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Commentary: Quiet quitters have always been among us - we called them slackers

The "quiet quitting" trend celebrates all that is depressing in the culture of the workplace, says the Financial Times' Jo Ellison.

Commentary: Quiet quitters have always been among us - we called them slackers

File photo of an employee experiencing stress during a late night at work. (Photo: iStock/RealisticFilm)

LONDON: When did the workplace become a battleground? When did our boss become the enemy? Or maybe not the enemy, but some sad simulacrum of The Office’s David Brent?

As Morrissey once sang, before he was sent into celebrity exile for becoming extremely politically unfashionable, work is a four-letter word. And now, it seems, more than ever.

Culturally, the office is in crisis: Seen as some kind of workhouse, where the employees must toil unwillingly in a state of torpor and dejection and where the management must lure back staff to have a meeting with free drinks and bits of cake. Advice columns swell with pointers about how to renegotiate your work hours and get the “balance” right.

On social media, the hot topics are still burnout and depression, and how to rediscover the “power of self”. Life is a vision board on which to paste your dreams. Or, to quote Meghan of Montecito in her interview with New York Magazine’s The Cut on life outside the Windsor bubble: “You have the power within you to create a life greater than any fairy tale you’ve ever read.”

She was of course referring to the fact that she’s a princess: At least in people’s hearts and minds. It’s incidental that she gave up the official title, and any interest in performing actual princess duties, when she and her husband moved to California and left all that being royal stuff behind.

But she believes it. And she owns it. And who doesn’t have the right to dream? It’s not about the actual title, it’s about what she deserves to be.

CULTURE OF ENTITLEMENT

I understand that employees are unhappy: Salaries are tracking way beneath inflation, house prices are prohibitively expensive and the WFH experience has allowed for a re-evaluation of how and where we do our jobs. This is an especially tense moment in the workplace as a range of sectors are threatening strike action and the cost of living crisis has cut deep into financial plans.

I’m not being flippant about that crisis, nor arguing that employees might not have legitimate concerns. But I am depressed by the emergence of the mindset, stoked by TikTok and social media, that celebrates a culture of entitlement, and doing the bare minimum at work.

Now we have “quiet quitting”, as coined by TikTok user and musician @zaidsmusic. “You’re not outright quitting your job,” he says of the changing mindset towards working. “You’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life.”

Quiet quitting is presumably easier if you’re punching through data spreadsheets, or performing other solo desk-bound duties, than it is in other lines of work.

I’m curious, however, to know how quiet quitting might play out in other work environments in which the criterion for bare minimum is slightly more opaque. Can a chef quiet quit, for example? Is the tastiness and care with which a dish is presented part of a baseline professional obligation, or would it be considered “above and beyond”?

Or what of those who work in healthcare? Is it okay to disregard the suffering of the patient if all you are required to do is done? Should a nurse show extra tenderness when changing a dressing? Or help a new mother, to whom officially she has no “duty of care”? Should a surgeon be expected to expend a bit more effort to make sure you get a tidy scar?

Maybe a quietly quitting hairdresser would cut your hair with total competency but not offer any small talk, or deny that extra zhush of spray. Then again, hairdressers are often cited as enjoying the highest rates of job satisfaction - they are keen subscribers to the idea that work can be your life.

File photo of a nurse explaining medical bill breakdown to a senior patient at clinic. (Photo: iStock/Edwin Tan)

WHAT HAPPENED TO DOING THE BEST YOU CAN?

Quiet quitters have always sat among us. Once upon a time, they were known as slackers, a kind of counterculture wastrel who wants to stick it to the man. Alternatively, there is the clock-watcher, that joyless pedant who makes a huge performance of taking every second of their lunch hour and punches out at precisely 6pm.

But while clock-watchers have a neggy, nasty reputation, the quiet quitter is being heralded as some kind of folk hero of the modern working man - the 2022 equivalent of Sally Field stamping on the factory counter in the Oscar-winning drama Norma Rae, if Norma Rae were sitting in her home office rather than a textile plant, and not handling machinery but plodding through emails.

Quiet quitting, it is argued, should serve as some kind of corrective in a work culture that has been made toxic by the failure to recognise, or remunerate, the staff. To quote every wellness guru ever: No one lies on their deathbed wishing they’d spent more time at work.

But, I’m not sure the idea’s that much of a revolution. The quiet quitter was always in our midst. Just as there have always been “above and beyonders” working super hard to clean up all the mess left by the slackers and, in my experience, less likely to complain.

And while it’s probably stinkingly old-fashioned, I want to believe that we should take some pride in doing things as best as can be done.

Am I such a tragic “boomer” that I think a job worth doing is worth doing well? And, unless we’re all in this together, the quiet-quitting movement will only further aggravate those fissures in the workplace that put our individual needs before the weal of all.

Source: Financial Times/aj

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