Despite working with college students well beyond Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour “mastery” threshold and being a parent of three between the ages of 18-24, I (Kenman) regularly stumble while trying to span the generation gap. This divide became apparent again on a recent trip to see my older daughter. Perfectly overlapping academic calendars and Covid shutdowns made it so that the first time I would get to visit her at college (out of state) would be during the last month of her senior year. I was feeling slightly sheepish about this, so over brunch, I tried to convince myself I was a good parent by broaching the topic of her post-graduation plans. Sensing (correctly) that I was about to push an agenda, she quickly out-maneuvered me. She boldly declared that career advancement steps like building a resume and “networking” to meet people are part of toxic “hustle culture,” an ethos earlier generations adopted, but hers was now largely rejecting.
Having never encountered the term (and feeling brushed off), I was taken aback, but in the few months that have followed, “hustle culture” and its popular antidote, “quiet quitting,” have gained widespread coverage. For those (like us a short time ago) unfamiliar with these concepts, the first means overworking for the sake of extrinsic goals like money, promotions, and status. The latter usually refers to doing the bare minimum at work (the “quitting” part is not literal). Trending Tik Toks have been made to demonstrate humorously what it looks like, for example, by aimlessly moving a computer mouse to trick digital monitoring tools into passable productivity scores.
Although the two terms play well on social media, neither concept seems new. “Hustle culture” is what older generations called “Workaholism” or what a 2019 Atlantic article referred to as “Workism.”1 “Quiet quitting” is closely akin to “workplace disengagement,” a phenomenon that the Gallup organization has long been measuring and tracking. What does seem novel, however, is the boldness and extent to which younger people are avoiding doing extra at work. Gallup reports that the number of “engaged workers” under the age of 35 has declined 6 percentage points in the past 3 years, more than any other age group. While disconcerting, the popularity of these ideas may offer us a timely cultural moment to introduce (or re-affirm) an alternative way of understanding work, based upon a theological understanding of “vocation” and bolstered by contemporary research and practices.2
Scripture and a well-developed body of theological reflection indicate that both hustle culture and quiet quitting are distortions of the God-given nature and meaning of work. “Hustle culture” overvalues work and turns it into an idol. If we’re not careful, this is also something that the frequently made error of equating our paid work with our calling or vocation puts us in danger of doing. As several scholars note, our primary calling is more general—to follow Christ. Then, we have many secondary or particular “callings”—for example, as siblings, spouses, friends, parents, church and community members, and citizens.3 Scripture also commands sabbath observance to help us rightly order our loves. Practicing ‘Shabbat’ is not about achieving “work life balance,” nor is it a mere instrument to “recharge our batteries” in the service of more work. Rather, it is about living into an ethos of boundedness, so that we worship and trust God for our provision, resist becoming enslaved to the economy, and put our paid work in its rightful place.
In contrast, “quiet quitting” undervalues work. In its worst light, it seems to ride on the assumption that work is something to be avoided, or at least not taken seriously. Yet, work was designed to be good. It was ordained before the fall; not handed down as a punishment. In Genesis, one of the first images we see is God at work. Work is also portrayed as a means of worship, service to our neighbors, and the formation of our souls. The Apostle Paul implored the early church in Colossae to do all work for the glory of God: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” Col 3:23–4 (NIV).
Furthermore, quitting quietly can be selfish in its failure to acknowledge that one’s abandoned duties are left for someone else, perhaps our literal neighbor at the next seat, desk, or office. Even when the intent is self-preservation in the face of an unhealthy “hustle culture,” quiet quitting does little to address the root issues or redeem what is broken about one’s work but instead shifts the burden to others.
How might we point students toward a more redemptive way? One place to start is with steps toward renewed minds. In a class I (Kenman) teach, students are asked to share stories about the worst job they have had and to try to identify why these positions were so terrible. Their stories often confirm what research has found: bad jobs (even if well-paid), typically lack meaning because they offer little connection to making a positive difference in the world. I will then ask the class to consider if a change in perspective might help. Most are rightfully skeptical, so I will proceed to show them a short film about Marcus Daly, a local craftsperson who builds wooden (less expensive and more sustainable than metal) caskets by hand.4 Daly spends 25 hours crafting a single coffin. He says, “most of what I do is that I sand, and I sand, and I sand.” While someone doing the exact same work could understandably see it as meaningless monotony, Daly has a sense that his work is an act of “love made visible.” When he practices the Benedictine tradition of ‘Ora et labora’ (pray and work), he feels a state of love and “becoming a part of a bigger picture that I don’t fully understand.” He adds, “people tend to the think that the grave is a destination . . . that the grave is the end. I’m trying to illuminate that it’s a doorway.” Although the message fails to get traction with some members of the class, one clearly moved student shot up a hand to say, “that’s powerful . . . if someone doing that for a living can see his work as meaningful and purposeful, there’s hope for the rest of us.” Precisely!
