Work to rule

The two most boring questions are: “Who will be the next Doctor Who?”, followed by: “Who will be the next James Bond?” Then any questions about the royal family.

But there is a new one.

And that is: “What is quiet quitting?”

Originally coined in 2009, it simply means, going to work for your contracted hours, doing what you are asked to do, and nothing more. Since lockdown, it has come to prominence and is a hot topic of conversation.  

Trade unions have known forever that it is quite simply ‘work’. Anything more is currying favour.

The culture of love-your-work has become so dominant that “going above and beyond” is now often in the job description (possibly abbreviated to “passionate”), which is ridiculous. If you were to say that in a relationship;  “I want you to meet my stated needs, but also guess at other, potentially limitless, needs and meet those too” – you’d be called controlling and abusive, or at the very least, a bit of a handful.

Quiet quitting is probably something invented by the entitled young, who often seem offended by the concept of anything that interrupts their screen time. Unfair?

Entrepreneur and podcaster, Steven Bartlett, described Gen Z as “the least resilient generation I have ever seen”. He said: “I just fear that when I’m hiring people in that generation, I almost need to go an extra length just to check they can cope with a high-intensity culture where demands might come on a Saturday – because the world doesn’t just stop on a Saturday and Sunday.”

For many of their older workers, Gen Z are a source of irritation and disappointment. They’re too sensitive. They’re too easily offended. And they lack the toughness required to deal with the challenges and setbacks of everyday work and life.

Complaining about the younger generation is nothing new, but we shuld recognise the extraordinary pressures to which Gen Z are subject. At school, according to a 2020 WHO report, they have a regime that makes the English education system the third most stressful out of 45 countries surveyed. They live in a world of instant online judgment (in 2021, the WSJ  reported that one in eight young girls in the UK who reported suicidal thoughts attributed their poor mental health to social media). Their induction into the world of paid employment is also no picnic: unpaid internships, student debt to pay back, and a work environment that impinges more and more on what would once have been seen as leisure time.

Before the pandemic, a US survey said 60% of people who used computers in their daily working lives remained connected to work for more than 13 hours a day and a further five hours at the weekend. Mid-pandemic, according to Microsoft’s mining of data about its Teams users, the average working day increased by about 45 minutes. For much of that stretch of time, junior staff are sitting silently on video calls, listening to senior staff potificate. They feel unproductive and powerless. When they’re not in soul-sapping meetings, they’re checking emails (an exercise that is thought to have quietly eaten into another two hours of their time). The working day has got longer. Its rewards have become increasingly less apparent.

Older workers may well object by saying that they face the same mind-numbing and stressful slog. And they’d be right. This summer, the Gallup Global Workplace Report announced that employee stress was at a new all-time high, with 41% of UK workers saying that they experienced it for “a lot of their working day”. Meetings eat up their day (up by a factor of 2.5 since the beginning of the pandemic).

When it comes to the workplace, perhaps what distinguishes Gen Z is not that it’s made up of snowflakes who can’t take the pressure, but that it’s made up of young people who are experiencing the same stresses as many of their older co-workers, but are more prepared to be open about them. Sharing worries about mental health used to be taboo. Now it’s not. Ironically, it takes a degree of the grit that Gen Z apparently lacks to express these concerns. It also takes grit not to simply give in to a status quo that is wreaking such havoc on mental health, and to voice dissent instead.

One other thing is apparent: whether or not you think Gen Z should be tougher, you’re certainly not going to help by telling them they need to be “more resilient”. Resilience is not an off-the-peg decision, and it’s not an easy-to-acquire trait. What’s more, contrary to the claims of resilience advocates, it’s not something that we can acquire on our own. We need other people as well.

When Prof Jean Twenge from the University of San Diego studied teenagers’ mental health during the early days of the pandemic, she was surprised to find that it was not “awful”, as she had expected, but “relatively OK”. Further study revealed the reason why: “Teens who spent more time with their families during the pandemic and who felt their families had grown closer were less likely to be depressed.” Improved relationships meant improved resilience, or fortitude. People drew strength from each other.

In these days of ever-longer online meetings, perhaps a good way to help make Gen Z “more resilient” would be to make them feel as supported at work as they ought to be at home.


On Topic

Related Articles


Our Cause

We will fight for a world where everyone feels safe, valued, able to grow, and be inspired by their role and the organisation that they work for. And that starts with us…


Our Cause

We will fight for a world where everyone feels safe, valued, able to grow, and be inspired by their role and the organisation that they work for. And that starts with us…