We are now living in the era of "quiet quitting." Millions of Americans are fed up with the rise of predatory capitalism and the way it victimizes working people. The pathologies of modern capitalism are captured well in the reaction from "Shark Tank" personality and entrepreneur Kevin O'Leary, who offers the opinion that "quiet quitting is a really bad idea," saying that he expects his employees to put in "25 hours a day, eight days a week," and that people who insist on working a 9-to-5 schedule are "not working for me."
It should be obvious from those comments that Leary is a financial predator who victimizes his employees. People have a basic ethical responsibility to protect themselves from employers like that — developing sustainable habits for a healthy life requires spending plenty of time with your significant other, family members and friends, developing healthy eating and lifestyle habits, exercising and getting outside, and leaving time for other leisure and personal activities. Yet abusive investors like O'Leary are considered respected leaders in business and finance, which testifies to the degenerate nature of modern capitalism.
Fortunately, tens of millions of working Americans are rejecting the dominant neoliberal ideology of the O'Learys of the world, and recognizing how toxic they are to human health and to sustaining individuals and families. An August 2022 survey from ResumeBuilder.com finds that one in 10 American workers says they are "putting in less effort than 6 months ago," and 21 percent are "quiet quitting," explaining that they "only do the bare minimum" to meet their work obligations. With more than 133 million full-time employed Americans in the workforce, one in five people quiet-quitting translates to 28 million people who are drawing boundaries with their employers to protect their time, their health and sanity.
Beyond the ResumeBuilder survey, other data suggest that quiet quitting is even more common. A Gallup survey from June of this year finds that 50 percent of American adults who are employed say they are "not engaged" in their work, reporting that they "do the minimum required and are psychologically detached from their job." Gallup also found that 18 percent of Americans said they are "actively disengaged" from work, up from 13 percent in 2018. Less than a third (32 percent) describe themselves as "engaged" in their jobs. If half of all American workers are quiet-quitting, that's a phenomenal number of people, translating to more than 66 million workers.
It's encouraging, in some ways, that so many people are pushing back against abusive employers and trying to redefine what management can and should reasonably expect from their employees. Still, there are serious problems with the "quiet quitting" phenomenon that should be addressed. First, there's the problem of framing. "Quiet quitting" is a total misnomer in terms of describing what Americans are really doing to rein in management and its many abuses of working people.
Showing up and fulfilling the expectations of employment, while not going out of one's way — in a period of record inequality, when the average American is enduring stagnant or declining wages — should in no way be equated with "quitting" one's job. That just means setting healthy boundaries in the workplace, and allowing people to live fuller lives by balancing their occupational responsibilities with personal ones. It's a sign of how pathological American workplace culture has become that people would use the term "quitting" to describe setting such boundaries and resisting abusive treatment by employers. Workaholism is nothing to celebrate — and it's highly toxic to one's personal development, contrary to what our society tells you.
"Quiet quitting" is a symptom of a sick work culture. It isn't going to save us from abusive employers who elevate workaholism to a noble endeavor. Only unions can do that.
Second, it's a symptom of a sick work culture that people must resort to hyper-individualized methods of fighting back, rather than the more traditional and more effective method: forming unions to exercise collective power in the workplace. Quiet quitting isn't going to save us from abusive employers who elevate workaholism to a noble endeavor. Only unions can do that. As someone who spent years in higher education in a union, and as a labor union representative who participated in collective bargaining, I can authoritatively speak to the difference between asserting oneself as part of a democratic collective of employees, and being so isolated and desperate that one feels they have no other choice than to unilaterally lower expectations.
Through unions, people develop a sense of collective identity in their jobs. They understand that they must rely on their co-workers for camaraderie, solidarity, and support during tough times when management abuses them or tries to impose unrealistic and toxic expectations. Having formally specified work hours and a formal grievance and discipline process laid out in a collective bargaining agreement is vital to protect workers from predatory employers. Among other things, it ensures that workers are not punished for doing their jobs, but refusing to go above and beyond without additional compensation.
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Beyond issues of solidarity and camaraderie, unions are vital for protecting wages, salaries and benefits. The collective bargaining process is instrumental for increasing one's living standard and protecting health insurance, retirement savings and other benefits. Without a union, employers can play employees off against each other, collectively suppressing wages in the process. With a union, people use their power in numbers through the pressure of the collective bargaining process, and if necessary can use the threat of a strike to wrestle concessions from an employer that would otherwise be unlikely.
These simple points have been obscured by establishment-oriented actors such as the Gallup organization, which offers up empty proposals for "solving the quiet quitting crisis." Among these options, Gallup includes efforts to "address manager engagement" and pressure "senior leadership" to "reskill managers to win in the new hybrid environment." It asserts that "managers must learn how to have conversations to help employees reduce disengagement and burnout," and that they "need to create accountability for individual performance, team collaboration, and customer value — and employees must see how their work contributes to the organization's larger purpose."
These points assume that managers are dealing with their employees in good faith and intend to establish clear guidelines and boundaries that will maintain a healthy workplace. The entire premise of union organizing, however, is that employers can't be trusted to set such boundaries on their own, because capitalism by its basic nature (especially when unregulated) will seek to abuse and exploit workers in the name of ever-increasing profits.
Understanding exploitation in the workplace and how to combat it means we must move beyond naïve assumptions that when it comes to conflicts between management and labor, "we're all in this together." In the modern capitalist era, the name of the game is getting employees to work harder and harder for less and less. Quiet quitting, while entirely understandable, is not an answer. Until workers are willing to fight back — through collective action — little is going to change in terms of the struggle for workers' rights.