Employers Fear A Hard Truth About Quiet Quitting

The concept of “quiet quitting” started on social media, namely TikTok, leading to misleading and deceptive conclusions that American workers are shirking their duties and slowing down work.

Employers fearing the hard truth that workers have some control over their labor effort has been a staple in Marxist economics, see Harvard professor Stephen Marglin’s essay “What Do Bosses Do,” and the basis of several Nobel Prizes, see for example Joseph Stiglitz’s essay “Unemployment as a Discipline Device.” A fictional manifestation of management’s fear, created by Herman Melville’s dark humor, could be the stubborn worker Bartlelby the Scrivener’s refrain, “I prefer not to.” The Harvard Business Review last month ran a piece on the phenomenon.

The term “quiet quitting” lives on perhaps in part because labor productivity indices reported a steep decline in the second quarter of 2022. Some people, notably Larry Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury and Harvard professor, tweeted that workers may be slowing down their work effort and pace, citing this latest productivity report. But, as I see it, second quarter productivity probably fell mainly because of a statistical quirk. Call it a numerator/denominator problem because there was a rapid increase in employment; the numerator — the number of workers — swelled and output (the denominator) hadn’t caught up.

As employers slow their hiring we expect that third quarter productivity will be back on trend (data is due out in December).

I see the evidence as clearly pointing to the conclusion workers are NOT shirking. In fact, a great deal of worker dissatisfaction is revealing itself in other ways: in surveys of workers, in workers leaving their jobs, and in workers engaging in employee action and direct protest.

Surveys and Individual Actions Indicate Job Stress

There’s evidence for worker dissatisfaction in surveys. The well-respected Society For Human Resource Professionals 2021 and 2022 survey of workers and employers show that the top concern for 2022 is employee morale. There is also a growing body of evidence on the unequal distribution of stress on women, made more complex by work-life balance issues, and a UCLA study on work stress shows unequal distribution by race and ethnicity.

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In addition, I interpret the increasing job leaver rates and increased job turnover as revealing of job stress. Let me be clear: Forget quiet quitting; actual quitting is up, which worries employers.

Collective Protest Indicates Job Stress

High-profile strikes are concerned with the intensification at work and more overtime. The 2021 Frito Lay strike in which workers protested the 84-hour workweek and the current threats of a railroad strike are both about the intensification of work. So too are the increase in unionization efforts at Starbucks SBUX and Amazon AMZN . Workplace disruptions in hospitals are also directly related to work stress and intensification.

Bottom line: Employers Could Be Quitting On Workers

There is a truth behind the idea of “quiet quitting,” but the truth is that employers are quitting on workers. The evidence points in the direction of workers feeling increased pressure and working too much instead of too little. The Economic Policy Institute has argued that “quiet fleecing” would be a better term.

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