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'Quiet quitting' is TikTok's antidote to generation burnout – but it only works for the privileged

The internet is hell-bent on ‘quiet quitting’. You’re probably familiar with the concept if you haven’t been living under a rock. The term was originally coined at a Texas A&M economics conference, and it simply breaks down to doing the bare minimum at your job, instead of going above and beyond to progress. The concept itself doesn’t sound too trivial — as it’s an obvious response to burnout — which has been heavily spearheaded by Gen-Z who have taken an arguably clever approach to work smart, not hard. In fact, it's this generation who have been at the forefront of this conversation, mostly through TikTok.

Their ultimate goal is to break cycles of toxic workflow behaviour that have followed generations – and it's no wonder. A survey from workflow management platform Asana found that 84% of Gen Z reported experiencing burnout in the last year, compared to 63% of all workers who said they've felt burned out.

This sounds all good and well, but in my eyes, this is yet another idea that will clearly only be exclusively attainable for people with an abundance of privilege, and Black women are clearly not in this matrix.

Sure, I understand quiet quitting to be sort of a trauma response for people working beyond their physical and mental limits and receiving nothing in return. Gen-Z have clearly coined themselves as the generation that just won’t take any shit. Soft life only. And frankly, I agree that we deserve it. I even tried to attempt it myself: “I cannot come and kill myself…” I thought. But then I remembered, “…oh wait, I’m a Black woman.”

To me, being less than excellent has never been an option. I noticed that from a young age, for myself, and other girls that looked like me, anything that wasn’t quantifiable, or that was mildly subjective was measured by a different standard. The statistics show that the racial gap in education is very real. A YMCA poll in 2020 found that almost half (49%) Black students believed racism was the biggest barrier to academic attainment.

I then came to learn that as I grew older, the disparity of how my work and my contribution to society was valued, would also differ widely from my white peers, especially male white peers.

“You don’t have the same privileges as them, you have to work x10 harder than everyone else.” brutally honest words from my mother — a Black woman expressing a clear-cut premonition. These are words most of my Black friends, colleagues, and family members have likely heard from their own mothers too.

Camille, 27, is an Executive Assistant for a major entertainment company, and for her, quiet quitting has never felt like an option. “Frankly, as a Black woman, I’m just too scared to subscribe to that. I also identify as a high achiever and bought into the idea that hard work would pay off, and a degree would get me far, so here I am trying to force my way to success.” she adds: “If anything, I feel like I’m not doing enough because even when I feel like I’m going above & beyond, I’m still not getting the recognition or feeling valued. Instead of ‘quiet quitting’, I’m like ‘I can do more.”

A study conducted by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company in December 2020 revealed that "Women view the workplace as fundamentally less fair and Black women face in greater challenges". For every 100 men promoted or hired into the manager level, 85 women are promoted or hired and 58 Black women are promoted or hired. A mere 35% of Black Women believe that promotions are based on a fair and objective criteria and 28% believe that the best opportunities go to the most deserving employees (white women and men of all demographies sit at 42% and 48% respectively). The numbers speak for themselves, and what this tells me is that there is no room to be average or to give the bare minimum. It’s either excellence or burst.

Although the intention of this movement is pure – and a healthy attempt to create better work-life balance for a generation of overworked workers – I think it’s misleading and damaging to encourage all to do so. Making employers accountable for aligning their remuneration in direct correlation to their employees’ contributions, is extremely important, but I would not recommend doing so in this way, at the cost of losing your job or that promotion you have worked so far and got so close to. The reality of the situation is that history has shown that depending on your level of privilege some of us will come out of it better than others.

There is a clear distinction between working hard enough to get promoted and working yourself to the bone. However, underprivileged demographics such as women or more specifically women of colour, just simply cannot afford a “yass, queen give us nothing” attitude towards work. I specifically like to refer to Black women, as they're the most targeted of the POC groups, as statistics show that only 56% of Black women feel that they have equal opportunity for growth as their peers (white women and men of all demographics sit both at 69%).

“I don’t think quiet quitting is feasible for Black women in the workplace," says Susan E. Jean, a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge School in the Department of Sociology. "What I’ve found so far in my research, on Black women at work, is that they feel that they have had to work harder than their white counterparts to gain respect or advance in their given roles.

“Black women face the contradiction of being both invisible and hypervisible at the same time. Invisible because they are not fully recognised, valued, or understood as Black women when it comes to everyday workplace norms and processes. And hypervisible because they are quickly judged by the negative stereotypes associated with being a Black woman (for example, is considered aggressive, loud, or domineering).” Based on her research Susan believes that this concept may simply just be counter-productive for Black women. “That lack of control over their own visibility means that engaging in quiet quitting would likely hinder their growth and/or longevity in their workplace.” says Susan.

This will only mean that if Black women like myself start taking the approach of quiet quitting, they will likely be left behind, and can quite easily find themselves being quiet fired. I’ll elaborate on that.

Quiet firing — what I’m coining as the method used by biased employers to subtly and covertly push out (Black) employees for not proving to work way beyond expectations every-single-day, by making the workplace feel unsafe and hostile, applying added pressure on their occasional mishaps, with little to no opportunity for progression. This in turn means that the employee will eventually leave on their own accord, yet forcefully, without the employer having to fire them.

So if quiet quitting is not an option, perhaps we should focus on mobilising groups and encouraging robust investigations on racial bias in the workplace before telling people everywhere to give 10% input if they want to live their most relaxing and softest life.

Lhani, 26, is a graduate student and although quiet quitting is not an option for her, she is working on finding the perfect balance as a Black woman growing within the workforce, and she is focused on adopting the philosophy of ‘promoting yourself’. “I wouldn't say I have subscribed to quiet quitting. However, I will say I've withdrawn hope of being promoted or recognised for my efforts. At this point in my career and life, I refuse to overwork myself for free for indefinite amounts of time. So I'm happy to remove myself from a professional situation to another that is better suited for my present and future aspirations.”

So before I encourage my peers or family members to quietly quit themselves out of a burnout, I’d like to start by loudly calling out businesses to better cater to their employees' needs, with proper remuneration, in order to maximise quantity and quality of input and their genuine overall happiness. Oppression Olympics aside, I understand that young people, everywhere regardless of demographic feel oppressed by the system. So seeking out quiet quitting is not so silly, but definitely a game only the privileged can play. The only solution here is for everyone to treat everyone fairly in order to create a better coworking society.

Humans spend an average of 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime, it would be dead nice to actually get fairly rewarded for it without having to kill yourself over it…

This article was originally published on Glamour UK.

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