What is Quiet Quitting?

by Eliza Wells, MFT | Sep 21, 2022

“Quiet quitting” is yet another corporate buzz-phrase that’s cropped up over the last several months used to dismiss human-beings as cogs in the capitalist machine that have simply chosen to be lazy.

Ironically, it actually originated from a movement in China last year known as “lying flat” or tang ping, where young workers rebelled against the concept of working long hours and being expected to value work above a social life, taking care of one’s self, and achieving a sense of purpose outside of productivity.

But this isn’t the first idea co-opted from the working class and turned on its head to promote the “nose to the grindstone” work mentality. Have you ever heard the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps?”

It’s used nowadays to promote the idea of self-reliance and equating the amount and effort of one’s productivity with the rewards they receive.

But if you actually imagine the action itself, it’s completely absurd. You can’t pick yourself up by holding your bootstraps. This is the kind of thing you would see in a cartoon. Obviously you would need some sort of outside intervention–whether that’s another person, a tree branch to hold onto, or a step to climb onto. It’s not an act that can be performed through sheer self-discipline or strength.

And of course, the purpose of this phrase was originally to say exactly this–to express that something was just inconceivable and unrealistic. There was also a version that involved pulling oneself up by their own hair–equally ridiculous.

In fact, it’s a great expression to explain the absurdity of thinking that sheer willpower is enough to subvert systemic racism, sexism, ableism, and all of the other socially imposed glass ceilings blocking workers from achieving growth (or even stability).

Quiet quitting is no different. The idea that showing up to your job and performing all of its responsibilities, without putting in any extra unpaid labor, is any form of quitting is a farce. And yet this has been latched onto as a real problem.

On the surface, it may be exactly that. Corporations have been relying on profiting from unpaid or underpaid labor for the entirety of capitalism–that’s literally what makes capitalism function. So when workers refuse to put in more effort and energy than their wages equate to, they are messing with the whole pyramid scheme designed to generate extra profit for the top of the hierarchy.

But this is not the actual problem–this is a symptom of a systemic problem, which is that our economic system was built around the assumption that we should profit off of paying someone less than the worth of their labor. And those someones tend most often to be women, minorities, and other disenfranchised groups who are at the same time being told that they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps–meanwhile they are pulling everyone else up by their bootstraps while they’re at it.

Quiet quitting may be exactly what corporations fear–doing exactly what is asked of you in exchange for the monetary equivalent of that labor. Separating your sense of self-worth and value from your productivity and putting boundaries around the time, energy, and spirit you invest in what you do for a living. Will this affect the bottom line? Potentially. Is that your problem? Absolutely not. For once the anxiety of solving this problem should be sent up the chain rather than down the chain.

It’s not realistic, fair, or sustainable to expect workers to invest more in their work than they do in themselves. It’s certainly an excellent business model on paper, but it’s not real life. What happens when an employee gets sick? When a family member requires extra care? When they move through normal and common human life events and transitions that might require them to slow down, reallocate their resources, and just focus on the bottom line?

The argument over whether it’s a problem for people to do the minimum of what’s expected of them doesn’t take into account that humans are in fact human–and sometimes just existing is hard enough, let alone not only doing doing exactly what you’re contracted to do, but being expected to do extra to keep a flawed system afloat.

The system has to be able to sustain an ebb and flow of motivation that’s inherent in humanity–humans are not measurable, consistent, and regular like machines. We need rest, compassion, and a system that can compensate to help pick up the slack sometimes when our arms need a break from contortionist gravity defying expectations. And without this, you will absolutely see people leaving the workforce in droves. Not because people are “lazy” or “don’t want to work”, but because it is not sustainable to live this way indefinitely.

You are not wrong for having self compassion. You are allowed to set emotional boundaries. Your worth and value is not tied to your employment or your productivity. Not only is this morally sound–it is the only realistic and sustainable way to move forward.