Quiet quitting: a generational shift in the workplace

I have been watching the TikTok videos by millennial and GenZ career advisors with great interest. There is a real shift, and a following, in the advice being given to the next generation of employees. After unrealistic expectations from employers over the pandemic period, where employees were expected to be flexible, work harder, and always be on form and over deliver, without any praise, appreciation or reward, followers are being educated in an alternative approach to work.

I must admit, I am so pleased that GenZ have reignited the debate about what work is and why people behave the way they do. Their perspective on an old topic is fresh and built on years of gradual evolution. The younger generations have always challenged the status quo and questions why us oldies do things the way they do. I did it, you did it, but now they have a global platform to share their ideas.

What gives me hope about the new wave of quiet quitting, is that it isn’t some fanciful immature idea, but grounded in common sense and reality. There is a balance between working hard to get ahead, gain respect and progress, and giving your all without any thanks or appreciation. The quiet quitting, doing what is on the job contract, no more, no less, is a result of people giving their all and getting very little in return other than a pay check. The promise of pay rises, new opportunities, a little praise and appreciation, which was then never delivered has shifted some people to decide to do the job requirements and not go above and beyond. They aren’t under-performing, but doing what is expected. The problem is, many managers expect everyone to be over achieving everyday.

The Problem

The pandemic put a lot of people out of work, furloughed or off sick. Those that were working had to pick up the load. The expectation by stressed employers that their employees would be as motivated and engaged as they were was unsustainable.

The great resignation, economic global pressures, highly demanding customers and chaotic supply chains means that companies still have to do more with less, but there is only so much employees are willing to give.

The result is more resignations or quiet quitting. Why work harder when your efforts aren't appreciated or rewarded? That is the question many people now ask.

The generational evolution of work

I am a Xennial, a cusp generation. When I first entered the working world, The backdrop was grounded in the 80’s yuppie culture, greed is good, work hard, be a “company man”. The ideas around what made a good employee was still based on those that worked hard, not necessarily smart mindsets. presenteeism was rife and you were written off if you just wanted to do your job.  Coaching and emotional intelligence were just creeping in, and the extra mile was something that was expected of everyone. Those that weren’t willing to give it were labelled slackers or unambitious. I cringe now, but that was the reality in which GenX were indoctrinated.

GenX were the work hard/play hard generation who believed we could have it all. That was what success looked like. If you were failing in one area, you hid it. If you were stressed, you let everyone know just how busy (and important) you were. Rushing from meeting to meeting whilst on your blackberry and a quick “Hi, I need to catch up with you” as you whirled past your colleagues in the office. Speed, busy, energy, was was what success was perceived to be. The reality was that we were busy fools, exhausted and stuck in reaction mode with little proactivity.

We still wanted work life balance. We wanted to smash the career, and still be the ones to take the kids to every club, every play date, be the perfect parent, party at the weekend and be perceived to have the perfect life. It was exhausting and incredibly unhealthy. It was in 2010 that I realised I had done everything "right" yet I wasn't happy. I wasn't unhappy either - just existing. That is when I began to quietly quit. It was the push I needed to launch 3WH. 

It was the same time that the millennials were making starting their careers. We were their first role models and mentored them. We passed on our advice, some of it they took. Most of it they rejected, thinking we were nuts to behave the way we behaved. They had their boundaries. They asserted their boundaries. The were nicknamed entitled snowflakes as a result. They could see what GenX couldn’t. They could see that having it all was impossible and the public façade of having it all was just fake. They wanted real balance, an integrated life led by purpose, values, and real happiness.

So, they pushed back. They said they would give 100% when they were at work, but when not at work, they would give 100% on whatever was important to them. They were labelled disengaged, but that wasn’t the case. They were engaged when they could do great work, be recognised for it, and when their boundaries were respected. Each time a manager expected them to model the all-consuming ambition, drive and focus of their older peers, a little more disengagement crept in. Conflict was rising.

Thankfully, the millennials didn’t give up. They, in their large numbers, challenged what work was in relation to being a whole person. They expected more. They asked for more. They changed the way in which we work.

And those GenX parents who quietly quit the idea of being consumed by work, shared their ideas with their children. They encouraged them to follow their passions and do work they love. GenZ were taught to respect themselves first and take action when they are being disrespected for their work or efforts. Success doesn’t only come from work but I also hope GenZ were also taught that success, whatever that means, comes from commitment, perseverance and pushing yourself. It doesn’t just happen.

The millennial role models told GenZ to follow their dreams, do what you love and live your values. Assert your boundaries and value yourself. This has created a generation who think very differently about what work is and how it is done.

Rather than the focus being on company requirements, it has shifted towards being a mutual partnership. People want work that is more than just money. The money is a fair exchange for the work they do, the more includes the opportunities, fulfillment, respect, belonging, and purpose.  

Employers on the other hand want more and need more. Recruitment is hard, economic squeeze means they want more for less, and expect everyone to keep pitching in. There is a real conflict. What was a quiet evolution is now becoming a revolution and who knows what will happen when the new era settles.

The advice I can give the employers is to lean into a coaching style of leadership. Find out why your employees come to work, what they want, what makes them energised and motivated. Listen and adapt your strategy to create working environments where people want to do their best work. Deal with under-performance, but if someone is doing their job without any issues, then appreciate them. If someone is going over and above, reward them in a way that means something to them - don't expect them to just keep doing it.

The advice I can give employees is that attitude is essential to success. Coasting doesn’t make you stand out. Being someone who takes accountability, seeks responsibility, finds solutions and wants to do a great job is a real asset. Yes, have your values, boundaries and principles, but you can assert these and still have a positive attitude. A team is not a group of individuals looking out for themselves, but a group of people who work towards a common goal. Being a positive team player feels good too. BUT… if you aren’t happy in your role, quiet quitting while you find another role is fine. Do the job, don’t cause any issues, and move on when you get the opportunity – but don’t stay too long. It will damage your self-esteem and confidence.