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Let's Talk About Quiet Quitting
In the month I took off, a term began trending that was ripe for criticism—and right up my alley.
Hi, I’m back.
During the month that I took away from this newsletter, the term “quiet quitting” bubbled up from nowhere and seemed to suddenly permeate every platform and news outlet. If you’ve somehow missed all the hot takes, the idea is that, instead of working extra hard and giving 110% to your employer, you just … do your job. You don’t take on any additional work. You don’t stay late. You do the tasks outlined in your job description—nothing more, nothing less.
Technically, I’m asking you to go above and beyond by becoming a paid subscriber to the newsletter. I understand the irony.
The term became popular due to a viral TikTok video where the narrator describes quiet quitting as, “still performing your duties, but you are no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life.” As the New York Times wrote roughly a month later, quiet quitting has since become mainstream, and you can probably find a thousand and one articles both in defense of—and opposed to—the idea.
When I first saw “quiet quitting” trending, it felt bizarrely validating, like someone had taken all the goopy thoughts in my brain and put them together into one perfect phrase. In the past, we’ve talked about red flags on job descriptions, we’ve unpacked the meaningless things bosses say, and we’ve given advice about how to ask for more money at work, especially if you’re being saddled with more responsibilities. But then there’s the point where none of those strategies or savviness actually make a job better. Quiet quitting feels like that moment of acknowledgment.
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I imagine for many, quiet quitting feels novel—and perhaps even revolutionary—even if the idea isn’t actually new. As Anne Helen Peterson points out, tenets of quiet quitting have existed in the labor activism movement under the “work-to-rule” idea. (If you’re about my age, you’ve likely seen the movie Office Space, a true ode to quiet quitting.) For those who are new to the concept, however, it can feel like exhaling after holding your breath for too long, or like relief from pain you didn’t know you felt.
But as Peterson notes, quiet quitting shouldn’t feel so alien to us—it’s literally just a movement advocating for people to do their jobs. “There’s nothing novel about wanting enough money to live comfortably but not being particularly ambitious,” she writes.
We’re often taught to be excessively driven at work. The only way to gain or advance in your job—which we’re also told to want—is to do more than what’s asked, to go above and beyond before you’re appropriately compensated for doing more. I think that’s why quiet quitting feels so bizarre and new: We can’t fathom a world where we go to our jobs and do just what’s required.
While I find the idea of quiet quitting comforting, I was more excited that this discourse began to shine a light on a lesser-acknowledged, complementary idea: quiet firing. Like pretty much all topics related to workers and workplace rights, quiet quitting puts too much of the onus of navigating bad jobs on the workers themselves. Quiet firing, on the other hand, results from what I imagine is far more common than “lazy workers” and “unambitious employees”: ineffective or incompetent leaders.
Quiet firing is a term I learned about—of all places—on LinkedIn. “There’s no one definition for what it means for an employer to quietly fire an employee,” a LinkedIn News Poll writes, “but examples include going years without a raise or promotion, shifting responsibilities toward tasks that require less experience or a deliberate withdrawal of development and leadership opportunities.” Basically, it’s when your career feels like it’s hit a dead end, or like getting stuck on an elevator: You know you’re supposed to be going up, you’re trying to move up, you’re desperately pressing the buttons to move up or call for help—and you’re still stuck.
I think quiet firing happens WAY MORE often than quiet quitting (the LinkedIn poll found that around 80% of people had either experienced quiet firing or had seen it happen). It’s absurd and borderline offensive that we’re so much more fixated on the quiet quitters than the quiet firers—especially because, as many folks on LinkedIn pointed out, it’s quiet firers that lead to quiet quitters.
“Rather than lamenting differences in work ethic, we should address why quiet quitting is becoming more common: quiet firing has become the norm,” writes Christine Alemany in one of those annoying—but in this case insightful—“thought leadership” posts. I like that this addresses a root cause of quiet quitting: People don’t engage in quiet quitting for no reason, but often do it because they feel like they’re being quietly fired.
One opinion piece in the New York Times suggests that to combat the feelings often associated with quiet quitting—mostly burnout—you shouldn’t let yourself languish, and instead fight the feeling of disengagement. How do they suggest doing this? By finding a hobby. “We each have the same 168 hours every week. But time is also all about the stories we tell ourselves,” writes Laura Vanderkam. “When life is full of have-to-dos, with only brief periods of downtime in between, we can feel beaten down by responsibilities. But add things we actually want to do, to compete with those have-to-dos, and time feels different. We feel a bit more in control of our lives.” So basically replace all the stuff you hate with stuff you like!
I don’t think the author is wrong—and they do hit on a core idea that people quiet quit when they don’t feel engaged at work. The statistics support that: A Gallup poll shows that only 32% of employees are actively engaged at work, and that number drops when you isolate younger cohorts. However, the author seems entirely focused on individual ownership of one’s time, and seems to ignore that we often don’t get a lot of choices at work.
Our jobs are often controlled by managers who may or may not prioritize finding a system that works for individuals, or who might lack the time or willingness to coach and guide new employees. As Alemany continues in her LinkedIn post: “Quiet firing sidesteps the worst parts of being a manager: providing critical feedback and firing someone.”
Strangely enough, I’ve written about being quietly fired. Years ago, I worked a job where the rules felt arbitrary and my boss actively antagonized me at the worst of times, and avoided me for months on end at the best of times. When confronted, he chose to insult me and put me down—but still wouldn’t fire me, even when I said, “You should fire me.”
Eventually, things got so hellish that I quit that job—which is kind of the whole point of quiet firing. One of the reasons I wanted to highlight quiet firing is that it happens so often in the service industry that its telltale signs have been internalized as just a natural part of service work. Frequent turnover, understaffed shifts, and low wages are all seen as natural parts of service work, but I’d argue that they’re all symptoms of quiet firing culture: of workplaces where mentorship and coaching are ignored, problems aren’t addressed, and blame for turnover is placed squarely on employees.
So next time you see quiet quitting discourse unfolding, you’re better off reorienting it towards quiet firing. I guarantee you it happens way more often.
Any of these experiences sound familiar? I want to hear your stories about being quietly fired.
Also, I’m very happy to be back and missed you all. This month off was incredibly important for me, and I couldn’t have done it without you. I honestly had no idea how much I was working and how stressed and overwhelmed I felt. Part of my month off was spent going to a cabin by myself and cooking pasta. Here’s what that looked like:
I made approx. a zillion tortellini. But I got to look at this view as I did it:
A new podcast episode is coming out on Tuesday—I look forward to connecting with you all again!
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