Why Entrepreneurs & Freelancers Should Consider Quiet Quitting, Too

You’ve probably seen the headlines.

If you haven’t, here’s what’s up: the youngsters are talking about quiet quitting.

Essentially, quiet quitting is no longer going above and beyond at one’s job. Instead of working beyond the job description (or the traditional workday), one simply does their job. Some outlets are reporting on quiet quitting as something trendy and new. Others are offering more critical and thoughtful analysis–and pointing out that quiet quitting is just “work-to-rule” rebranded.

Just yesterday, I received an email from a PR firm asking if I’d like to talk with a CEO about how he’s combatting quiet quitting at his company. I’ll hand it to the publicist: that’s solid newsjacking (of the same sort I’m doing here). But do I want to talk with a CEO about how he’s getting “outsized returns” from his employees through “fun and connection?” No, I absolutely do not.

I’d love to talk with a CEO or founder about how the talk about quiet quitting has prompted a review of job descriptions, pay structure, and workplace culture. I’d love to hear about a company whose employees were so energized by the idea of quiet quitting that they organized a discussion group about overwork and unhealthy expectations—and invited their boss in as an ally.

Love it or hate it, the term “quiet quitting” has a lot to offer.

Not so much literally (i.e., “quiet quitting” isn’t quitting at all) but philosophically. Naming something is powerful. It creates a focal point for discourse and helps people recognize they’re not alone. If “the kids” on TikTok were simply talking about how overworked they were, there wouldn’t be thinkpieces in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times about the trend.

When I posted about quiet quitting on Instagram, a few comments mentioned that this media frenzy is silly. Just doing your job should be the norm, they said. I agree! And the truth is that “just doing the job” is rarely acceptable for employees, let alone independent workers–at least in the United States. If the idea of quiet quitting gets us to talk about toxic work environments, inhumane expectations, or exploitation, then I don’t care what we call it.

I know many small business owners and independent workers decide to strike out on their own to escape the kind of conditions that quiet quitting is meant to combat. But all too often, we replicate those same conditions and call it “entrepreneurship.” We replicate the same conditions and call it dreaming big.

All too often, we replicate those same conditions and call it “entrepreneurship.”

At the moment, I’m working on a talk about overdelivering for Jordan Gill’s Done-In-A-Day Virtual Conference. And it struck me just how much quiet quitting is relevant to entrepreneurs and independent workers.

First, the notion of quiet quitting is a good reminder that work can be transactional. 

In an economy dominated by the passion paradigm, this can sound heretical. But, facts: the more someone views work as a means to an end rather than the end itself, the less likely they are to overwork. Even when you’re working for yourself, doing only what’s required to earn a livelihood is a smart move. 

When you’re a business owner or independent worker, there will be time you work that you’re not directly compensated for—and plenty of it. But you should feel like that working time is indirectly compensated through other activities. That doesn’t simply mean that you earn enough at the end of the year to justify working 40 hours per week. It means that the type of work you do in those 40 hours is compensated appropriately. It means that all the time you spend creating content or posting to social media is actually being paid for.

The discussion around quiet quitting also exposes the ways in which employers (and by extension, the way owner-workers manage ourselves) view workers as instruments of profit. They might sell the company or job opportunity as a path toward fulfilling one’s purpose. But, at the end of day, they don’t measure performance in terms of fulfillment. They measure performance in terms of productive hours and profit-generated.

Second, quiet quitting can also remind us that we shouldn’t expect more than we pay for from others.

Last year, there was some discourse about whether it was fair to expect younger workers to hustle their way through toxic rites of passage at work. The first all-nighter. The first time taking on someone else’s responsibilities indefinitely. The first time you manage project without a manager’s salary. Many people felt that going above and beyond to put in the reps and earn one’s way to respect at work was, in fact, the only way to work. Others said, “Hold up. No one should have to do this for a job.”

Intellectually, you may know that asking people to work beyond what they’re being compensated for isn’t okay. But instinctually, the drive for fairness (i.e., “I did it, so you should too”) is strong. And this doesn’t just apply to how we might manage others. It also applies to how we manage ourselves.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from business owners that they wished their virtual assistant would “take more initiative.” But those same business owners weren’t paying for initiative. They weren’t paying for work off-the-clock. They weren’t paying for strategic thinking or creative problem-solving. It’s not the virtual assistant’s ability to take the initiative that should be in question. It’s what the business owner is willing to pay for in terms of skill, time, and critical thinking.

Going above and beyond is (often) wage theft.

Whether we’re talking about how we manage ourselves or what we expect from others, assuming that working beyond the scope required leads to wage theft. 

“It’s not quiet quitting. It’s resisting wage theft. Every couple of years, people will try to repackage a good idea in a way that obfuscates it and makes it harder to actually get to. You’re not quiet quitting, you’re just resisting being stolen from.”

— Claudia Alick via Culture Study

You steal from yourself when you work for free on behalf of massive corporations or when you throw in a few extra deliverables for a client. You cheat yourself out of fair pay when you don’t think critically about how your to-do list produces revenue. And you steal from others when you expect them to do more than you’ve paid for or when your own overdelivering contributes to artificially low prices in the marketplace.

My guess is that panic about quiet quitting isn’t going to last the summer.

Though I’d be happy to be wrong.

I predict the media frenzy will die down quickly. But that doesn’t mean that the questions that quiet quitting raises should go away. I’d argue that those questions are key to building sustainable businesses and humane work environments. And if that’s what the kids on TikTok want to talk about, I’m here for it.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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