Quiet Quitting since 1990

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Every time someone starts talking about “quiet quitting,” I internally snicker. Like, have we just now noticed that most people show up for work and don’t actually do much? Is this a new trend? A Gen Z phenomenon?

Uh, no.

Look, I am arguably very productive at work. I’m a good employee—the one you can rely on to get shit done, show up for meetings, and finish projects. I am a solid “A” worker. Maybe not always A+, but I deliver. I’ve figured out how to play capitalism.

But I’ve been “quiet quitting” as I understand it for my whole working life. That’s nearly 33 years (a third of a century!) of just doing my job well and not striving to over perform or climb the ladder.

There’s really no reason for most workers to be highly invested in their work. In most corporate jobs, the function of your output is to make somebody else rich. Sure, you might be rewarded well with bonuses and vacations and paid health insurance… but you really never see the fruits of your labor. So it’s hard to care all that much about your job.

And I think the general fucked-up-ness of the capitalist work structure has recently become more common knowledge. It was glaringly obvious during the pandemic whose work was important to the functioning of society, and whose was sort of…optional.

If your job fell into that latter category, you may have been sitting at home on endless Zoom calls thinking, “what if my job is actually bullshit?”

Yes, I think the pandemic did cause some introspection about the purpose of work, and indeed the purpose of life. But the idea of just sort of tolerating your job is as old as the concept of employment. If you’re doing work that doesn’t directly benefit you or your community, it’s quite normal to resent it.

Those of us in the oft overlooked Gen X have been raising our middle fingers to “the man” since we were toddlers back in the 1970s. We embraced the counterculture, while eschewing the hippie nonsense of the flower children. We were punks and goths and metalheads with giant hair and bad attitudes.

My first job was at Tower Records (video store), a haven for anti-capitalist capitalism. Most of us showed up on time because we knew our friends were depending on us. We got by on minimum wage and a discount on CDs. Those who advanced to management positions were rewarded with long booze-fueled lunches with label reps.

Those who loved the Tower culture stayed for decades. I loved it, but I wanted more money and more creativity. And less of the general public. Retail was not for me. But I showed up for my shift, stood behind my register for my allotted hours, and chipped in with putting away returned videos and entering new customers into the computer in the back. I was a good worker. But I didn’t work long hours or try to get promotions.

‘Show up and do what’s necessary’ has been my modus operandi for all eleven jobs I have had in the past 33 years. Sure, I’ll put in an extra hour or two if there’s a big launch or an emergency. But I’m not working over weekends or trying to be “hardcore” in the Elon Musk sense. That sort of imbalanced grind has always seemed nuts to me, and I would never take a job where that was the norm.

So, I guess I’m a quiet quitter. But I’m also a quiet winner. My employers know they can count on me to deliver, so they haven’t really cared if I wasn’t putting in a full forty hours every week, or if I opt for a mental health day now and then. Honestly, I think the quiet quitters are the ones who can do the most, because we aren’t caught up in the game of trying to look busy.

The histrionic reportage on quiet quitting makes it sound like a scary development of late-stage capitalism. But the truth is, it has been happening all along, and it is not necessarily a bad thing.

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