Looking back, it’s often easier to see the absurdity in our efforts to prevent the inevitable future. In 1904, the United States established The National Committee for Child Labor to reform practices prevalent in both families and factories, which encouraged children to abandon school for work. The labor laws advocated by this committee initially faced significant opposition in the press. Questions abounded: Why shouldn’t children contribute to family income? What would happen to school populations in coal mining towns? Who would replace the working children? And how would factories cope without them? Now, a century later, these concerns appear far-fetched.
Fast forward a hundred years, and we find ourselves echoing similar sentiments, albeit with a twist. Instead of worrying about children leaving work for school, we ponder what would happen if adults redefined work, choosing not to let it dominate their lives, and pursued other interests. Why shouldn’t employees go the extra mile, always be available, or prioritize work above all else? And again, where will the workforce come from? How will organizations adapt?
It makes one wonder how long it will take for these contemporary debates to also seem delusional in hindsight, potentially transforming into standard labor practices. Unless you spent this summer on a deserted island cut off from communication, you’ve likely encountered discussions about “quiet quitting.” This debate sees employers and managers on one side, criticizing the trend, while on the other, especially on platforms like TikTok, many viral videos feature employees advocating not for resignation per se, but for setting boundaries and refusing tasks beyond their job description. This battle for the new normal in the workplace is unfolding on both sides of the divide.
The pandemic brought millions of workers face to face with job instability. Initially, it was assumed that such experiences would reinforce a preference for stable employment, gratitude for having a job, and a rapid return to work. But that hasn’t been the case.
Recent research challenges the prevailing assumptions about workers’ priorities post-employment instability caused by the COVID-19 crisis. The study made an intriguing comparison between two groups of post-secondary educated workers: those who were laid off or furloughed during the pandemic and later secured new employment (defined as workers lacking job stability), and those who maintained consistent employment throughout (defined as stable workers). Contrary to the expectation of heightened economic rationality, it was the unstable workers who placed less emphasis on job security and salary compared to their stable counterparts. Instead, they prioritized meaningful work, valuing job fulfillment and passion over stability when considering their future career paths. Interestingly, this trend persisted across various industries, educational levels, genders, parental statuses, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
This shift significantly impacts how researchers and policymakers view labor force trends. The pandemic years have altered many employees’ perspectives on work, leading to new expectations from their workplaces. These expectations focus not only on what they, as employees, should contribute, but also on what they wish to receive in return.
Within this evolving landscape, “quiet quitting” represents another phase in a developing process that has so far unfolded in three stages.
The initial stage, known as the “great resignation,” represented a drastic approach: a zero-sum game. While working from home, individuals discovered the advantages of autonomy and greater control over their daily routines, as well as the ability to integrate work with other life aspects. However, the blurred physical boundaries between work and home life also eroded the distinction between working hours and leisure time. This encroachment of work into all aspects of domestic life, extending into most waking hours, led to feelings of being overwhelmed and exhausted. As the balance of power shifted from organizations to individuals, people began seeking new ways to establish boundaries in a world where work is no longer confined to a specific location.
The first and most direct solution many found was to resign. This mass exodus of employees, known as the “great resignation,” continues to unfold. Distancing oneself from the situation became the ultimate form of setting boundaries. In the traditional workplace paradigm, seeking better employment conditions often meant leaving for a new job.
The second stage, “the great standoff,” unfolded as organizations attempted to revert to pre-pandemic norms, while employees resisted: After the great resignation, there began a tug-of-war between what employers desired (a return to traditional jobs, offices, and pre-pandemic work practices) and what employees sought (to maintain autonomy, flexibility, and a newly found balance between work and life).
To their credit, many organizations have implemented changes, albeit often out of necessity, responding to the demands in this power struggle in a labor market increasingly dominated by workers. Consider, for instance, the debate over returning to offices. In the U.S., companies like Apple have repeatedly revised their return-to-office dates and policies, partly in reaction to employee resistance to decisions that don’t align with their preferences. Even in Israel, firms initially reluctant to adopt hybrid work models have shifted course, responding to employees and job candidates voting with their feet. Reports indicate that the actual office attendance often falls below the stated policy.
This reluctance to revert to old ways is also evident in the U.S., as seen in the rise of independent work structures and a simultaneous decline in overall labor force participation. There’s a noticeable contraction in the available workforce, with insufficient labor to meet the demand for open positions. In the evolving work landscape, employees resigned because they wanted to work differently, and some are now striving to manage themselves to work as they please. Meanwhile, those who remain employed are negotiating with employers, seeking a new equilibrium in employment terms.
The third stage, “quiet quitting,” involves employees defining new boundaries: The dwindling workforce has placed an additional burden on those who remain, requiring them to take on more work to compensate for absent colleagues. In the traditional work paradigm, such demands are normalized, tied to the ingrained belief that excessive hours, meetings, and emails signify a dedicated employee. The concept of “workplace balance” often hovers between gender discussions (as someone must pick up the child from daycare) and employer branding (promoting employee well-being to attract talent).
Now, in the third year of the pandemic, employees are challenging these old perceptions and setting limits. They agree to work, but only to a reasonable extent — within their defined responsibilities, working hours, and sector boundaries. This phenomenon, dubbed “quiet quitting,” is a misnomer, portraying it as a negative occurrence when it’s not.
More crucially, this label allows the core message to be overlooked or opposed, similar to the 1910 headlines that couldn’t grasp why children shouldn’t leave school for work. This isn’t about resignation or silence; it’s akin to an awakening.
It’s a realization that leaving a job isn’t the only solution to overwork and the desire to integrate work and life differently. Instead, it’s about redefining boundaries that have become blurred. These individuals prioritize their well-being and life outside work. They’re not disengaged; they fulfill their roles, seek significance, and want to contribute. But they also desire balance and refuse to let work dictate their nights, weekends, or office presence, measured not by hours spent but by the outcomes they achieve.
This isn’t resignation; it’s an invitation to dialogue, signaling a shift towards employee-driven responsibility. Rather than quitting or becoming their own bosses, workers are renegotiating the new work-home boundaries with their employers.
And one only needs to listen closely to hear this invitation and accept the offer to join the conversation.