When Kim Kardashian said it seems like no one wants to work any more, she hit a raw nerve. That’s because people are working. And for the last several years we’ve had to work through a deadly pandemic, a bad economy, the decimation of our civil liberties and the slow collapse of democracy.
What is happening is that tired, overworked, burnt-out working-class people are taking back their agency and refusing jobs and working conditions that are unsuitable for us.
The latest of these acts of resistance is so-called “quiet quitting”: the newly coined term for when workers only do the job that they’re being paid to do, without taking on any extra duties, or participating in extracurriculars at work.
Gaining popularity in response to pandemic-induced burnout, quiet quitting is definitely having a moment; especially among young people who, in many ways, have suffered through the worst of these surreal times.
And this is all great, except “quiet quitting” isn’t a thing … at least it shouldn’t be. The notion of quiet quitting suggests a norm where people have to perform extra, often undesirable tasks outside of their job description, and where not doing that additional work is considered a form of “quitting” your job.
Forcing employees to do this extra, unpaid work is wrong, but the debate around “quiet quitting” also raises important questions about who is actually doing much of this unpaid labor. Women, for example, are disproportionately asked and expected to take on work that no one else wants to do, like planning the office party, attending to that time-consuming client, keeping track of employee birthdays and so on, according to the book The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work. On the other hand, “it’s very easy for men to say no, because there are no consequences”, co-author Lise Vesterlund told the Boston Globe.
Racialized women bear the brunt of this extra labor, with studies showing that women of color do more office “housework” and have less access to “glamour work” (ie work that gets you noticed by higher-ups, and can lead to your next promotion) than white men do.
These same women of color are also more likely to experience burnout, and are less likely to feel comfortable talking about their mental health in the workplace than their white counterparts. And therein lies the cruel irony of quiet quitting; the people most likely to be burnt out are also the people least likely to feel entitled to a reprieve like quiet quitting.
The freedom to dial back your investment at work and not worry about the security of your job is a privilege in itself, and one that many people from marginalized identities don’t feel they can enjoy, even as work cultures shift.
The other downside to this silent resistance is that there is something to be lost in just punching in and out of work. Many people actually enjoy contributing to their work culture outside of the deliverables.
Paring down your participation at work to the bare bones of your outlined duties means you don’t take on more than you should, but it also means you lose many of the things that can make a workplace enriching in the first place; organizing socials, remembering people’s birthdays, bringing in treats on special occasions.
Still, people shouldn’t be doing more work than they have to. And just doing the work that you’re paid for should be the standard, not an act of mutiny.
Tayo Bero is a Guardian US columnist