Quiet Quitting Is A Stupid New Name For An Old Fight
11:20 AM EST on January 13, 2023
If there’s a hell, it was made for souls like Henry Clay Frick, a man who spent his time on Earth ensuring life would be more miserable for the people who worked for him. Unfortunately for those who may delight in that thought, Frick is a hard enough man to take whatever hell might throw at him, as his would-be assassin Alexander Berkman described in his book Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. Frick survived multiple gunshots and stab wounds, all delivered by Berkman, all because Berkman was in love with the anarchist Emma Goldman and Goldman was none too pleased that Frick ordered a bunch of Pinkertons to bust up striking Pennsylvania steel workers in the Homestead Strike of 1892. “Homestead. Strikers shot. Pinkertons have killed women and children,” Berkman quoted Goldman (called "The Girl" in the book) in his recollection of the event.
The Homestead Strike was a battle in an ongoing war with international stakes. When it wasn’t the steelworkers it was the dockworkers, or the trade unionists, or the miners. And they all were saying the same thing: Now that you industrialists have all your wealth, we’d like to work a few less hours per day. This was met with fierce resistance by the Carnegies and Fricks of the world, who unleashed militias and Pinkertons to crack skulls and open fire and intimidate the workers back into the factories. But Hard Men also bleed, as Frick learned that day in 1892, and eventually laborers up and down Appalachia drew enough blood that the 40-hour, five-day work week became the ideal if not yet the standard.
The rich never stopped trying to exploit, but the standard for the ratio of exploitation was at least set: Eight hours for you, eight hours for me, and eight hours for the Sandman. Left to their own devices throughout history, big groups of people usually come to the same conclusion: It would be nice to work a little less and use that time to explore pursuits that make a life worth living. Not everyone wants to do Walden and disappear into the woods to leave the horrid modern world behind. Most people just want a few hours to have some fun and relax after the hard work of building and maintaining a society.
This was common sense as recently as a decade and a half ago, but the human urge for profit is never content to leave well enough alone. What if we could further partition the day, such that leisure and work time were interlaced, or even fully blended, so that the modern working person could have even more flexibility? That was the promise of the monolith that arrived in 2007, a black rectangle like that in 2001: A Space Odyssey, except now the apes pawing at it had email jobs. It didn’t take long after Steve Jobs announced the iPhone for the vision to coalesce: Finally, we had the constantly connected hub that could unlock the potential of the internet and usher in a new era of productivity. By 2014, more than two-thirds of white collar workers—now called “knowledge workers” because Americans have a tradition of inventing new jargon to throw people off the scent of an old scam—had an iPhone or other smartphone. And as any white collar knowledge worker will tell you, that was also around the time that constant access became something of an implicit expectation, albeit sold as a wondrous benefit of our modern technocracy. No longer were workers shackled by time zones or the social pressure of being with one’s family. Instead of answering emails at 9 a.m. the next morning when work was scheduled to start, workers could now take care of it the night before for the boss who just texted asking if they’d happened to check their email and saw there was something time-sensitive in the inbox, if not no big deal, personal and family time come first, of course … but maybe they could get to it before bed if they got a few minutes?
The implication is the same as it was 130-odd years ago in Homestead: You work when we say you work. You get paid what we pay you. And if you don’t like it, we shut the money off and you starve, or we take your healthcare away, or blackball you from your chosen profession. American society has advanced enough that its citizens no longer tolerate private mercenaries shooting at strikers, at least, but given the mass movements to organize across industries that had previously never seen unionization efforts, I believe it’s safe to say the average American worker is still in the same fight they’ve always been in.
Kwame Ture, born Stokely Carmichael, once remarked that the goal of colonial capitalism is to confuse first; to distract people from the realization that their way of life is under attack, until it’s too late. I was reminded of his words as I read yet another magazine article on the “Quiet Quitting” phenomenon—a hoax perpetrated by the managerial class that says workers are rebelling against the demands of their job by finding hobbies or otherwise doing things that give their life meaning. Far be it from me to question the judgment of our nation’s magazine editors, but I, as someone who’s worked in the market research industry for more than 12 years, was perplexed. I remember writing my first survey about whether people were worried about technology encroaching on their social life in 2011 or 2012 at the latest. It was the late ‘90s when “affluenza” became a popular term. Questions about the psychological impact of our drive for more more more existed before Steve Jobs took the stage in his stupid turtleneck, but his tool itself enabled a new era of on-demand consumerism that further poisoned the well.
Exacerbated by a pandemic, a 2022 Harvard Business Review study found that this era of connectivity resulted in a 28 percent increase in “after-hours work.” Combine those findings with those from a Pew study that found parents consider their paid work less rewarding than cleaning the fucking house, and the picture starts to get a little bit clearer. The workplaces may be more accommodating and the “knowledge work” more interesting, but a job is still a job.
It’s inaccurate to describe “Quiet Quitting” as a new phenomenon, or even a proactive one. The American workplace had undergone a sea change long before the pandemic, making this more of a correction. Our current techno-future is a relative blip on the timeline of post-Industrial labor, and the professional class is waking up to how they’ve been scammed, too, how wages haven’t kept up with inflation or with productivity. So comes the reaction: If we’re not getting more, we’re not giving more. That’s all “Quiet Quitting” is.
This fact is so plain that it was fully expected. In 2008, the Pew Research Center conducted a study on the future of the internet, asking a panel of hundreds of experts (futurists, academics, communication specialists, etc.) to react to multiple scenarios and give their opinions on the positives and negatives of each. Scenario 8 was jarringly prescient:
PREDICTION: Few lines divide professional time from personal time, and that’s OK. In 2020, well-connected knowledge workers in more-developed nations have willingly eliminated the industrial-age boundaries between work hours and personal time. Outside of formally scheduled activities, work and play are seamlessly integrated in most of these workers’ lives. This is a net-positive for people. They blend personal/professional duties wherever they happen to be when they are called upon to perform them—from their homes, the gym, the mall, a library, and possibly even their company’s communal meeting space, which may exist in a new virtual-reality format.
Before the conspiratorially minded run wild with the fact that this was predicted to occur in 2020 by a major thinktank, I would like to remind readers that these surveys are usually written by guys like me who pick a nice round number before heading home for the day. Hence, it’s less instructive to focus on the eeriness of how much this prediction maps to reality, and perhaps more helpful to recognize why this trajectory was so predictable. It doesn’t take a conspiracy for a panel of 500 experts and 500 average people to agree that the future of the internet would likely involve an attempt to expand corporate influence on American lives. All it takes is a general understanding of history and awareness of the culture you were born into (which is probably why the 500 non-experts came to the same conclusions as the experts did).
From the study’s summary:
When people are always on the grid, these experts believe it will cause stress and the disintegration of family and social life. It also might include oppressive surveillance by bosses and government. Other observations by these respondents: People will rebel against corporate control of their lives. Workers and institutions will have to draw boundaries.
It’s in the boundary-drawing where we find “Quiet Quitting,” right next to every other attempt to shame people for daring to find value in anything aside from productivity. It’s a reclamation, not a revolution.
But it’s no less important or radical for that. It’s another vital battleground in the long war with those who think their bank accounts are more valuable than your time. And it’s still crucial to heed Kwame Ture’s warning against getting distracted or confused, and to remember what you’re fighting for, and against. Remnants of the Homestead Steel Works are still standing in Southwestern Pennsylvania, including the smokestacks and the pumphouse where Pinkertons first landed. You can stop by and see the monuments anytime you like at The Waterfront outdoor shopping mall, built over the former steel plant in 1999. The Fuddruckers closed a bunch of years back but there’s still a Dave & Buster’s.