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The concept of quiet quitting has captured the post-pandemic zeitgeist

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today we take our turn at quiet quitting. The term has been around for years, but only in recent weeks did it turn up in a Wall Street Journal story, which got enough clicks, apparently, to inspire more news stories suggesting that it reflects something real about people's attitudes toward work. Just to be clear, NPR's Alina Selyukh worked all out on this story.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Quiet quitting is like this year's version of the debate about the color of that viral dress. Do you remember?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: White and gold versus blue and black.

SELYUKH: Now it's like, quiet quitting, what is it? Is it bad? Is it real? Are millions of people clocking out early and dancing into the streets to find their fuller selves? Rebecca Littman is a dental assistant from Idaho.

REBECCA LAMPMAN: Quiet quitting to me is kind of a psychological shutting down.

SELYUKH: Doing your job but not living your job. Quitting the idea of going above and beyond. Striving for just enough. For example, Lampman was tasked with extra administrative work on top of her full-time job for only $1.25 more an hour.

LAMPMAN: I'm feeling like I'm checking out. I'm drawing a line and saying, you know, you might have stacked all these managerial duties on me, but I'm going to get to the end of the day, and I'm going to be done 'cause I can't - I just can't (laughter). It's too much.

SELYUKH: For years, the corporate mantra told workers to act like an owner. Now the new trendy mantra is act your wage. Like, since when is it insufficient to simply complete your tasks during your work hours, no frills? At its heart, we're in a debate about how emotionally invested people should be in their work, with quiet quitting as a Rorschach test, just like that viral dress. Do you see it as blue or gold? Do you think quiet quitting is sad because people are checked out of something they spend so many hours doing? Or do you see it like Lampman?

LAMPMAN: Overload rebellion.

SELYUKH: A rebellion against burnout. Some academics argue quiet quitting is a crisis of poor middle management, laid bare by the pandemic. To corporate execs, it's just the same old slackers but now on a social media soapbox. And yes, surveys by Gallup show that a huge chunk of American workers has always felt pretty meh about their work. But since the pandemic, specifically workers under 35 have become a lot less engaged, reconsidering what matters to them. For Angela, a teacher from Indiana, having a child became the final turning point.

ANGELA: Before, there were times where if I didn't get everything done, I would tell myself, well, this is just a night I have to do that work, or I'm just going to have to work this weekend. And now that I have my son, I just don't even tolerate that because my life is more than my profession.

SELYUKH: This puts quiet quitting in the same category as the great resignation. With a tight labor market, people feel empowered to quit, to unionize and to give a little less to their work. Julia Pollak is an economist at the job search site ZipRecruiter.

JULIA POLLAK: With layoffs and firings at a record low, people have unprecedented job security.

SELYUKH: There are about two job openings now for each job hunter. Many employers can't afford to fire people, and even if they do, so what? Lots of options out there. Plus, the pandemic showed that in a crisis, effort may not matter. Layoffs came for slackers and overachievers just the same.

POLLAK: It's kind of like the experience of being dumped. You may sort of act like you don't care as much anymore in the next relationship. And the last thing they want to be is that sucker who spent every Sunday working only to get laid off.

SELYUKH: Well, I'm no sucker, so you can read the rest of the story on npr.org.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.