Quiet Quitting – the Great Resignation
Tonight, guest writer Christopher Kiely tackles the conversation we have all heard lately: “Quiet Quitting – the Great Resignation.”
We have likely all seen the headlines mentioning “Quiet Quitting” and “The Great Resignation”. These sorts of headlines have become quite common post-pandemic. I usually try to pay as little attention to headlines as I can. They can be a hyperbolic reframing of previously existing but ignored trends. We used to just call “Quiet Quitting” “Phoning it in”. Nothing new there. A simple web search of the terms shows they seemed to emerge in news headlines beginning with “Great Resignation” around the spring of 2021 and “Quiet Quitting” a little over a year later. Both the terms have legs, with that same web search resulting in several hundred news articles for each in the past 24 hours alone.
“Quiet Quitting” grew out of some TikTok trend earlier this year and now shares space on Wikipedia’s “Work-to-Rule” page¹. Seems like an attempt to apply some sort of rebel ethics to hating one’s job but needing it, which again, is nothing new.
The “Great Resignation” was coined by Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University. In a Bloomberg article² by Arianne Cohen from May 2021, Professor Klotz is quoted stating:
“’The great resignation is coming,’ says Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University who’s studied the exits of hundreds of workers. ‘When there’s uncertainty, people tend to stay put, so there are pent-up resignations that didn’t happen over the past year.’ The numbers are multiplied, he says, by the many pandemic-related epiphanies—about family time, remote work, commuting, passion projects, life and death, and what it all means—that can make people turn their back on the 9-to-5 office grind.
Sure enough, since that article the headlines have been rife with proclamations of “The Great Resignation”. This could all be self-fulfilling-prophecy. Wouldn’t be the first time the media glommed on to a pithy term and ran with it, essentially creating the news it was meant to report. But anecdotally, I have seen friends and acquaintances experience those “epiphanies” over the course of the past 3 years, I have even experienced some of them myself. Unlike the news headlines I wouldn’t just wrap it all up as some societal trend affecting the HR operations of our beloved corporations. The “Great Resignation” is a symptom of the system.
It has always happened to many of us at some point and it is well-documented in our society as either the “Midlife” or some sort of existential crisis. As Albert Camus, surmised in The Myth of Sisyphus³:
“It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm – this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.”
Ah yes, the “what it all means” and the “why” of it all. It used to be you had to get to Willy Loman’s age before you started questioning such things and regretting life’s decisions. Not so much anymore. Seems more of us are getting there much sooner than we did in Willy’s Day. With many young people not even wanting to participate. A Time magazine article⁴ by Raisa Bruner from October 2021, puts the numbers at a quarter of workers ages 20-34 not wanting to participate in the workforce.
“The numbers are even more notable for young workers: in September, nearly a quarter of workers ages 20 to 34 were not considered part of the U.S. workforce—some 14 million Americans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who were neither working nor looking for work.”
“Neither working nor looking”, not for traditional work anyway. Perhaps working toward and looking for something more profound than the institutional 9-to-5? We have witnessed profound failures of our institutions over the past 3 years. Regardless of what side of any of the currently brewing cultural and societal debates one is on, the inability of our institutions from government to educational, from healthcare to law enforcement to deal with these issues without contributing to the division, rhetoric and spite has been deplorable. Our institutions have been tested and found wanting.
The “Spiritual Entertainer” Alan Watts once said, “Institutions are run for the benefit of the staff” and the past 3 years have proven him correct. Resulting in a culture where we are conditioned from birth to seek guidance and approval from institutions, but many of us no longer trust those institutions. This isn’t an easy fix; this is a profound societal rift. One that is manifesting itself in the “Great Resignation” and it is a resignation from more than work. It is a resignation from a way of organizing our time, our priorities, our lives and ultimately our society.
In our modern western capitalist civilization, corporations are as much institutions as any other, perhaps the most honest institutions since they don’t claim to be run for anyone’s betterment than the shareholders. Well, okay some claim it, but no one really believes them. They are also one of the only institutions regular people still feel they have some control and influence over. You can’t fight city hall, but you can throw a chair through a Starbucks window, shame Nike on Twitter. If the smartest of the young generation decide to use their labor as a protest tool by withholding their talents from those corporations, that surely won’t be good for those corporations or our current society.
Once someone has an “epiphany” about the meaning of something, they aren’t likely to change their minds any time soon. Epiphanies about “…family time… passion projects, life and death, and what it all means…” are some of the biggest epiphanies a person can have. If a quarter of the workforce from ages 20-34 has already had those epiphanies corporations are going to have to make some fundamental changes to attract them back.
The days of offering free coffee and granola bars with access to game rooms and rock-climbing walls probably isn’t going to cut it anymore. In The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus discusses the concept of absurdity and states:
“…the magnitude of the absurdity will be in direct ratio to the distance between the two terms of my comparison.”
The terms of comparison in the case we are discussing are the life we have been told working a 9-to-5 for a living will earn us and the reality of the life we lead pursuing that path. For many of us it seems the level of absurdity is high and the decision to stop doing the absurd has been made. How do corporations and institutions of today regain the trust of the “Great Resigners” and the disillusioned youth and convince them the path is worth their while?
Perhaps Albert can provide a clue when “In The Myth of Sisyphus” he declares:
“Thus, I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.”
The “Great Resigners” and the youth avoiding work have already had their revolt by removing their labor from the workforce. Now it is up to the corporations that want to lure them back to fuel their freedom and passion. The corporations that do will gain access to some of the best and brightest, the ones that figured out the absurdity of it all and had the guts to call them on it.
In our next articles we’ll discuss ways corporations can go about doing that.
- Work-to-rule – Wikipedia