Quiet quitting: Is this a new workplace phenomenon?

Articles that lead with a yes/no question in the headline inevitably head towards the same answer. Quiet quitting is a trending workplace issue that seems to chime with the post-Covid mood in organisations.


From a psychological perspective, however, it looks like all of this has happened before and will happen again.

Looking back, there seems to be a waxing and waning of workplace effort across the decades, almost like a slacking Zeitgeist.

Organisational Psychology investigated discretionary effort in the 1960s, perhaps in response to a generational shift in workplace attitudes. The hippy, counter-cultural dropping-out attitude contrasted sharply with the work-ethic associated with the 1950s, challenging the accepted relationship between individuals and work.

The psychological contract

Psychologists during this period formulated the concept of the Psychological Contract, which determined the amount of effort an individual was prepared to put into their work. The psychological contract is based on an implicit set of beliefs, perceptions, expectations held between the individual and employer. When individuals feel that the organisation, employer, or manager is honouring the terms of the psychological contract, then maximum effort is fair exchange. This resonates with descriptions of Quiet Quitting, where employees are reducing effort based on a perceived mismatch between their expectations of those of the organisation (speculatively attributed to experiences during lockdown and furlough).

Quiet-quitting also looks a lot like a psychological theory of motivation explored during the slack 1960-70s. The Equity theory of motivation describes how the individual engages with their job based to the extent to which they feel rewarded and valued.

A quiet quitter may be reducing their contribution at work to a level that they feel matches the implicit value that their organisation, employer, or manager demonstrates towards them. This effect was formalised in ‘working to rule’, a method of industrial protest where workers performed only according to the strict terms and conditions of their job description. The withdrawal of discretionary effort being a form of striking on the job to collectively force change from the employer.

The 1980s is not a decade associated with quitting, quiet or otherwise. But by the 1990s, slacking was back. Generation X entered the workplace, bringing with them ironic detachment and low employee engagement with work. Perhaps a reaction against their striving, Boomer bosses or the perception of the low status of McJobs that were now a feature of the employment market. In the 1990s quiet quitting reflected a set of values around idling, hedonism, and knee-jerk flippancy. Great days.

The party arguably lasted until the financial crisis of 2008, when an economic downturn meant noses had to go back to the grindstone. Austerity, job insecurity and pay freezes do not foster quiet quitting conditions and as we approached 2020, hard work, presenteeism, and long-hours seemed baked-into the relationship between individuals and organisations. The employer was king.

The events of the last two years introduced sweeping changes to the workplace. Flexible and remote working, lockdown-induced re-evaluations of values and expectations about our lives and work, great resignations, and high-levels of job vacancies. The perfect conditions for some quiet quitting.

But is this a new phenomenon?

Not so much, no.




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