Why I Side with the Quiet Quitters

An educator’s take

Let’s get on the same page and agree on a definition for quiet quitting, seeing as different people use the term to refer to different work practices.

I’m going with the language from a 17-second TikTok video that went viral and helped launch the conversation:

You are quiet quitting when “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.”

I, for one, believe that:

  • Going above and beyond should not be a given.
  • Going above and beyond should not be expected.
  • Going above and beyond should, in most cases, be optional.
  • If going above and beyond is none of the above, then it should cost employers; it should be paid!

Why Quiet Quit?

The why’s have much to do with who’s doing the quiet quitting (QQ) or talking about it.

All involved generally agree that QQ is tied to the existential jolt of the Covid pandemic and the emergence of a strong labor market. Covid drove people to rethink what mattered most to them and strong hiring gave them the leeway to risk losing their jobs.

Some view QQ as a rethinking of workplace hustle culture, a reorganization of priorities, and a reframing of life.

It’s also a response to feeling unappreciated, undervalued, and taken advantage of by employers. It’s a response to professional burnout. It’s employees feeling that going above and beyond is not helping them get ahead anyway.

Then too there are those who view it as a generational phenomenon, judging genzeers and young millennials as entitled, spoiled, or downright lazy. 

Quiet quitting, of course, is not new-new. Though the term is new-ish, it relates to age-old human realities: ever-changing priorities and the fact that time is limited.

When I came across all these views, two things came to mind: the parable of the fisherman and Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Both try to explain what motivates us to do what we do.

The Parable of the Fisherman and the Businessman

“I value my short time on this planet. While I need to work to feed my family, my mantra has always been ‘Nobody on their deathbed has ever said, I wish I had spent more time at the office.’” (comment from one Michael Shaw in response to a Wall Street Journal article titled “If Your Co-Workers Are ‘Quiet Quitting,’ Here’s What That Means.” (8/12/2022). 

This comment instantly brought to mind the Fisherman and Businessman story. Like all parables, it is one-dimensional and simplistic to the extreme, which is why I don’t like parables much. Still, it’s these very features that render them memorable, isn’t it?

At any rate, I’ve always interpreted the tale as a reminder of the constraints of time and lifespan when setting priorities. It’s also a recognition of the ultimate deadline: death.

Here’s the gist of the fable, for those not familiar with it.

A tourist (a businessman) met a resident of a coastal town and they got to talking about what the local man did for a living. It turns out he was a fisherman and he went out on his boat for about three hours daily. After work, he played with his kids, took a nap with his wife, and then went out to have a beer with friends and play his guitar.

Hearing how few hours the fisherman worked, the businessman proceeded to explain that he could become a very wealthy man by working longer hours.He would be able to get a bigger boat, then build a shipyard in town, in time open an office in the city and branches in the United States and Europe, and eventually list his company in the stock market and become an extremely wealthy man.

“And what would all this get me?” the fisherman wondered.

“Well,” the tourist replied, “When you’re 65 or 70, you’ll be able to retire and live in a town like this, wake up late, go fishing for a bit, play a while with your grandkids, take a nap with your wife and go out with your friends for a beer and play your guitar.”

So what does the parable have to do with quiet quitting?

The fisherman liked his occupation. He experienced what one calls “job satisfaction.”

Would he still feel satisfied if he had to do it 10 hours a day and feel compelled to go above and beyond all the time? Unlikely, I say.

The fisherman had clear priorities: providing for his family through a job he found rewarding, spending time with family and friends, and playing his guitar. Like the WSJ commenter, he didn’t want to look back on his life and wish he’d done more of what he found meaningful. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

“Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory of motivation which states that five categories of human needs dictate an individual’s behavior. Those needs are physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs.” (MasterClass, 6/7/2021)

Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid
J. Finkelstein, Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons

This pyramid attempts to neatly capture human needs, and it does that well. It also implies that you must meet the needs at the bottom in order to move up the hierarchy. I don’t think it works that way. You can climb all the way up the pyramid even in a concentration camp, as Viktor Frankl well articulates in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.

In any event, quiet quitting is all about human needs and our struggle to meet them. Our jobs pay the bills, so most of us have to work to meet the needs at the bottom of the pyramid. And there is no shame in this. 

As much as I like Ariana Huffington, I don’t ​​agree with her statement that “Quiet quitting isn’t just about quitting on a job, it’s a step toward quitting on life.”

Beyond paying the bills, work is a significant source of esteem and self-actualization. But one shouldn’t have to go above and beyond for work to meet these needs.

Sometimes work ceases to be so central to meeting higher-level needs. Other aspects of our lives might become more important. We reshuffle priorities and adjust how much time and energy we devote to different aspects of our lives.

When it comes to time and energy, there’s only so much to go around.

The Biggest Catch

There’s something else going on. It’s often impossible for people to meet job duties without having to go above and beyond all the time.

That’s certainly the case for many in the teaching profession when they chronically go without the needed support and work way beyond eight intense hours per day to stay afloat. That too is the case for many nurses, health aides and staff that supports adults with developmental disabilities. 

When going above and beyond becomes a necessity, burnout follows. The joy of self-actualization and esteem is lost.

And this, I find, is a failure on the part of employers and society. My hope is that the quiet quitting conversation will draw attention to this problem.

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