From quiet quitting to the Great Resignation, we can’t stop coining terms about work
We—workers, pundits, journalists, me—just can’t stop talking about work these days. And it’s not just because we spend most of our waking lives doing it.
Three years into a global pandemic that upended work for many Americans, we now find ourselves on the precipice of a recession that threatens to further disrupt the way we work. Along the way, terms like the Great Resignation and quiet resignation have catapulted the 9-to-5 into the rest of our days. They manage to be eye-roll-inducing gibberish and succinct ways of capturing real workplace phenomena.
Quiet employment is the latest buzzword. It describes how employers are trying to accomplish the necessary tasks not by adding more employees, but by asking existing employees to change their roles. It’s a play on the term quiet abandon, describing workers who refuse to go above and beyond in their work. The term quiet departure came about as a justification for the Great Resignation, or the steady willingness of Americans to leave their jobs in search of better ones during the pandemic. Work shouldn’t be a priority in their lives, and if it was, they could quit.
When I first heard about quiet employment, my first reaction was to groan and tell my editor, no, I’m not going to write about this bogus thing. I’m still skeptical about how the trend will play out, but after spending some time thinking about these terms and why we create them, I’m more empathetic. For better or worse, these terms are powerful.
We’re not just upset with these terms because they’re catchy. We continue to use them because they describe something real that is happening and help us understand the rapidly changing world around us and allow us to see ourselves within that world.
“We’ve come up with terms to try to make the unreadable readable – or, to play with the metaphor a bit, to create a grammar and structures that make what’s going on feel somehow comprehensible,” Anne Helen Petersen, co-author of Out. of the Office, he told me.
Of course, creating shorthand for what’s going on with work is as old as work itself. The mass layoffs that began in the 1980s and 1990s were called “downsizing,” as companies began to think of these cuts as a sign of competitiveness rather than a corporate failure. In some ways, “gig work,” popularized by apps like Uber around the 2010s, grew out of those cuts, as corporations sought to fill employment gaps as cheaply and efficiently as possible.
But now the whole process has been accelerated, from recognizing a new phenomenon to writing about it to wanting to draw it. This is no illusion: The nature of work is changing rapidly, and the pandemic only accelerated this fact.
“What we’re seeing is an attempt to tie changes in the way work is done to the historical paradigm,” said Joseph Fuller, a professor at Harvard Business School who leads its Managing the Future initiative. Work. In other words, the nature of work is changing, and these terms help us accommodate those changes in our worldview.
Perhaps the biggest reason these terms are so prevalent, however, is the simple fact that work is still such a strange and confusing place these days. The economy is supposed to be collapsing, and yet there are still so many unfilled jobs. We are in an age of the workforce, where wages are rising fast, but not fast enough to keep up with inflation. People find meaning in their work, but their work has become so demanding that it robs life of meaning.
So we create and perpetuate terms to help guide us.
“If you come up with a nice phrase, suddenly reporters are calling Harvard professors to ask about it.”
But it is also possible that our use of these terms has a circular effect. They are created because they are happening, but then they happen more because people now have a language and a template to copy. Social media greatly amplifies this effect.
“We know through multiple, highly verified and validated studies that people like you doing something gives you psychological permission to do the same,” Fuller said. “It doesn’t matter if you cheat on your taxes or throw a brick through a window or stand up and yell like a maniac at your favorite sports team.”
And then there are people like me, who make things worse.
“In a social media world, if you come up with a catchphrase, suddenly reporters are calling Harvard professors to ask about it,” Fuller said.
What these terms mean – and don’t
The Great Resignation was coined by Texas A&M University associate professor Anthony Klotz in a 2021 interview with Bloomberg. He used the term to describe the coming wave of departures as people quit their jobs for a variety of reasons related to the pandemic, such as wanting to work remotely and rethinking the workplace in their lives. Since then, almost every publication has written about this topic – applauding it, mocking it, renaming it, questioning its existence. (“The Great Resignation” now generates half a billion Google search results.)
