Quiet Quitting Is No Replacement for Collective Action

Fed up workers are starting to #ActYourWage.

by Sophie K Rosa

1 September 2022

For some, quiet quitting seems to fill a void left by a lack of labour organising which could result in better working conditions. Adobe Stock

“When companies will suck the literal soul from you, I refuse to give them anything more than what is required,” says Eddie, 35, from Yorkshire. Eddie says he has quiet quit almost every job he has ever had – including working as a mechanic, as a runner for the BBC and ITV, in distribution warehouses, in supermarkets and in fast food shops.

Whilst working in a warehouse in 2017, “expected to work for 18 hours for minimum wage [on] minimal sleep”, Eddie suffered a breakdown, after which he began refusing to work a jot more than his contract stipulated. While he says he always starts all jobs, “with the best intentions of being a good worker,” before long he thinks “sod it,” and ends up doing “the very minimum”.

Quiet quitting has recently been trending on TikTok. Most users on the app use the term to mean refusing to go above and beyond at work, and instead just doing the hours and tasks you have been employed to do and nothing more.

Mostly Gen Z workers have been sharing clips about quiet quitting in different jobs. Quiet quitting can mean anything from having good boundaries at work, making sure you have a good work/life balance, to just doing your job and rejecting ‘hustle culture’. Sometimes it is even used to refer to a marathon-not-sprint way to get promoted. Only occasionally it is used – as the name implies – to refer to doing the minimum amount of work possible without actually getting fired.

HR TikTok accounts have also started getting in on the trend, posting videos encouraging managers to have conversations with their workers about their work/life balance. Others are posting critical takes on the trend, arguing that, for example, “Black women can’t quiet quit”.

In recent days, ‘quiet quitting’ has been rebranded by some on social media, with the hashtag #ActYourWage trending – highlighting that working to contact is not, in fact, ‘quitting’, but simply doing your job.

The quiet quitting trend is reflected in recent research. Gallup’s 2022 State of the Global Workforce report showed that just 9% of UK workers were engaged at work – ranking it 33rd out of 38 European countries.

This research has caused a flurry of media attention, as well as some scepticism about how useful the term really is.

While there is debate about the term, the idea of quiet quitting, is really nothing new. Sarah Jaffe, author of Work Won’t Love You Back, says that it is simply a, “trend-based term for something that the labour movement has a long history of: ‘work to rule’.”

Working to rule, says Jaffe is, “an action short of a strike” that “entails workers working to the letter of the contract – no more, no less”. This is done to slow work down and show the boss that “they actually don’t know that well how to do the job”.

The difference is that ‘work to rule’ is an explicitly collective form of action, says Jaffe.

Quiet quitting, meanwhile, can be a lonely affair. For some, it seems to fill a void left by a lack of labour organising which could result in better working conditions.

James, 25, from Manchester, works as an administrator at a private school. People have “tried and failed to organise” at his workplace. What’s left, he says, is “pure apathy”.

Having worked in the role for six months, he has been quiet quitting for three months. Many other office staff are doing the same: “Most of us are just tapping out as [the work] literally is killing us,” he says, pointing to low pay, workplace bullying and “homophobia and a complete disregard for mental health”. Some of his colleagues, he says, “do nothing but sit and maybe send the odd email”.

James says there is a general sense at his workplace that, “the work all seems so utterly pointless”, considering that, for those on low wages, it is scarcely paying them enough to get by. One member of staff not only checked out of their job, but, “straight up stole from the school to afford to live”, he says.

And James and his coworkers are even more demotivated in light of the fact their bosses are raking it in. Indeed, wealth concentration is rising: between 2000 and 2019, shareholder dividends rose by 142%, whilst wages and salaries grew by only 18%.

James does not think quiet quitting is a particularly satisfactory response. “I think people need to organise themselves and talk,” he says. “The sooner we realise most of us, regardless of the industry, and especially the younger generation, are in fact in the same boat… the better”.

Amelia Horgan, author of Lost in Work, says the quiet quitting trend reflects the state of the economy. “In the context of stagnant wages and rising prices and rent, many jobs don’t provide a reliable, stable, or liveable income,” she says. As a result, she says, it makes sense that, “workers are fed up – fed up with crap work, crap pay and high bills”.

“Working harder and harder doesn’t bring promised rewards because of the way the economy is structured”, says Horgan. “With power and wealth flowing upwards rather than being shared — why work so hard?”

Chris, 28 from south Yorkshire, has been an operations analyst with a software company for five years. He began “losing the ability to care” about the job during the first lockdown – gradually at first, and then as “very much a conscious choice” to do “the bare minimum”.

Earlier this year, his decision to quiet quit – long in the making – was solidified after a troubling series of events. Chris says he had “solved a large financial issue for my company, saving them hundreds of thousands of pounds”. For this he was rewarded with a £500 annual raise.

Shortly after this, in a team meeting, the company CEO refused to respond to a request that the company make pay structure, including executive pay, more transparent, calling the suggestion “offensive and poisonous”. In the same meeting, the CEO also called a question about the four-day week “offensive”.

The pandemic years have changed our attitudes to work. For many workers, says Jaffe, the pandemic meant, “realising that most of their bosses didn’t care if they died”, evidenced in refusals to allow time off for illness, bereavement or childcare, or in refusals to allow home-working.

Meanwhile workers are, “feeling even more micromanaged than they used to,” with “surveillance software […] becoming ubiquitous”.

It is important to remember however, says Jaffe, “that the stuff that’s been happening to white-collar workers now has been happening to blue-collar sector workers for a long time”.

But whilst quiet quitting TikToks are largely silent on ‘work to rule’, the discourse is surely linked to rising anti-work sentiment. At the very least, more people seem to be questioning the modern idea that we should enjoy or find meaning in work. Chris says, “the biggest mindset shift was me saying to myself, ‘my happiness is not linked to my job and I get happiness outside of my role’.”

The r/AntiWork subreddit, he says, has helped him “not feel guilty” about ‘quiet quitting’.

“Reading through people’s experiences made it feel like, okay this isn’t just my company but bosses everywhere basically and I don’t owe them shit”.

Chris has accepted that he “contribute[s] nothing to society” through his work, even though his CEO, in “delusional” terms, tells staff they are “changing the world”.

“Individual action can only take you so far,” says Horgan. “When people channel their frustration collectively by organising for better pay and conditions, we can transform the way we work,” she says.

“We’ve already seen loads of workers taking action this summer, with significant public support, too. If anything can change work for the better, it’s workers fighting together and if the number of disputes this summer is anything to go by, there are exciting and encouraging signs.”

“Working people have cottoned on to the lies we are told,” says James. “It’s not true hard work gets you anywhere. My grandad was a milkman. Worked all his life. He still died at 84 doing the same milkround, whilst he was literally delivering the milk. Hard work doesn’t equal security.”

Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist.

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