Bartleby is back, although no doubt he would prefer not to be. This time, Herman Melville’s reluctant Wall Street scrivener has returned in the form of TikTokers who have embraced “quiet quitting”.
Rather than working late on a Friday evening, organizing the annual team-building trip to Slough or volunteering to supervise the boss’s teenager on work experience, the quiet quitters are avoiding the above and beyond, the hustle culture mentality, or what psychologists call “occupational citizenship behaviours”.
Instead, they are doing just enough in the office to keep up, then leaving work on time and muting Slack. Then posting about it on social media.
Maria Kordowicz, an associate professor in organizational behavior at the University of Nottingham and director of its center for interprofessional education and learning, said the rise in quiet quitting is linked to a noticeable fall in job satisfaction.
Gallup’s global workplace report for 2022 showed that only 9% of workers in the UK were engaged or enthusiastic about their work, ranking 33rd out of 38 European countries. The NHS staff survey, conducted in the autumn of 2021, showed that morale had fallen from 6.1 out of 10 to 5.8, and staff engagement had dropped from 7.0 to 6.8.
“Since the pandemic, people’s relationship with work has been studied in many ways, and the literature typically, across the professions, would argue that, yes, people’s way of relating to their work has changed,” Kordowicz said.
TikTok posts about quiet quitting may have been inspired by Chinese social media: #TangPing, or lying flat, is a now-censored hashtag apparently prompted by China’s shrinking workforce and long-hours culture.
Kordowicz added: “The search for meaning has become far more apparent. There was a sense of our own mortality during the pandemic, something quite existential around people thinking ‘What should work mean for me? How can I do a role that’s more aligned to my values?’
“I think this has a link to the elements of quiet quitting that are perhaps more negative: mentally checking out from a job, being exhausted from the volume of work and lack of work-life balance that hit many of us during the pandemic.
“But I think that can lead to less satisfaction at work, lack of enthusiasm, less engagement. So we could juxtapose ‘quiet quitting’ with ‘the great resignation’. Do we stay put but switch off? Or do we move towards something?”
The term “great resignation” was coined in May 2021 by Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at University College London, when he predicted an exodus of American workers from their jobs, prompted by burnout, and the taste of freedom while working from home .
Ranjay Gulati of Harvard Business School has instead characterized it as a “great rethink”, where people evaluate their lives and options: people like Natalie Ormond. “I left my 14-year social work career last September,” she said. “I wasn’t driven to climb the ladder and felt that I was coasting – not doing the bare minimum, but just doing my job and not going above and beyond.”
Ormond decided to set up her own business, Smallkind, selling eco-friendly children’s toys and clothing, and kept her day job to build up savings. “Towards the end, I felt that I’d mentally checked out, which came with some guilt.” She was concerned about the people she was supporting as a social worker, so left earlier than she had planned.
Others have reached their ambition and realized that it wasn’t what they were looking for.
Amie Jones began her career in marketing and became head of communications at a not-for-profit in 2017. “It was my dream job,” she said. “It sounds strange saying that now. But I wanted that position, the status, the salary. I was up for giving it a real go.” She continued to take phone calls at weekends, on holiday, at 10.30pm at night, turning up early and leaving late to keep up with colleagues.
“It was all driven by me,” she said, until her best friend from university told her she was dropping to three days a week. “It’s terrible, but I was a bit judgmental about it,” Jones said. “We were meant to be climbing the corporate ladder together. But she said ‘My busyness doesn’t equal my worth.’ And it stayed on my mind.” Within 18 months, Jones had quit to start her Kind Kids Book Club business.
Perhaps “quiet quitting” has been brewing for a while – after all, Melville dreamed up Bartleby in 1853, and even the Bible says God needed a break on the seventh day. More recently, tech firms have capitalized on the reaction against the 1980s Gordon Gekko-inspired long-hours culture by creating more casual working environments with brightly colored offices, free food and drink and corporate swag, wrapped up in the rhetoric of mission and purpose.
Yet that can hide other problems. Dan Lyons, a former tech journalist, lampooned his brief period working for HubSpot, which calls itself an inbound marketing company creating valuable content, but which Lyons described as a “digital sweatshop” in his book Disrupted.
“If you’re committed to your career and feel an emotional bond with the organization or the career, then if an event happens that violates the psychological contract, the unwritten expectations, that abuses our sense of whether we can trust the organization,” said Dr Ashley Weinberg, an occupational psychologist at the University of Salford.
Enlightened companies are designing jobs that give employees control, pride in their work and a fair wage, but those efforts are undermined by the cost of living crisis, and workers end up feeling shortchanged. “People talk about money, and that’s important,” Weinberg said, “but beyond that, they want to be respected for what they do, and valued in some way.”