Quiet quitting: the Gen Z alternative to work-life balance

The phrase is being employed to refer to those who do the bare minimum at work, with no feelings of stress or guilt whatsoever

Quiet quitting subscribes to the philosophy that while you still perform essential duties, work does not have to take over your life. Photo: Bruce Mars / Unsplash
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“I was just … done, I guess.”

How many times have you heard variations of this sentiment from friends who have quit something in a rage, taken a leap of faith by switching industries mid-career or finally decided to take a sabbatical to traipse around the world without a concrete plan?

If you’re a millennial or older, it's probably a lot. “Being done” is what has ostensibly led to the Great Resignation, a trend that began last year.

Gen Z, however, appear to see things differently. A recent viral TikTok video seems to have unwittingly captured a new philosophy — quiet quitting. An increasing number of Gen Z-ers seem to be subscribing to it in response to professional disillusionment and burnout, while many others, Gen Z or not, might have already been practising it, but without the label.

In the TikTok video, user Zkchillin says: “I recently learnt about this term called ‘quiet quitting’, where you're not outright quitting your job, but you're quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You're still performing your duties, but you're no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life. The reality is, it’s not, and your worth as a person is not defined by your labour.” The video has garnered more than three million views.

“Yup, it’s happening,” says Dr Seema Hingorrany, clinical psychologist and author of Beating The Blues: A Complete Guide to Overcoming Depression, from India. “Youngsters are questioning what their work should entail, what demands it should be allowed to make. Until 2020, they went along with all kinds of demands at work because that was just how it was. Losing loved ones and spending time with family made them realise what they were missing out on.

"So many didn’t even realise they were suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and that they were working at a pace that didn’t allow them to process what was happening in their lives. Staying away from work made them think of work as work, not their lives.”

Crawling under the radar

Zenab (name changed upon request), 23, a digital marketeer from Dubai, is a quiet-quitter who clocks in and out exactly on time ― not sooner and definitely not later ― and quietly coasts along at her current place of employment. While she is careful not to ruffle feathers or get into any kind of trouble, she is equally committed to not lifting a finger to do anything more than her assigned responsibilities.

“Why should I do work I’m not getting paid for? It’s not like they’re going to pause for even a second before firing me if the choice was between me and the company’s bottom line. So, what’s the point?”

‘Exceeds expectations’ is the expectation all the time now. You can’t win, so you might as well check out
Surabhi Agarwal, start-up sales executive

That’s a question raised repeatedly in the online anti-work subreddit forum dedicated to “those who want to end work, are curious about ending work, want to get the most out of a work-free life”. And it is also a sentiment that’s shared by people outside of the echo chambers of social media. According to analytics company Gallup's State of the Global Workplace 2022 report, 60 per cent of the world’s workers feel emotionally detached from their jobs and 19 per cent are actively miserable.

Despite the misery, quiet-quitters and even great resigners are not looking to end work altogether. They’re just pursuing more peaceful lives that don’t revolve around their careers and leave enough room for pursuits outside of it.

“It doesn’t matter that I want to just stare at my walls while lying in bed with my cat next to me,” half-jokes Surabhi Agarwal, 21, a start-up sales executive from Bengaluru.

“The powers that be keep finding ways to scare us into thinking we need to keep pushing the limit or we’ll be out on the streets. First it was Covid, now it’s dire warnings about an economic slowdown. ‘Exceeds expectations’ is the expectation all the time now. You can’t win, so you might as well check out.”

Agarwal's way of retaliation? Logging just as many sales as it takes to stay off management’s radar and out of any “performance improvement traps”.

“I’ve significantly cut back my expenses and have no wish to win any employee of the week/month/quarter awards. I’d really rather just chill with my cats.”

The grass may not be greener

According to Dr Anita Williams Woolley, an associate professor of organisational behaviour and theory at Carnegie Mellon University, while having employees who have “quietly quit” is undeniably harmful for businesses (units with engaged workers have 23 per cent higher profits than those with miserable workers, according to the Gallup report), it’s bad for workers, too.

“Human beings are at their best when they are engaging in activities they find intrinsically motivating — when they are motivated to do a task because of the experience of the work itself and its results, in contrast to doing something purely for the money or because someone is making them do it,” says Williams Woolley.

“Additionally, sliding by doing the minimum is a habit that can persist in the same ways that people develop habits around bad eating, not exercising or spending too much time on social media instead of doing other more important things.

“Besides, and very importantly, behaviour like quiet quitting does not go unnoticed, and workers may not realise the negative effects it is having on their current job and potential future opportunities until it is too late.”

Hingorrany agrees. “Quiet quitting can buy you some time as you figure out your life’s direction, but I doubt it can work as a long-term strategy, especially if you’re higher up the ladder. My clients know that eventually they might be in a position where they’ll either have to get in line or leave.

“Most parts of the world are nowhere close to legislating this [a work-life balance], like it is in parts of Europe, where it is illegal to contact workers after-hours. So if you’re going to quiet-quit, be aware of what might be awaiting you a little way down the road and prepare your life and finances for that eventuality. Don’t do it without a solid plan.”

Updated: August 12, 2022, 9:16 AM