When I first heard the term “quiet quitting,” I assumed it meant people quietly ghosting their jobs in a tight labor market.

Then I learned it meant people doing what was required of them at work but not putting in extra unpaid hours. This was supposedly tantamount to quitting. Once I rolled my eyes back into my head I had to laugh.

What a metaphor for our divided times.

Today is Labor Day, 2022. We are in our third year of a pandemic that has changed nearly every aspect of our lives, especially our work lives. Front-line blue-collar, service and health care workers have soldiered on, facing uncertainty, illness and even death from an ever-mutating virus, even as safety measures to protect them have largely fizzled away.

Workers learned that their safety, hours, wages and employment (and consequently their survival) could not be trusted solely to the benevolence of their employers. They also learned that when faced with a choice between worker safety and economic gain, worker safety would almost always be sacrificed

It’s not a huge surprise, then, after decades of decline, that the labor movement is seeing a resurgence. Today, 71% of people in the U.S. approve of labor unions, according to an August Gallup survey, the highest level since 1965.

While just 10% of U.S. workers are in a union today (compared with 20% in 1985), the number of union representation petitions increased 57% in the first half of 2022.

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In Washington, unionization efforts are at their highest level in over 10 years, with Starbucks workers in our state and nationwide filing the highest number of representation cases with the National Labor Relations Board this year.

Why is union organizing at a modern peak in WA? Starbucks workers

Even Amazon workers have successfully organized, with leadership of their efforts coming from workers themselves. Former Amazon warehouse worker, Chris Smalls — described by an Amazon lawyer derisively as “not smart, or articulate” — was fired after leading a walkout to protest working conditions before ultimately winning the first Amazon union this year.

In addition to pandemic safety concerns, inflation, stagnant wages and a lack of social safety nets like paid parental leave are hitting U.S. workers at the same time corporate profits “soared,” belying the myth that we are all in this together. As Steven Greenhouse reported in The Washington Post on Friday, since 1973, “after-inflation wages have remained essentially flat for the typical American worker.”

The new pro-labor sentiment was not entirely a result of the pandemic; these shifts have been in motion as new generations have come into their own. The hand-wringing and pearl-clutching over “quiet quitting” reflects the disconnect between younger workers who are increasingly questioning the natural order of our society’s nearly religious belief in hustle culture and older generations who lament “people just don’t want to work anymore.”

Like many Gen X-ers, I grew up believing that going above and beyond was a virtue that would be rewarded with advancement and greater job security. Burnout and overwork were just collateral damage to what would ultimately be a smart trade-off. 

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But no matter how much or how well we work, we know there is no such thing as a perfect meritocracy in a country built on inequality and stolen labor. The playing field has always been far from equal. Are women overall doing 25% less work and that’s why we are paid 25% less? No. Are Black women earning 64 cents to every dollar a white man earns because they are doing less? Of course not.

And to be clear, women, for example, not only do more of the unpaid labor at home, but are often tapped to do the most invisible labor at work and would likely pay the highest price for no longer doing so.

What younger generations are teaching us and what “quiet quitting” is trying to convey, is that despite the wagging fingers of Arianna Huffington or Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary, work is labor and should be compensated with pay, not just the future possibility of advancement. 

Ed Zitron, the head of PR agency EZPR, wrote about the quiet quitting discourse in a Business Insider piece titled “ ‘Quiet quitting’ is nothing but pro-boss propaganda.” 

He wrote, “Work is an exchange of money for labor, and if you want more labor from your workers, you should be prepared to pay for it instead of making up meaningless faux pathologies to frame hardworking people as slackers.”

Or, as Twitter and TikTok users have called it: “Acting your wage.”