The narrative on “quiet quitting” is taking a curious turn.
This year’s sudden cultural conversation about coasting at work can be traced to a Business Insider column by Aki Ito. In March, she profiled a recruiter, using the pseudonym Justin, who slowly cut back the hours he devoted to his job without much consequence. The piece inspired a TikTok, and it was off from there.
In her latest column, Ito caught up with Justin six months later, and found the vibes had shifted: Some of his colleagues were laid off, and he worried he could be next in a declining economy. “Today Justin, the OG Quiet Quitter, is back to going above and beyond,” Ito writes. “He’s working 50 hours a week.”
Justin’s shift in fortunes is meant to represent a broader swing back toward management power in the US, with the job market cooling off, interest rates rising, and many economists forecasting a recession next year. Bosses, the thinking goes, will now be able to hold the line on everything from wages to hauling everyone back into the office. Justin is just staying on trend.
But the anecdote also demonstrates some deeper ironies in how quiet quitting has been portrayed and discussed this year.
If Justin’s 50-hour workweek seems excessive, consider that he is just average among full-time, salaried employees in the US, according to Gallop. Even after including part-time and contract workers, an increasingly large share of the workforce, the average workweek last year was still 44 hours.
In fact, the amount Americans work hasn’t changed significantly since the pandemic began, nor in the three decades that Gallup has been measuring it, whether in boom times or recessions. Justin was an outlier when he worked 30 hours, and has reverted to the mean at 50 hours.
Most workers, of course, don’t have the choice of actually reducing their hours, so they “quiet quit” by lowering their productivity or adjusting their ambitions to be more personal than professional. They know just by looking around that huge advances in productivity over the past 50 years in the US have not been met with commensurate gains in pay, nor significant gains in the time people get to spend away from work.
The disenchantment that has come to be known as quiet quitting is not about the hours worked, but the ones worked needlessly.
An hour in the office is an hour worked, according to statisticians, economists, and, most crucially, your company’s payroll department. An hour spent at home during working hours is more ambiguous. You can spend it doing work, but if your job is more about output than face-time, the hour is a choice: Put in the time now, or work more efficiently later—in other words, flexibility.
The pandemic provided a natural experiment to help answer the question of what Americans would do if they got a little time back in their lives. Economists at New York’s federal reserve bank analyzed how one fewer hour spent commuting in the second half of 2020 affected the way in which Americans spent the rest of their time. The research found that just an hour of flexibility led to dramatic changes, with most of the time reallocated to sleep and hanging out with family.
Another study, by Stanford economists who conducted a randomized experiment in hybrid working at a large Shanghai tech company, found that remote workers were more productive than their colleagues in the office.
Given the opportunity, people became instantly more efficient. Of course they did. Because the reward for getting your work done faster is logging off to spend more time with family. Call that quitting, if you want, but it’s working.