Why is everyone quietly leaving their jobs
last Friday, Harry’s boss sent him an email at 4:45 PM asking him to urgently check the sales report before the weekend. The 26-year-old account manager knew it would take him at least two hours to do so, which meant he would be working well past his agreed 5pm finish. Instead, he replied that he would on Monday, walked out and headed for the pub.
He wouldn’t have done that six months ago – after all, he knows that sometimes working late is part of the job. But lately, he’s tired of constantly being expected to go above and beyond in his work, so he’s decided to stop altogether. And he is not alone. New York musician Zayd recently posted a video on TikTok calling this strategy “quiet giving up.” “You’re still fulfilling your responsibilities, but you’re no longer held to the hustle mentality that work should be your life. The reality is that your worth as a person is not determined by your work,” he explained during the seven-second clip, which has already been viewed more than 3.3 million times.
The viral video seems to have resonated with the masses as six hundred thousand people have already shared their ‘quiet exit’ stories on TikTok. From saying no to projects that aren’t in their job description to muting their email notifications outside of work hours, the trend is for employees to take their time, effort and energy away from work globally.
“The reasons why workers are doing this more are pretty clear: they’re fed up. They’re fed up with crappy work, crappy pay and high bills. Many jobs do not provide a reliable, stable or livable income,” says Amelia Horgan, author of Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism. “In the context of the cost of living crisis, people are feeling this particularly strongly. If working harder and harder doesn’t bring the promised rewards because of the way the economy is structured—with power and wealth flowing upward rather than being shared—why work frantically hard?”
According to figures from the ONS, the average UK worker works approximately 22 days of overtime per year, with women putting in an astonishing 6.8 extra hours of overtime each month compared to their male counterparts. All this comes amid inflation hitting a 40-year high of 9.4 per cent, real-terms pay falling 2.8 per cent in the three months to May, the fastest fall since records began in 2001 ., and average mortgages rising to £1,285 per month.
“Psychologically, this is a classic theory of capital. If we put it all in, we want something back. Employers don’t give it back, so we’ll take it,” says Cheryl Travers, senior lecturer in organizational behavior and human resources at Loughborough University.
Travers points to the pandemic as a key catalyst for this shift in thinking. “For years, people put so much effort into their work and don’t necessarily feel like they got much back. During the pandemic, many people have had the experience of spending more time with their family or even just spending a little more time in their garden, and now they are realigning what is important to them.” That’s why Anthony Klotz, associate professor of management at University College London, came up with the term “great resignation” in May 2021 to predict a mass exodus of American workers from their jobs. For those who can’t afford to be against the job, a “quiet exit” therefore seems the next best step.
“I hate that phrase,” Travers interjects, “because people don’t quit—they figure out a different way to do things. You didn’t give up just because you decided to prioritize your life outside of work more than before.” , which has historically been the pinnacle of social media content.
Although the rationale behind the “quiet exit” has been repurposed through various social media trends over the past few years, such as the TikTok “tang ping” protest in China in 2021, which encouraged young people to lie down in rebellion against overwork, the tactic initially has roots in the producers’ unions.
Sarah Jaffe, author of Work will not return your love, explains that “Work to Manage” is a form of industrial action that encourages employees to strictly adhere to official work rules and hours, which in turn reduces efficiency. “The culture of hustle is as old as work – on the assembly line they’d call it acceleration,” says Jaffe, before pointing out that the government has been punishing “laziness” since 1834 through the Poor Laws. It is understandable that throughout history workers have rebelled against this by withdrawing. In fact Paul Faireyresearcher at the University of Calgary, recently tweeted a media thread saying “Nobody wants to work anymore” dating back to 1894.
“In the end, we didn’t invent work because people were bored and wanted to do something that gave them meaning. We invented the job so that someone could capture the profits. Working hours and work intensity are the things that vary from which you can extract more profits. If you’re at work and you work 12 hours, when you technically work eight, your boss picks up that extra money. It should be noted that employers are getting more and more from their employees, while they are getting less and less. In fact, according to the High Pay Center thinkthank, FTSE 350 CEOs are expected to collect an all-time high of 63 times the average median pay of workers in their companies. What’s more, many CEOs are talking up telecommuting, saying it will cause workers to relax while they themselves enjoy the benefit, including Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and New Yorker editor and writer Malcolm Gladwell.
Although sympathetic to the movement, Jaffe takes issue with the semantics. “How does one give that up? You just show up and do your job,” she emphasizes. “But what I find most irritating about the term ‘quiet exit’ is that it goes out of its way to re-individualize it, to separate it from tactics you can use as a group to improve your job situation.” she says, before emphasizing the importance of positioning this trend in society as a whole.
As we enter a ‘summer of strike’ where the RMT, bus drivers and Underground workers are uniting to negotiate better working conditions. Jaffe and Horgan quietly implored the walkers to collectivize their anger. “If one person leaves at 5, the boss yells at you. If everyone leaves at exactly five, it’s a little more difficult. If 100 people leave at five sharp, what are they going to do?” Jaffe asks.
Traver agrees, saying that workers need to start a dialogue as a whole with their bosses to make their working conditions more welcoming, instead of opting out—which she says may not align with everyone’s values. Because one thing is for sure, whether you support the “quiet exit” or not, most of us accept that things at work cannot continue as they are.