As many have written over the past few weeks, “quiet quitting” has to be the most inane concept of 2022. So you’re going to show your employer you’re checked out by working just 40 so-so hours a week? OK, maverick, but you’ve got nothing on “King-Size Homer,” what many consider the best Simpsons episode of all time (if not for the fat-shaming).
In this 1995 gem, Homer’s reaction to the nuclear power plant’s new exercise program is to pork up to over 300 pounds so he can claim a disability and work at home. He hits his mark and gets a workstation in the living room. All he has to do is press Y on the keyboard all day. Eventually he realizes he can set up his top-hatted “drinking bird” to keep pecking the Y so that he can go off and have fun. When he returns to find the drinking bird collapsed, his prehistoric DOS monitor flashes “Situation Critical, Explosion Imminent.” He has to rush to the plant (hard to do when you’re morbidly obese) to manually shut down the system before there’s a nuclear meltdown.
This, of course, was back when Gen X was the demographic being catered to. Twenty-five years later, their late millennial/early Gen Z counterparts believed that work was a lifestyle, with fluid hours that never seemed to end. They went into offices with all of their devices lined up in front of them, headphones on, pressing Enter on Slack like it was the Jeopardy! button. It took COVID and its economic fallout to shake the fruit from the trees.
Now that employers are desperate to fill open jobs, younger workers are said to be easing up on the work fanaticism. What’s odd, however, is that digital media, which is now almost entirely in the hands of millennials, has taken behavior that’s probably 100% reactive and presented it as proactive. Somebody made up “quiet quitting” just like somebody made up “conscious decoupling,” and the digital multiverse went nuts.
What this pseudo-empowerment labeling obscures, however, is the likelihood that a lot of these quiet-quitters have spent years going over and above in what the late David Graeber called “bullshit jobs.” As defined in his 2018 book of the same name, “a bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”
Graeber admitted that the kinds of jobs that fit his classification are mostly white collar and relatively “elite,” where the worker is savvy enough to be aware of the charade. It seems like the global workers who responded to his survey were Gen X or at least older millennials, not the youngsters whose availability status is always on.
The label “quiet quitting” allows these younger workers to do what the Mar-a-Lago special master called out Team Trump for attempting: have your cake and eat it too. They can continue to make fun of Gen X for deploring the deadliness of bullshit jobs while working in a job they know to be bullshit.
If you had a bullshit job, why wouldn’t you recognize the fact? Why would it take something to trend on Instagram and Twitter for it to enter your consciousness? Isn’t the decision to be a slacker if your employment permits it a decision you could make without external input? I suppose work is different for generations that grew up dependent on their parents and Big Tech. They need to be contained within something where they feel heard and validated (a family, a platform, a corporate environment that savagely exploits your dependence).
Graeber’s book doesn’t have an answer for why up to half of white-collar jobs (especially those in the satellites of marketing, consulting, lobbyists, and corporate lawyers) qualify as bullshit. He can only present the evidence that we live in a “bullshit society.”
This is something that the writers for The Simpsons, whatever their age, understand. They predicted a Trump presidency way back in 2000, and, five years before, that we’d all want to work at home. Of course we no longer have to weigh over 300 pounds to press Y in our living room. But for society at large, it’s still “Situation Critical, Explosion Imminent.” §