“Quiet Quitting” Should Be Surprising to No One Except Bosses

Years of austerity, falling real wages, and the experience of the pandemic have workers rethinking their commitment to their jobs. Anyone surprised by this is rich and profoundly out of touch… or a boss.

More and more, workers are refusing to do unpaid work. (Raj Rana / Unsplash)

“Quiet quitting” is the latest panic in boardrooms and amongst employers. The phenomenon is nothing other than workers setting work-life boundaries. That’s it. Employees are still doing their jobs. They’re clocking in on time and working during work hours — exactly in line with the responsibilities set by their job titles. It’s just that they’re refusing to do unpaid work. They’re no longer willing to go that extra mile for “experience” or to show the boss how keen they are to move up the corporate ladder.

Bosses and right-wing media prefer to frame the phenomenon as the slacking off of an entitled workforce. This is especially true, so we are told, of younger generations, who are scrolling their phones instead of folding shirts double time. In reality, quiet quitting is workers pushing back against job creep and the pressure to do more for less.

Two and a half years into the pandemic, everybody is exhausted. But no one is more exhausted than the workers who’ve worked throughout the crisis, put at risk in unsafe working conditions, given limited time off, and have been poorly paid. Of course, the pandemic significantly exacerbated worksite challenges, but it didn’t create them.

In 2019, the United Steelworkers noted that unemployment has been declining for years but real hourly wage growth hadn’t kept pace with rising costs. This meant that, despite a tighter job market, workers’ purchasing power had become much weaker. Now, as inflation surges and central banks raise interest rates, the gap between the rate of wage increases and the inflation rate is high, making things even worse than they were before. Why would a worker do anything but the minimum when their reward is weaker purchasing power from a system that doesn’t serve their interests?

In July, Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem spoke at an event hosted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. He told business leaders to ignore the gap between inflation and wage growth. As Mark Rendell and Vanmala Subramaniam reported for the Globe and Mail, Macklem told the room, “Don’t build that into longer term contracts. Don’t build that into wage contracts. It is going to take some time, but you can be confident that inflation will come down.”

In time? Whose time? And what if the gap between inflation and wage growth doesn’t close? Worker purchasing power should simply continue to shrink? Tell that to workers who can’t afford their rent or mortgage. Tell that to workers who can’t afford groceries. Macklem is gambling on better days ahead soon, but whose lives and livelihoods are sacrificed in the meantime for this risky bet? It isn’t upper management or executives. It’s certainly not wealthy bosses.

Doing more for less has been the hallmark of labor in North America for decades. As economist James Uguccioni writes in his study of the productivity-wage gap in Canada between 1976 and 2014, “Median real hourly earnings grew by only 0.09 per cent per year, compared to labor productivity growth of 1.12 percent per year.” So as workers became more productive, they produced more profit but received comparatively lower compensation for that surplus value.

In the United States, the Economic Policy Institute notes the same phenomenon alongside an equality gap between workers and managers. In 2021, looking at wage growth compared to income generated per hour of work, Lawrence Mishel noted

Between 1979 and 2019, net productivity grew 59.7 percent while a typical (median) worker’s compensation grew by 15.8 percent, a 43.9 percentage point divergence driven by inequality. The effects have been felt broadly: During this period, 90 percent of US workers experienced wage growth (26 percent) far slower than the economy-wide average, while workers in the top 1 percent (mostly highly credentialed professionals and corporate managers) saw 160 percent wage growth (Mishel and Kandra 2020) and owners of capital reaped large rewards made possible only by this anemic wage growth for the bottom 90 percent.

Once again, with feeling, workers are doing more for less and have been for a long time. The more they work, the more surplus value they produce, the more owners, managers, and executives take from them without adequate and proportionate remuneration. It’s a bad deal. And industry knows it. Indeed, some are so desperate as to allegedly threaten workers with jail time if they don’t work overtime.

Beyond the economics of labor and reward — and the fundamental exploitation of workers built into our system — is the fact that work is venerated by North American society in deeply unhealthy ways. Work ethic is held up as a marker of human worth, all the better to keep workers in their place, toiling and toiling beyond reasonable limits. Quiet quitting is a recognition that the relationship between owners, managers, and executives, on the one hand, and workers, on the other, is imbalanced and unjust. It is also a recognition, at least implicitly, that there is far more to life than wage labor.

Forms of quiet quitting have existed for years — work-to-rule being the most obvious. However, decades of neoliberalism and its onslaught against unions have encouraged this more individualized form of the tactic. The sheer fact of its existence, however, may provide ammunition for more workplace organizing. Quiet quitting is, at little least, shedding light on the unfair and grueling work schedules that underwrite the exploitation of workers and undermine the other facets of life that are central to being human and connecting with community. It turns out that leisure time matters to people, too.

In the long run, a better deal for workers requires a realignment of power between those who produce value and those who reap the rewards. Structural economic changes are essential to justice in the economy. In the meantime, workers are left to find ways to bridge the gap. Quiet quitting — which needs a rebrand, for instance “doing one’s job” or simply “working” — is one.

Of course, the collective work of joining a unionized job or unionizing a workplace is the more necessary step to take in apprehending workplace freedoms — as more and more workers have been realizing in recent months and years. But both unionizing and quiet quitting are grounded in a rejection of workplace exploitation and the refusal to indulge in reactionary moral panics around work and work ethic. And we can count on seeing more forms of resistance to the cult of work as new generations of workers refuse to indulge bosses in ongoing and increasingly brazen exploitation.

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David Moscrop is a writer and political commentator. He hosts the podcast Open to Debate and is the author of Too Dumb For Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones.

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