Beyond Quiet Quitting: The Real Crisis of WorkRoundup
tags: capitalism, labor, cultural history, work
Erik Baker is a lecturer at Harvard University and an associate editor at The Drift.
Something has gone wrong with work. On this, everyone seems to agree. Less clear is the precise nature of the problem, let alone who or what is to blame. For some time we’ve been told that we’re in the midst of a Great Resignation. Workers are quitting their jobs en masse, repudiating not just their bosses but ambition itself—even the very idea of work. Last year, as resignation rates appeared to plateau, the cause célèbre shifted to “quiet quitting.” This theory holds that what truly distinguishes the present crisis is a more metaphorical sort of resignation: a withdrawal of effort, the sort of thing that is called “work-to-rule” when undertaken by a union. This supposed rebellion against extortion has served as fodder for familiar right-wing complaints about entitlement. The most optimistic commentators on the left, however, have assimilated these hypothetical phenomena into a vision of revitalized working-class self-activity. The AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler has boasted of “labor’s great resurgence.” Even the New York Times, in its own milquetoast fashion, has acknowledged the prospect that, “after decades of declining union membership, organized labor may be on the verge of a resurgence in the U.S.”
There is evidence for all and none of these accounts. Despite declining in 2022, the overall rates of resignation remain higher than at any point in the twenty-first century before the pandemic. But such numbers conceal striking differences across sectors. Statistically speaking, the Great Resignation has been confined almost entirely to the low-wage service industries. Rates of quitting among the so-called laptop class budged only slightly after the initial recession following COVID-19 and now sit at or below pre-pandemic levels. But aggregate employment in the sectors at the heart of the Great Resignation has been growing at a solid clip for years. There’s been a particular acceleration in the gig economy—self-employment increased about 20 percent in the first two years of the pandemic. The quitting phenomenon is real, in other words, but it manifests more frequently in canvassing for better deals than in a radical refusal to work altogether. As its icon we should not imagine a Charles Foster Kane type who realizes, at the summit of his professional climb, that all is vanity, but rather a taxi driver switching fleets a few times in search of better pay and conditions before deciding to drive for Uber.
The evidence for quiet quitting—a concept popularized by a viral TikTok video—is considerably more qualitative, to put it kindly. The best numbers on the subject come from the biannual Gallup study of employee engagement. The data suggests that, since 2019, engagement has indeed declined while active disengagement has risen—but very modestly, and not to historically unusual levels. Unlike resignation, however, the disengagement trend seems to be just as pronounced, perhaps even uniquely pronounced, among white-collar workers. Gallup reports that “managers, among others, experienced the greatest drop” in engagement.
The much-ballyhooed labor resurgence appears to mirror quiet quitting on both of these counts. In recent years, approval ratings for unions have increased greatly, and unions have been winning elections at a remarkable rate, but the number of union members is still depressed relative to the early Aughts, and overall union density has kept up its decades-long slide. Meanwhile, the composition of the labor movement continues to shift toward white-collar professionals, as it has for the past twenty years. It is defectors from this stratum who seem to be leading union efforts among low-wage service employees at companies such as Starbucks and REI. In the media, these college graduates—perhaps most notably Jaz Brisack, the Rhodes scholar who helped organize a union at a Starbucks in Buffalo—have become the new face of the American labor movement.
While the right-wing chestnut that “no one wants to work anymore” is an exaggeration, so too is the progressive retort that “workers are finally standing up for themselves.” Something slipperier is at hand: an inchoate sense of disillusionment. Tendrils of dissatisfaction are solidifying. Talk of a crisis of work suggests that many people today understand work itself, I think accurately, as a governing institution in its own right, analogous in some ways to the state. Like the State of the Union address, meditations on the state of work have become an annual ritual for consultancies, IT companies, and other purveyors of “work solutions.” In a sense, work functions as a nation within a nation—an imagined community, in Benedict Anderson’s famous definition. Its moral health is of obscure but paramount significance.
So what kind of crisis do we have on our hands in Work Nation? In 1973, Jürgen Habermas enumerated several threats to which states could succumb: economic crisis, rationality crisis, motivation crisis, and—his own coinage—legitimation crisis. Ours is not an economic crisis in Habermas’s sense: unemployment is low and wages are growing, at least for the time being. Rationality crisis and motivation crisis don’t fit the bill, either. On the whole, people are still working without vocal protest. But something isn’t right. People are still showing up—and yet work has become somehow alien. It acts on us, not through us. It is a nuisance. Work is a “false idol,” we read in the Times: the sacred is now profane. This is a legitimation crisis. Habermas wrote that “scattered secondary conflicts . . . become more palpable” when they “directly provoke questions of legitimation” but don’t quite rise to the level of “objective systemic crises.” This is the real state of work today: skirmishes, but no real battles; a constellation of apparently benign tumors.
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