In Working, Studs Terkel’s landmark account of work and the Americans who perform it, Heather Lamb complained about her job as a telephone operator. “You have a number — mine’s 407,” she said. “They put your number on your tickets, so if you make a mistake they’ll know who did it. You’re just an instrument. You’re there to dial a number. It would be just as good for them to punch out a number.” She was only 18, but she’d already learned something profound about work. To a boss, a worker is but an instrument. Punch out the right number, or don’t; it doesn’t matter to the powers overhead. One tool is easily replaced with another.
Telephone operators are practically no more, but work itself has changed little in the five decades since Terkel spoke to Lamb. Work can be dangerous, as the arrival of COVID-19 cast in sharp relief. Work can be what the late David Graeber called a “bullshit job,” lacking purpose. Work can bore and infuriate, but mostly, it alienates. “Barely getting by, it’s all taking and no giving,” as Dolly Parton once put it. Years later, she corrupted her own anthem. “’Cause it’s hustlin’ time, a whole new way to make a livin’,” she sang in a 2021 Super Bowl ad for Squarespace. “Gonna change your life / Do something that gives it meaning / With a website that is worthy of your dreaming.” If only life could be solved so easily.
Whether the subject is hustle culture or “quiet quitting,” the new TikTok phenomenon that launched a thousand editorials, the subtext is always the same. Work is a problem, and we dream of ways to solve it. For a while the trend was to grind harder, or to cobble a living from side gigs. The pandemic shifted perspectives. Workers don’t want to hustle. They want to reclaim their time.
Remote work is in, bringing with it a new flexibility — and endless new debates. Last year, 91 percent of the remote workers surveyed by Gallup said they hoped “their ability to work at home persists after the pandemic.” They cited the absence of a commute and improved work-life balance as their chief reasons for preferring remote work over a full-time return to the office. That freedom has enemies. Workers “can’t stay home in your pajamas all day,” said Mayor Eric Adams in February. “That’s not who we are as a city. You need to be out, cross-pollinating ideas, interacting with humans. It is crucial. We are social creatures, and we must socialize to get the energy we need as a city.” In a July editorial for The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan wrote that there “is something demoralizing about all the empty offices, something post-greatness about them.” Noonan further professed a concern for the young, who would no longer find friends — or spouses — at work. “There will be less knowledge of the workplace, of what’s going on, of the sense that you’re part of a burbling ecosystem,” she complained, as though workers belong to no ecosystem but that which a boss controls.
Writing for The Atlantic a year before Noonan’s editorial, Ed Zitron noted that remote work “lays bare many brutal inefficiencies and problems that executives don’t want to deal with because they reflect poorly on leaders and those they’ve hired.” Yet the burden of accountability typically falls on workers themselves, not on those who call themselves leaders. This is a function of weak labor laws that concentrate power in the employer, instead of redistributing it to workers. Absent a union, a worker has few options at their disposal. They can quit their job for another, hoping for better circumstances and more benevolent overlords, or they can take back their time.
Online, the latter notion is gaining in popularity. “Quiet quitting,” where a worker no longer goes above and beyond for the boss, originated on TikTok and leaked out into the media, where it has infuriated managers. It’s a bad idea, insisted Kevin O’Leary of ABC’s Shark Tank, who told CNBC that workers who “go beyond to try to solve problems for the organization, their teams, their managers, their bosses, those are the ones that succeed in life.” But workers themselves are adopting a different definition of personal success. “You’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond,” one TikTok user explained. “You’re no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life.” A so-called “quiet quitter” does not judge herself by her professional productivity; it’s never hustlin’ time for her. She does her job, and when her shift is over, she’s done. This isn’t slacking off, but something else, a recognition that a person’s worth is not to be found in the American way of work.
Debates over remote work or “quiet quitting” are distractions and tend to deal in euphemisms. The suggested problem is burnout, for example, or anything to avoid pointing the finger at work itself. Yet it would be far more honest to admit that work is the problem. There is no dignity in striving. Millions of Americans are essentially trapped in jobs that render them mere instruments. Too many are underpaid and overworked, subject to someone else’s orders for most of their waking hours. To search for meaning in the workplace feels increasingly like wasted effort. The idea that work could ever be a vocation fades quickly in the harsh light of a ruthless political economy. When we talk about work, we’re talking about capitalism, and when we talk about work in the U.S., we are talking about a particularly virulent and unrestrained version of capitalism. That system works well for investors like O’Leary or even for the average boss; it has little to offer workers but a decades-long grind.
When phrases like “quiet quitting” generate Discourse, the commentariat has a choice. It can side with capitalism — this is usually what happens — or it can ask deeper and more interesting questions about what capitalism does to workers. Meanwhile, workers are now agitating for alternatives. Some are unionizing their workplaces, taking power back for themselves. Others are simply warming to the notion of a reasonable workweek. What’s clear in both cases, though, is that workers want more than the world they’ve been given.