How catchy workplace phrases conned us all

New trends like “quiet quitting” and the “Great Resignation” mask real workplace issues

November 21, 2022
Photo: Sarah Ahrens / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Sarah Ahrens / Alamy Stock Photo

Are you quiet quitting? Or were you part of the “Great Resignation” last year? No? Maybe your boss is exhibiting “productivity paranoia”? 

New work catchphrases have poured in since the start of the pandemic, as the UK media rushed to report on significant shifts within the workplace. But some of these reported trends—such as a rise in older people taking on work to cope with the cost-of-living crisis ie “the Great Unretirement”—have been made by the media to sound far cuter than the bleak reality they reflect.

This pithy labelling of new work patterns is often done without extensive interrogation into the data or reasoning behind them. And it can be dangerous to suggest huge shifts are happening every few months when it comes to the world of work.

The “Great Resignation” is a US term first coined in 2021, which referred to the unprecedented rise in the number of workers quitting their jobs following the pandemic. By early 2022, the “Great Resignation” was taken as a given within the UK, but the data to support this event wasn’t there. 

In the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported throughout 2021 that an average of nearly four million people left their jobs each month—over half a million more than 2019’s monthly averages. But when the media reported a parallel exodus in this country, articles tended to cite data from company PR surveys of 2,000 people or less, or the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey. Although did show a rise is resignations, but there was “no indication they had surpassed previous norms”, “let alone reached dizzying new heights”, economics professor Jonathan Wadsworth wrote earlier this year. 

Carlos Carrillo-Tudela, professor of economics at Essex University, has also debunked the UK Great Resignation theory. The idea that UK workers have been pushing back on company resistance to working from home or increased hours over the pandemic by quitting for new professions in huge numbers is simply not true, he says.

“At least in the UK Labour Force Survey, a great majority of the resignations were to a job within the same occupation,” he tells me. “So that suggests that it is not really people looking for jobs that require different tasks or ways of working.” It is more likely, he says, that workers were trying to increase their earnings by moving to a competitor, without any need to retrain. 

Carrillo-Tudela feels people are often too quick to extrapolate their experiences of those they’ve heard through the grapevine and present them as a trend. Although the experiences reported on may contribute to some of the numbers, he says, “it doesn't mean that that is what is driving the aggregate patterns.” 

Quiet quitting also emerged this year—a term to describe an alleged rise in people pushing back on increased hours and expectation creeping into their job, by doing the bare minimum or less. At first articles celebrated this office revolution, and soon after, criticism flooded in condemning our productivity-obsessed culture for suggesting simply doing our job was in any way subversive. 

Regardless of the criticism around “quiet quitting”, the reporting around the term is an issue. Outlets credit US TikToker @zaidleppelin for making the term go viral, but the video had roughly 800,000 views when “quiet quitting” was first reported on, fewer than the normal requirement to be “viral” on TikTok. Now, after the term has been written about extensively, that same video has more than four million views. 

With a lack of substantial real-life data to support quiet quitting, online views for videos are used as support for the fact the premise is popular. If “quiet quitting” was made famous because of media articles, is it really the widespread phenomenon it’s been made out to be? 

The reality is workplace empowerment is further away than ever before. The Work Foundation’s Insecure Work Index found that women, disabled people, ethnic minorities and young workers have been consistently trapped in insecure employment over the last 20 years. Reporting non-existent work trends can lead people to wrongly assume workers have more power and choice than ever before.

TikTok is known for accelerating trends, with every micro-experience labelled and replaced in record-time by users. Every “fashion moment” or identity trend is rendered useless or passé within days, and exacerbated by the media lifting popular concepts from the app without deep interrogation.

Research has shown that the news media—particularly online journalism—is an event driven process, but is “poor at analysing those events”, says Martin Conboy, emeritus professor of journalism history at Sheffield University. Snappy headline phrasing is essential to getting clicks on the internet, he says, which encourages a priority of “informing the world on events, rather than analysis”. Journalists tend to be particularly poor at analysing data, he adds, so some articles can be based entirely on PR-generated statistics.

Overemphasising the importance of meaningless trends can mean that the real workplace issues, such as zero-hour contracts, unsafe staffing levels, and poor pay are missed. Carrillo-Tudela explains: “We need to be more careful and appreciate the idiosyncrasies of our labour market heterogeneity, particularly if we want to make policy decisions and target them in the right way.”

The experiences of workers are being flattened. According to some news outlets, we’re all empowered and enjoying either working more or working less. Meanwhile, real workplace realities are being drowned out.