To be sure, a simple change in attitude is far from sufficient to overcome poorly designed work. Many people remain trapped in “jobs” in which they exercise little agency, human capabilities, or individual giftings. Sin has marred work itself so that it is indeed more arduous and damaging to our bodies and souls, and it has infiltrated our systems of work so that some employment situations are dehumanizing and degrading. In fact, researchers at Gallup don’t attribute the recent (2021) decline in workplace engagement to bad attitudes on the part of workers, but to “[a lack of] clarity of expectations, opportunities to learn and grow, feeling cared about, and a connection to the organization’s mission or purpose — signaling a growing disconnect between employees and their employers.”5
Similarly, we’ve heard students say that it’s hard to blame quiet quitters when they’re only assigned a few hours of mindless tasks but expected to remain engaged for a full shift, when they’re experiencing burnout due to unrealistic work demands, or when they’re under the dehumanizing effects of electronic monitoring of their productivity. Indeed, employers also have duties to create contexts in which work can be experienced and expressed vocationally, within appropriate boundaries. Perhaps one takeaway from the quiet quitting trend is the extent to which employers have failed to live up to this duty. Thankfully, there are exemplars that can stir the moral imaginations of students. Dayspring Partners is a San Francisco based technology consultancy that honors Sabbath by requiring employees to work a maximum of 40 hours per week (highly unusual in its industry). Company leaders make decisions based upon the assumption that staff are not available during off hours. For a consulting firm, this means not over-promising delivery dates to clients and/or even turning down work.
There is also a growing body of work on topics like job design and job crafting6 that may allow employees—even low-paid ones in retail establishments—to have more meaningful and sustainable work (and benefit their employers at the same time). As Zeynep Ton, MIT professor and founder of the Good Jobs Institute, writes: “Conventional wisdom holds that bad jobs are the unavoidable price of low-cost service. They are not — and some companies are realizing that the way they run their operations, including treating their employees as replaceable commodities, is not sustainable.”7
We can expose students to these ideas through organizations who do this well and by engaging students in the task of job design themselves. For example, I (Annie) have shown a short film in class about JANCOA, a janitorial service company that reduced turnover to one-quarter the industry average by implementing thoughtful programs aimed at helping employees achieve their own dreams, whether that be home ownership or employment in another industry.8 For a more hands-on approach, I have had students design a “better” call center job. To start, we discuss why call center jobs tend to have low engagement and high turnover. Students then work together to brainstorm ways to make the job more satisfying and motivating, drawing on principles of job design (e.g., Hackman and Oldham’s job characteristics model9). These kinds of efforts are worth exposing students to so they can advocate for themselves and influence good management practices when they are in positions to do so.
Upon further reflection, the generation gap may not be so wide after all. As it turns out, “quiet quitting” is also used to mean not over-identifying with one’s paid labor as earlier generations were so prone to do. Thus, it may be that some younger folks actually have healthier and more theologically aligned approaches to work than many of us have had at similar stages in our lives. Nonetheless, current concerns about work and its place in our lives gives us a Kairos moment “to cast light” from ancient wisdom (vocational theology) and emerging research and practice on age-old distortions that have arrived under new names.
- Derek Thompson, Workism is Making Americans Miserable. Atlantic. February 24, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/religion-workism-making-americans-miserable/583441/
- Jim Harter, “Is Quiet Quitting Real?” Gallup Workplace. September 6, 2022.
- See Lee Hardy. The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work. Eerdmans 1990 and Doug Koskela, Calling & Clarity: Discovering What God Wants for Your Life. Eerdmans, 2015.
- Visual Contact. “The Coffin Maker,” 2019 https://vimeo.com/65019294.
- Jim Harter, “Is Quiet Quitting Real?” Gallup Workplace. September 6, 2022. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/398306/quiet-quitting-real.aspx
- For example, see Amy Wrzesniewski, Justin M. Berg, and Jane E. Dutton, “Managing Yourself: Turn the Job You Have into the Job You Want.” Harvard Business Review (2010). https://hbr.org/2010/06/managing-yourself-turn-the-job-you-have-into-the-job-you-want; Bryan J. Dik & Ryan D. Duffy. “Strategies for discerning and living a calling.” In P. Hartung, M. Savickas, & B. Walsh (Eds.), APA Handbook of Career Interventions. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2015): 305–317. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/14439-023; A.M. Grant & S.K. Parker. “Redesigning work design theories: The rise of relational and proactive perspectives.” The Academy of Management Annals, 3 (2009): 317-375; Greg R. Oldham & Yitzhak Fried. “Job design research and theory: Past, present and future.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 136 (2016): 20-35.
- Zeynep Ton, “The Case for Good Jobs.” Harvard Business Review (2017). https://hbr.org/2017/11/the-case-for-good-jobs
- Faith & Co., “You Have a People Problem.” https://faithandco.spu.edu/film-detail/you-have-a-people-problem/
- R. Hackman and G. Oldham, Work Redesign (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1980).