So, if you’ve been paying attention to the news (and I definitely don’t judge anyone who might have decided they are done with the news forever and eternity because, well, *shrug emoji*) you’ve probably seen an article about a phenomenon called “quiet quitting.” What started off the current conversation is this TikTok video. And if you are still in the workforce, you might have had the very reasonable thought: “Complaining about quiet quitting sounds an awful lot like blaming people for establishing healthy boundaries between work and life.” And if you watched the video, that is what they are describing. Doing your job and doing healthy things like not responding to email at all hours or equating your value as a human by the work that you do. I thought it might be fun to explore the phenomenon and see if there is any way to effectively separate concepts… and share some resources if you, like me, are struggling with understanding the difference between the two things.

The concept of quiet quitting has been around for a lot longer than I thought, because the idea isn’t new. It was coined in 2009 by economist Mark Boldger. At the time, it meant in context pretty much what it means in the current wave of think pieces. However, the term also brings to mind the 1999 movie Office Space, in which the main character continues to report to work but completely stops doing their job and instead acts as a chaos agent within his workplace (smashing a fax machine to the tune of “D**n It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta,” which is markedly different from the concept of healthy work/life boundaries and more adjacent to overtly fire-able offences… you can find the montage on YouTube pretty easily but I’m not linking to it due to language. Suffice to say, the movie will definitely feel dated to a modern viewer; it does not hold up well. The news articles are a series of fun house mirrors of sputtering employers explaining why it’s good for employees to have a sense of hustle and employees explaining that it is ok to JUST do the job you have. Just doing the job you have yields completely acceptable job performance.

But now what we see is articles about quiet firing. In principle, what this should look like is the workplace accepting reasonable boundaries set by the employee who is simply doing their job. This should absolutely be adequate if a person doesn’t wish to move up in their organization. But the think pieces about quiet firing are all veiled threats about potential negative outcomes for those who just wish to do their jobs and live their lives. For example, see this article, which summarizes a Wall Street Journal piece that is behind a paywall. It warns potential slackers that “America has long prided itself on its work ethic and can-do spirit,” and implies that going the extra mile at work is something it is reasonable for employers to expect.

And all of this is interesting in light of a conversation that’s happening in libraries about a concept called “vocational awe.” This term was coined by a librarian named Fobazi Ettarh in January of 2018. While the idea has been around for a few years, it got kicked into high gear during the pandemic. So, this might look like someone being given an additional job responsibility in an area about which they are passionate without any additional compensation and expecting that they will just accept it because it’s good work that needs to be done and it won’t be done otherwise… that’s vocational awe in a nutshell. And since libraries are super vulnerable to scope creep as a part of their mandate (witness the need to take on some of the gaps that exist in the social safety net), this is translating to high burnout rates within the field of public library work, and the pandemic definitely amplified these phenomena. Also see this article for information about the recent Urban Libraries trauma study.

…and in libraries as well as in the rest of the working world, the answer is super individual because everyone has different needs in their work and home lives. As all of us continue to process the collective trauma of living through a pandemic together, everyone is undergoing change in different ways. If nothing else, what the discussion of quiet quitting tells us is that PEOPLE ARE CLICKING ON ARTICLES ABOUT QUIET QUITTING. We know this because content creators publish what they believe we will read. So: it’s out there, this idea. Lots of people are thinking about it. If you are one of those people, there are resources to help you think through them, including Ted Talks that discuss work life balance and some books from our collection that you might find useful as you think through what this means for you. As one of the book’s titles says: “Work won’t love you back.”