The Why of 'Quiet Quitting'

The Why of 'Quiet Quitting'
This combination of pictures created on April 26, 2020 during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic shows various workers from different countries. (Jorge Guerrero, Sebastien Bozon, Jose Sanchez, Kirill Kudryavtsev, Sajjad Hussain, Chandan Khanna, Joseph Eid, Vladimir Zivojinovic, Money Sharma, Miguel Medina, Arun Sankar, Pedro Pardo, Andy Buchanan, Adek Berry, Bulent Kilic, Charly Triballeau, Jean-Christophe Verhaegen, Jaime Reina, Dimitar Dilkoff, Juan Mabromata, Nikolay Doychinov, Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images)
Jeffrey A. Tucker

In one of my first real jobs, I was standing with some employees on the sales floor of a men’s suit shop and the boss walked by.

“Please straighten up these ties, fellas,” he said.

My friend waited for the man to move out of earshot and said, “No way am I doing that for minimum wage.”

I did a lot of thinking about that comment. Was this correct? This employee had a clear sense in his head about precisely what he would and wouldn't do for a fixed amount of money. He imagined himself to be paid by the task, not the time. His sense was entirely arbitrary, however, and clearly not shared by those who sign his paycheck.

Moreover, how does he expect to get a raise except by virtue of offering more value than he's currently paid? In fact, how does he expect to keep the job at all? This isn't really about obedience to the boss. It's about the moral obligation to oneself to be ever better at one’s job.

In the next few weeks, he was, of course, fired for incompetence and a few of us got raises above minimum wage. The lesson was clear for me. Always be at your best, work hard and smart, become as valuable to others as possible, and never turn down a chance to enhance your productivity. That's how you advance in a commercial social order where everyone works at will. Always offer more value than you receive in income. That is the path to advancement.

Justice came for this "quiet quitter." Maybe he learned and improved. In fact, the most productive people I know often tell stories of how a termination was the best thing to happen to them. It serves as a lesson to always be at your best and never take a job for granted.

Astute managers and owners learn over time that giving raises does not in fact enhance the future productivity of workers. Raises are best granted in recognition of existing productivity. They are a payment for services already rendered.

That’s how it works under ideal conditions. How it works today is another matter entirely.

Someone should have trademarked the phrase “quiet quitting” because it has gone seriously viral. It has the ring of truth.

This is the new worker pattern of doing just enough to get by and not get flagged by the boss, but otherwise not really caring about professional growth or attention to new opportunities. Let your colleagues do the hard stuff while you find other ways to pass the time. Remote work established the pattern, but now it seems to be everywhere.

Quiet quitting might also account in part for the incredible collapse in worker productivity over the past year. We haven't seen anything like this since World War II. It’s another sign that old-fashioned recession could be the least of worries. What we might be dealing with is more fundamental: a genuine rot in the foundations of commercial society itself.

Beyond that, quiet quitting is hard to verify empirically but we all know from experience that it exists. We know of one, two, or three employees who don’t do much at all but have developed an impressive skill at fooling the higher-ups that all is well. Observing how they thrive in any case, others in the firm feel demotivated. Why should some break their backs when others get away with faking it?

In the old days of a functioning economy and workforce—by which I mean three years ago—firms knew that they had to weed out the bums not only because they waste resources but also because they can poison whole divisions and whole companies. These days, it’s not so easy. Terminating employees carries huge legal risks and there is a labor shortage, so getting rid of people now could lead to problems later.

Between lockdowns, remote work, falling real income, and technologies that have made faking it much easier, the problem has become enormous in American life. And it has no easy fix since the roots are so deeply embedded.

The problems began with lockdowns but it was fed by the CARES Act that dumped nearly $2 trillion in people’s pockets regardless of income or need. This sudden welfarization of the population contributed to a sense that there really is no fixed relationship between work and reward. It sent a signal that the whole system itself is based on illusion: fake work, fake crisis, fake money, fake politicians, so why bother?

There seems to be no end to the attacks on traditional standards of work and responsibility. Biden’s executive action to wipe out hundreds of billions in student debt announces to a whole generation that there is no real point in paying your bills. The goal is to take as much as you can without giving anything back. The cynics who were delinquent on their bills years ago turn out to be the smart ones, and the people who tried to pay back what they owed are the chumps.

This is the social cost to such policies. And they don't exist in isolation. The entire basis of the work ethic we once took for granted has come under fire from all institutions. And with that, the very basis of personal ambition itself is starting to melt away.

As the Wall Street Journal noted, the roots of quiet quitting precede lockdowns. Back then, there was a sudden focus on “work/life balance.” I will just be blunt: I despise that phrase. It's rooted in some strange Marxian supposition that “life” is something different from and completely at odds with “work.” “Work” then is rooted in some kind of alienation from “life,” something one is forced into by unjust and artificial institutions that probably deserve to be overthrown.

The theory here is that work is always a pain in the neck and largely pointless except for the need for an income stream, and the more of it you do, the less “life” you get to have. That’s just utterly and completely wrong. What is “life” unless you are doing something valuable with your time? Moreover, “work” isn't only about remuneration. It's also about being a human being of merit, someone with a burning desire to improve the world around you through your own efforts.

If there is a chasm in your mind between work and life, something has gone very wrong. As someone else said recently, those who are engaged in quiet quitting at the job are also guilty of quiet quitting on life itself. Multitudes of people these days are doing just this, as they wonder where the meaning is, what is the point, and where precisely is the destination of all this grind we call life?

Such questions are deeply dangerous because they get to the root of what builds good lives and great societies, all of which is suddenly in question.

The foundations of the work ethic were already cracking before lockdowns, but those fateful days sealed the deal. Now, we found ourselves struggling to rebuild a world of justice, truth, fairness, and freedom, one where governments are not daily conspiring to crush hopes and dreams.

The crisis is real, and the widespread phenomenon of quiet quitting is just the latest sign.

Jeffrey A. Tucker is the founder and president of the Brownstone Institute, and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press, as well as 10 books in five languages, most recently “Liberty or Lockdown.” He is also the editor of The Best of Mises. He writes a daily column on economics for The Epoch Times and speaks widely on the topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.