before. But I also was a long-distance train commmuter to my job, and saw the difference when working from home.

    Before this phrase of QQ, there was the phrase "work smarter, not harder." Even as teachers, that was possible to do, but often my inner personality and psychological needs precluded really embracing that mentality. I also loved the phrase, "Perfect is the enemy of good, and good is the enemy of done." Again, I couldn't really find a way to actually do that, given who I felt I was and needed to be as a teacher. I wish I had.

    I would encourage anyone who is figuring out how to QQ to do so with honor--do your job fully, but "work to rule", as they say in unionized jobs. And more power to anyone who can actually not go back to work in the way they did before. I don't care how you are managing to do it, I applaud you. Unemployment benefits only last so long, govt benefit programs only apply to really very low incomes--so those who are not going back to work as they did before are just figuring out how to do that, or work less, in a way that works for them, their family. I do not see them as somehow taking advantage.

    I taught Economics--I know the ramifications if our total Labor Force falls. But by the time I was done teaching, I was often predicting to my students that in their generation there would be some re-assessment about having two incomes, bc the the second income was so often almost entirely used up with child care costs. I am convinced that this QQ movement is a gateway to positive change in the workplace and homelives for many who reflect on the sentiments behind it, and then find their own way to do better for themselves and their families' quality of life.

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    1. The only thing I will add to your heartfelt personal story and your reflections on the costs of your choices is...thank you. This comment is powerful and completely relatable.

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    2. Thank you, Bob. My response got rejected the first time for being too long, but I'd like to add what I had to cut out here: "Sorry for the long response and maybe a bit of a ramble, but I LOVE this blog and all who contribute--it is so often thought-provoking and rich in helping me process and practice a healthy retirement."

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    3. A double thank you for your added thoughts.

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  7. I think Elle hit the nail on the head "Abuse is not a reasonable working condition". Employers that treat their employees that way shouldn't be surprised their employees quit on them, either directly or quietly. That said, quiet quitting can cost you, especially if you are young. Employers will be stingy with raises and promotions for employees who work the minimum and never step up when work gets busy.

    I think the other thing that is going on is older workers, having stuck it out during the depths of the pandemic and the uncertain recovery, may have decided that they’ve had enough and resigned. Taking early retirement in other words. There may also be some catch-up of retirements that were put on hold during the pandemic.

    The biggest year of the baby boom was 1962. Those people are turning 60 this year and looking at retirement, either now or very soon, which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Perhaps they are doing some "quiet quitting" as they glide towards the end of their careers.

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    1. Good point. As someone born in 1949 and considered a baby boomer, I tend to forget I was one of the first of that demographic bulge. There are a whole bunch of people still to come.

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    2. I hadn't had a raise in 3 years. I was 40 when I quit and had worked there 20 years. My new bosses treated me well. When that facility closed 9y later, I went to work for the other large facility in town. They didn't give me a raise for 7y. 1y after that, I retired. Enough. I was 58 and I have thoroughly enjoyed these first 3y of retirement other than restricted travel/concerts d/t covid.

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    3. The other side of the Boomer retirement wave is that for the last 50 years or so, when the Boomers were in their prime working years, there has always been more than enough workers around to do most any job. I think some employers got used to the "If you don't want this job someone else will" mindset (which sounds like some of your employers Elle). With Boomers now hitting their peak retirement years that could very well change. It may now be "No there isn't someone else that will do this job" and will be a big adjustment for some employers.

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    4. The end of Boomers as the driving force in our society will allow for all sorts of changes. Elle's story is all too common and hopefully becomes part of our past.

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    5. The first job I left was open for 18 months. They hired an interim Director, renewing her for 90 days for that long, paid her twice my salary. They paid her apartment costs, rental car, her plane travel EOW for a 4 day weekend at home (did I say she got 4d workweeks which I was denied?). Wouldn't have giving me an annual raise, supporting a workweek not to exceed 55h and treating me respectfully for working my tail off for 2 decades cost them less than she cost them? She and I met her first day for 4h and she revealed all. In turn, I shared the concerns I had for all of my departments. Sigh...............

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  8. Right now I see two possible outcomes. One is companies accept lower future growth for about 10 yrs and make do. Not very likely. Two is significant expansion of immigration to make up for the loss of the Boomers. This one is also not very likely, given the current political environment. I don't know how the compromise happens but I would still bet on number two. Money always wins. In the meantime workers should get all the work life compromises & adjustments they can. This includes union representation. Corporations will not give workers a break for going easy on them, once they regain the upper hand.

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    1. We went through a period decades ago when union representation was common. But, a global economy forced companies to cut every corner and unions were one of those who took a big hit.

      Like everything else in life, the worm turns. The last minute agrement on the rail strike is a good example.

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  9. My comment is all over the place. Personally, I know no one in the 35-50 yr age quiet quitting. I also know some who only work “regular hours” much more efficiently. “Female jobs”- nursing, teaching and social work still seem to do paperwork on their own time. Small business owners still work all hours. Those who work multiple time zones or internationally, still work tons of “off hours”, but the days of “busy work” is over. No one, who has control, puts up with that.
    The 20-30 and 50-60 group, who I know, seem to be the quiet quitters. They liked staying home or traveling around seeing the country/world. With COVID, they either were not trained in an environment or no longer feel they need to be “stimulated” by others for creativity. They have learned to live on little or have great 401k ready to roll. They, generally, don’t have kids to support. Really, isn’t this the same group that were the hippies of our age? Upper and Middle class people who just want to “be”.
    They do have an additional problem as I see it. AI\ computers on the rise, fewer and fewer middle people are needed. Have you noticed though that big business is not really worried about it? Small business owners just fold or do with less help. Will there be places for young quiet quitters when they are ready to earn money or have a family?
    OTOH - Corporate AG jobs are no longer available. They are filled by indentured servants coming over the border freely. I thought the days of slum camps were over. Big Corp really has moved that to another level. Quiet quitting, or abuse of labor for profit?

