On Aug. 12, the Wall Street Journal reported on “quiet quitting,” an approach to work brought to the forefront of public attention after the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps counterintuitively, quiet quitting doesn’t refer to employees’ resigning from their jobs but to their mental resignation. Quiet quitters perform the duties of their jobs — no more, no less. There’s no answering the phone after hours at a kid’s Little League game or becoming the de facto team manager without a manager’s pay.
Since the WSJ and a viral TikTok video made quiet quitting a cultural phenomenon, it seems as though every news outlet, Fortune 500 CEO, lifestyle coach, or entry-level employee has something to say about quiet quitting. Kevin O’Leary, businessman and host of the venture capital reality show Shark Tank, said that quiet quitters have no business working for him. Others, such as consultant Ed Zitron, criticize the critics, arguing that there shouldn’t be a special term for what is just doing your job.
Though quiet quitting has divided members of the commentariat, what they do agree on is its role in diagnosing the post-pandemic workplace. Depending on whom you ask, quiet quitting represents the lack of enthusiasm characterizing Millennial and Generation Z employees, a departure from a work ethic now primarily found among immigrants. Conversely, quiet quitting represents a new normal with employees’ using the great resignation, or the labor shortage, as leverage to say “no” to burnout and hustle culture.
But these two views — quiet quitting as the sad state of workers or as an uprising of the overworked and underpaid — overlook who exactly is quiet quitting. If quiet quitting is a workplace diagnosis, then it’s not exactly a problem that stems from capitalism or the pandemic’s disruption (two common culprits). Instead, quiet quitting raises concerns about what kinds of jobs society values and what credentials employees need to access those jobs.
All the media buzz surfaced commonalities among quiet quitters. They’re young professionals, according to the original WSJ article, and they tend to work in jobs that require at least a four-year degree and pay above the median salary, such as transportation analyst, market-research director, or engineer. These young professionals go by various names, but the term “laptop class” captures their main advantage over working-class Americans. Because they perform knowledge work, they easily transitioned to remote work during the pandemic.
Other articles about quiet quitters show a clear division between the laptop class and everyone else. For example, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) writes that management can improve quiet quitters’ performance with a few tactics. Management professors Anthony Klotz and Mark Bolino recommend that companies redefine core job tasks, use human resources (HR) tools to analyze employee well-being, and, if employees do receive tasks outside their job descriptions, make the tasks fit the unique motivations of each employee. (Contrast this with someone like a call center agent, who cannot redefine her job description or choose tasks based on motivation.) Overattentive HR departments and malleable job descriptions, perks rarely enjoyed by working-class Americans, translate to the cushy office jobs held by the laptop class.
The laptop class may work for companies that will analyze granular data just to improve their employees’ well-being, yet quiet quitters aren’t returning the favor, instead doing the bare minimum for these companies. Many conversations around quiet quitting cite a Gallup poll that provides the data behind their disengagement. In one data point, “less than four in 10 young remote or hybrid employees clearly know what is expected of them at work.” The Gallup survey, along with the advice from Klotz and Bolino, points to the fluidity of many jobs held by the laptop class. In other words, the unclear expectations among the laptop class suggest that these workers have trouble defining the tangible product, service, or value that they deliver.
The media coverage of quiet quitting shows how a new class of jobs in the digital economy leaves people asking what it is they actually do for a living. Anyone who spends time on the professional social-networking site LinkedIn will recognize the abstract job descriptions, and sometimes absurd titles, found within the laptop class. These job descriptions are arguably a response to younger generations’ work preferences. A 2022 survey from Deloitte summarizes their preferences using keywords including “advocating for change,” “purposeful,” and “making a difference.”
Companies are meeting these preferences, offering jobs that ask employees to enhance the “company’s reputation as an innovator” or serve as an “emotional optimist, coach, manager, and mentor.” With job titles like “innovation evangelist” (SAP) and “chief heart officer” (VaynerMedia), employees can claim that their job is purposeful and that they’re making a difference. But they would have a hard time defending the necessity of their job.
The abstract jobs held by quiet quitters highlight a disturbing trend that academics noticed in the 2010s as automation and globalization changed the way we work. There are several terms to describe many jobs within the emerging laptop class. The late anthropologist David Graeber called them “bullsh*t jobs” in a widely circulated essay-turned-book. Graeber argued that pointless jobs replaced many productive ones, such as farming or manufacturing. Whether a job is “pointless” depends on who you ask. What’s indisputable, though, is that many jobs in the laptop class have higher salaries than jobs delivering a necessary product or service. According to U.S. News & World Report, a public relations specialist makes $62,810 annually. An auto mechanic makes $44,050.
In City Journal, Malcom Kyeyune describes a similar phenomenon, specifically among diversity consultants, diversity trainers, and other new, woke roles. Like Graeber, Kyeyune argues that these are make-work jobs that are difficult for employees to justify and that exist primarily to employ people.
