(This column originally appeared on The Hill)
My grandmother died in 1998, so I guess it’s okay to reveal something about her that’s been a long-held family secret. My grandmother was a “quiet quitter.”
I want to be clear that just because she was a quiet quitter doesn’t mean that all her children and grandchildren turned out to be the same. We are generally a hard-working bunch, although my Uncle Henry had trouble holding down a job, but that was mostly due to a learning disability, I’m sure.
I also don’t want you to get the wrong idea about my grandmother. She was a very nice lady. Affectionate and mostly kind. A big Philadelphia Phillies fan. A lover of soap operas. But yes, like all mortal humans, she had her vices. She enjoyed a nip now and then. She was a wee bit racist (especially after too many nips). She smoked more than a pack of cigarettes a day. And — as you know by now — she was a quiet quitter.
My grandmother worked for over 20 years at a Philadelphia company that manufactured men’s suits until she retired in 1974. Her job, like most jobs, wasn’t very glamorous. In fact, it was pretty boring. She processed payroll for the company’s more than 200 workers. And though she seemed to enjoy the people she worked with, she didn’t like the job very much. Most of the days she worked, she was “quiet quitting.”
I’m sorry, maybe you don’t know what this is? Apparently “quiet quitting” is a big buzz-phrase nowadays. It took off on Tik Tok and was picked up by the mainstream media. Quietly quitting is generally defined as “not taking your job seriously.”
“The phrase is generating millions of views on TikTok as some young professionals reject the idea of going above and beyond in their careers, labeling their lesser enthusiasm a form of ‘quitting,’” write Lindsay Ellis and Angela Yang in the Wall Street Journal. “It isn’t about getting off the company payroll, these employees say. In fact, the idea is to stay on it-but focus your time on the things you do outside of the office.”
How common is “quietly quitting”? So common that, according to a recent Gallup study, the trend affects more than half of the workforce. Half! And the problem is getting worse.
The research company reported that U.S. employee engagement “took another step backward during the second quarter of 2022” because even as “engaged workers” stayed consistent, the number of workers who were “actively disengaged” increased. “The ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is now 1.8 to 1, the lowest in almost a decade,” Gallup reports.
If my grandmother were alive today, she would definitely be one of those disengaged. She didn’t like her job. I know this because she told me more than once. She took many cigarette breaks, chatted more than her fair share with her workmates and squeezed every last minute out of her lunch hour. She arrived at 9:01AM and left at 4:59PM. Just enough to get the job done. But not a minute more.
Of course, my grandmother’s behavior (like that of so many of her colleagues) wasn’t called “quiet quitting.” It was called “being a mediocre employee.” Different times. Different phrase. Same concept.
Because just like workers in the 2020s, workers in the 1960s also preferred not to be at their jobs. They also preferred to focus their time on activities outside the office. You mean my grandmother wasn’t loving every minute she spent calculating paycheck withholdings and processing timecards? Gee, what a shock!
Employees working for Cleopatra were quietly quitting. Employees working for blacksmiths during medieval times were quietly quitting. Employees reporting to Henry Ford were quietly quitting. My grandmom was quietly quitting. My own employees are likely quietly quitting. Quiet quitting is what employees do.
Of course, the ones who do it badly ultimately get fired. Some examples are people who post their job-avoiding antics on Tik Tok or consent to be interviewed for an article about quiet quitting. Others don’t deliver even the basic requirements of the job. My grandmother never got fired because she made sure she didn’t do these things. And lucky for her, TikTok wasn’t around in 1968.
But the mediocre employees today who are “quiet quitting” shouldn’t be so self-congratulatory about their behavior. They’re not so innovative. They didn’t discover something new. And more importantly, an economic slowdown is upon us. Companies in tech, real estate and financial services are terminating tens of thousands of workers. Two thirds of small businesses (who make up half the nation’s workforce) are freezing their hiring, according to a recent report. Larger companies are gearing up for layoffs.
And who will be the first to go? Those quiet quitters. Bet on it.
Of course, my grandmother won’t have to worry about that anymore. She was a quiet quitter. But now she’s dead. She wasn’t the greatest of employees. But I do miss her.
Gene Marks is founder of The Marks Group, a small-business consulting firm. He frequently appears on CNBC, Fox Business and MSNBC.