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    1. You have covered several of the demographic conflicts well. We are living through a major change in how jobs are structured. I am glad I am retired, but my daughters and especially my grandkids will be facing something very different than we did.

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  10. This is a definition I found
    "Quiet quitting is a term and a trend that emerged in mid-2022 from a viral TikTok video. The philosophy of quiet quitting is not abruptly leaving a job but starting to do the minimum amount of possible work while keeping the job. The main objective of this mindset is avoiding occupational burnout and paying more attention to one's mental health and personal wellbeing."
    I don't agree with the "do the minimum amount of possible work while keeping the job". To me that sounds like a non-motivated employee who is not going to be good for the company. If everyone had this attitude, customer service be bad and product quality might suffer. I agree with not working more hours than you are paid for or not working weekends and nights. I'm all for quality of life outside of the workplace. But having a "I'm only doing the minimum amount" just doesn't sound like a good thought process.

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    1. I agree. Doing the minimum isn't a long term answer. There has to be some level of job satisfaction, and that can't come from taking 60 seconds to pick up a pencil.
      This attempt at balancing work and life is long overdue, but needs a better identifier.

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    2. In my former career teaching and advising college-age students, I observed a shift in attitude during my final decade. Many students (not all) were increasingly less likely to pursue a career path as a "calling" or a passion, but rather to get a "job" that payed well and allowed them to finance and pursue other avocations and lifestyles. Their jobs were no longer to be considered a contribution to their identity or to the world, but rather as a source of income. I think some of the quiet quitting may have grown out of this new ethic.

      Rick in Oregon

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    3. That sounds logical. Since many companies stopped showing loyalty and ethical treatment to their employees, it is hard to fault people who see employment as a necessity, not a calling.

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  11. I am
    On call 24/7 if we have a murder/ suspicious death and have to call forensics to approve an autopsy. Ai am also expected to be fully ready for court the next day, even if I am in the middle of yet another murder trial. The case load is backbreaking. During a murder jury trial this summer, two more murders were committed in the county where I work. We cannot keep up. Yet, we are disrespected at every turn, and no, we are salary, a low salary at that, and expected to keep up with the case load and criticized by the public, etc. I keep hoping it will get better but it has gotten significantly worse over the past five years, and with the Covid backlog, mistakes are going to be made…. Sigh. Cindy in the South

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    1. That description is depressing on both the personal and public safety level.

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  12. Another reason many people are rethinking their work/ life balance?Not just the conditions of the workplace, commuting,etc.. but..remember, in 2020, we were all faced with our own MORTALITY— MANY of us lost family and friends to Covid. We all were warned we could die,too. We saw news footage of dying people every day.Ventilators, open pit graves,freezers on hospital parking lots.. we were all separated from beloved family time,too.. since we could not travel to visit, or even go into each other’s homes for a long time… being faced with one’s mortality can cause a real need for examination of how we want to spend the time we have left here!! I am all for the reorganization of WORK. Remember when businesses closed at 5 or 6 PM, were never opened on Sundays or Saturday nights? And a time When Moms COULD stay home with their kids if they chose to.. I think all this change is long overdue!

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    1. Covid and its repercussions really brought what you are talking about into sharp focus. Even the most driven among us realized death could be a sneeze away.

      Our society is so consumer-driven that having what we want exactly when we want it does not allow for the human factor required for that to happen. Hopefully, we are seeing a change where we begin to appreciate the human costs of instant gratification.

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  13. A phenomenon similar to QQ can be found in China. My read on the movement is that it is perhaps a cultural shift from the Puritan work ethic coupled with a belief that the American Dream may not be so attainable any more (think high prices for housing/education/health care/retirement). In China, the phrase that is associated with the movement is "Let it Rot," and the idea is to grind the system to a point of dysfunction. One stays in a job but does the least work possible and exerts the least amount of energy. Quality of work is not a concern. Marx and class warfare comes to mind. We have seen these shifts in the labor force before like the Peasant's Revolt in the fourteenth century. I think we are witnessing very interesting times! Thank you for the thoughtful question here, Bob.

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    1. I have not heard of the Chinese approach, but I am glad our version is not trying to destroy the system, just not let it ruin the chance at a balanced life.

      China is struggling with continuing pandemic issues and a sour economy. How that is dealt with will affect all of us.

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  14. I work for a large corporation (25+ years) and have always done some version of quiet quitting. I definitely perform what is wanted and needed but don't go too far above and beyond. I don't work weekends and if I work longer days or late hours I adjust the rest of my time accordingly. My large employer would lay me off in a heartbeat so don't owe them anymore than a days work for a days pay.

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    1. Loyalty between an employee and employer was once something to count on. Now, it doesn't exist except in smaller businesses. Understanding that basic fact makes it easier to keep your personsl and work time separate.

      As long as someone gives 100% for the time paid, there should be no guilt on either side.

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    2. In today's Sunday New York Times, read the opinion piece by Laura Vanderkam. She has an interesting take on quiet quitting and an alternative approach.

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  15. For years now, employers (especially big corporate employers) have been engaged in what used to be called in the days when most people worked on assembly lines a "speed up." Employees have been expected to do more and more for the same pay and to be at the employer's beck and call virtually 24-7. (How dare you not respond to my evening email!) In some sectors of the economy, predictable work schedules have been replaced by "at the employer's convenience" arrangements that make it impossible to arrange child care or even to schedule a medical appointment. I don't think "quiet quitting" is about putting the individual above the group; it is about the employees' right to decide which group(s) get priority in their lives. (This was the big issue in the recent threatened railroad strike.)

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