Kyeyune and Graeber also theorize on why capitalism, which tends to eliminate inefficiencies, hasn’t corrected the rise of pointless jobs. They both blame managerialism, or the way in which a ruling class of managers or other make-work employees entrench themselves within companies and organizations. This isn’t just a problem at private companies, either, eliminating the notion that capitalism rewards pointless jobs while relegating essential jobs to the lower-paid working class. The military currently has the highest ratio of officers–to–enlisted service members in its history while public universities are witnessing an increasing ratio of administrators to professors. In these public sector examples, large organizations are allowing bureaucratic oversight by a growing number of well-paid college graduates.
The divide between the haves and the have nots, or the entrenched laptop class and everyone else, isn’t just a criticism of inefficiency or unfairness. Companies might waste money on the number of managers on payroll, or employees might question why the person who conducts internal communications makes more than the custodian. Even those who justify hiring pointless positions or who don’t care about fairness will acknowledge that the rise of the laptop class leaves essential, working-class jobs unfilled. Reports on the industries most affected by the great resignation show that hospitality, transportation, and manufacturing are among the industries that struggle to fill positions. The labor shortage has implications from broken supply chains to delayed flights.
If Americans want their packages delivered on time or to avoid overcrowded waiting rooms, then they have to figure out how to make working-class jobs more attractive. They must consider why they attach value and prestige to the cushy work-from-home jobs enjoyed by the laptop class while paying unconvincing lip service toward essential workers, many of whom earn less than their college-educated peers.
One observation Kyeyune makes about college graduates also provides a solution to the artificial divide between their jobs and those of everyone else. He describes make-work positions as ways to satiate the masses of college graduates. Members of the managerial class, he writes, “have grown too large to be absorbed by society in ways commensurate with their lofty economic expectations.” Kyeyune’s analysis makes American society look like one giant make-work scheme that rewards college graduates with laptop-class jobs. These jobs answer the question of what to do with all these bachelor’s degrees and, at unprecedented rates, advanced degrees.
All this talk about quiet quitting has laid bare the way in which higher education incentivizes a make-work scheme. One class of jobs requires bachelor’s degrees and often gives workers the luxury to change their job descriptions, work from home, or even quiet quit. As Kyeyune indicates, these jobs probably wouldn’t exist if not for the businesses and organizations that accommodate them. The other class of jobs requires just as much (if not more) skill but receives less compensation and acclaim because the employees don’t have the rubber stamp that is a degree and their employers don’t require one.
Pay won’t necessarily bridge the divide between these two classes of jobs, and the pandemic showed that all the praise for essential workers didn’t help, either. The way we value some jobs and not others is so ingrained in our culture that it requires a major perspective shift. Because many young workers see degrees as the one pathway to success, the push toward higher education creates a mindset among employees that certain jobs aren’t “for them.” This mindset afflicts employees whether they’re college graduates who don’t want to perform manual labor or working-class Americans locked out of jobs that, up until recently, didn’t require degrees.
In a previous article, I wrote that Americans should support career and technical education (CTE). I echoed an argument from Sean Themea, written for The American Spectator, that calls to cancel the higher education cartel because it receives unwavering support in the form of state funding but continues to raise student tuition. Instead, states should shift funding toward programs that help students gain work experience before graduating from high school. CTE signals to employers that high school graduates are ready to work because they have developed both technical skills and soft skills. With CTE, college doesn’t have to be the only signal of workforce readiness.
Funding CTE at the expense of higher education has another benefit. Sympathetic, well-meaning companies and organizations may no longer feel the need to pay laptop-class workers premiums or reparations for going into student-loan debt. Deemphasizing the importance of college also asks employers to make changes to their hiring. Employers would be less inclined to filter candidates based on their ability to pay for an expensive degree.
Quiet quitting exposes the harms of the current college-degree-or-bust mindset. Story after story told by quiet quitters attempts to depict toxic companies, whether they pass over the qualified person for the promotion or they just don’t pay people what they’re worth.
But after reading between the lines, their stories reveal how people ascribe a supernatural quality to higher education, influencing what members of the laptop class expect from their jobs. Because many students, families, and employers see college as the one pathway to success, it’s as though higher education performs alchemy on students. They enter college without the skills or maturation to work middle- to high-skilled jobs, but that changes the minute they walk across the stage at graduation.
As a greater percentage of students obtain four-year degrees, it’s become unsustainable to promise them that college offers an alchemical transformation — that our make-work scheme will reward them for their time and expense with a “purposeful” job, or one where high performance is contingent upon their demands on their employer (working from home, more praise, or a new job description). If higher education helps separate the laptop class from working-class Americans, or the quiet quitters from everyone else, then it’s time to remove its supernatural quality.
The laptop class has dominated the conversation about quiet quitting. A better conversation that addresses how education reform can influence what we value will help all employees feel more motivated.