The only sure thing about the topic is that around the beginning of 2021, Americans across all industries were quitting their jobs at rates that haven’t really returned to normal yet. Structural factors such as an aging population and lower labor force participation rates also suggest that the trend, which began even before the pandemic kicked it into overdrive, has staying power.
Then came the silence of departure. The term was coined and then popularized on TikTok, where one user described it as “not outright quitting, but abandoning the idea of going above and beyond.” This was seen as a response to the hustle culture of the 2000s and 2010s, where overwork was glorified and workplaces became a basis for community and identity. For many Americans, declaring boundaries with work reflected acceptance of a more transactional relationship with work.
Leave it alone was also one of the most insufferable terms out there, in part because it mostly felt like a new term for something people have been doing forever: not making work the center of life. As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson has pointed out, it’s also not necessarily happening at an increased rate. The worker disengagement, despite rising slightly recently, has been remarkably consistent over time, suggesting that sentiment about TikTok was not leading the battle against labor, but simply reflecting sentiments that have long been there.
Shorthand for what’s going on with work is as old as work itself
This brings us to the quiet hires that have been floating around the internet for the past few months. Inc. magazine. used it last September to describe Google’s strategy to place high achievers in new roles within the company. And then Emily Rose McRae, senior research director at Gartner and leader of its Future of Work research team, can take credit for popularizing the current iteration of the term, as her Work Trends report for the year 2023 was picked up in a CNBC article last week.
For McRae, steady hiring is requiring existing employees to take on new assignments, as well as using contractors to fill the needs of companies struggling to find workers amid the Great Recession and cost-cutting. She told me in an interview that the term is more nuanced than trends that have been around for decades, like “doing more with less” and “outsourcing.” Rather than individuals seeking more opportunity in an organization, McRae sees this as a management-led trend to try and make the best use of existing talent. It will also include compensating employees for their flexibility. A new study from employment site Monster found that 80 percent of workers are quietly hired, which it described as “when an employee takes on a new role with new responsibilities at the same company, either temporarily or permanently, due to of need”.
For her part, McRae says naming trends is an important responsibility, and one she says she doesn’t take lightly.
“We’re going to go into a room full of leaders in a position of authority and say, ‘This is happening.’ By the very nature of doing this, we’re going to bring it into being a little bit more.”
These conditions are useful until they are not
As with everything that comes out in the world, these terms for work grew and changed over time. They were misinterpreted and even misappropriated from their original meaning. Their definitions are imprecise and changing, and the words themselves are likely to be overused, sometimes to the point of meaninglessness.
Leaving alone, for example, began as a reference to doing your basic tasks and nothing more, but over time it was interpreted by the managerial class as workers failing. The brevity of the term “The Great Resignation” led many to assume that people were just leaving their jobs to coast, when the reality was that most were doing so to find a better job. Also lost was the fact that many of those who quit their jobs were doing so to retire early in the midst of a dangerous pandemic.
As Harvard’s Fuller said, “There are real phenomena under each of these, but the kind of banner headline doesn’t capture the nuance of what’s really going on.”
But even in their broad strokes, these terms can inspire people. The last few years are full of stories of people leaving their overwhelming jobs in pursuit of more meaningful things, including finding other forms of work, spending time with family, and baking croissants. The language around things like “burnout” has helped Americans break out of toxic work relationships and encouraged others to join in and make their jobs better.
Such strange terms also have the ability to trivialize what are real concerns about things like workplace safety and fair compensation. Employers can accept terms like a soft waiver to justify their worst impulses, like tracking keystrokes or setting up performance reviews as a way to justify axing employees.
However, that doesn’t mean we won’t try to find the next “X-ing” or the new “Great X.” Real problems at work remain.
What will also continue is our tendency to talk about these terms, whether we agree or not.
“I really appreciate that there’s been this response and reaction to it,” said McRae, of the quiet hiring fame. “Because that means people are actually questioning it and not just completely running with it.”
Update, Jan. 12, 5 p.m.: This story has been updated with data from a new Monster survey about quiet employment.
Yes, I will give $120 a year
Yes, I will give $120 a year
We accept credit card, Apple Pay and Google Pay. You can also contribute via