By Sinchita Valalan-Rajendran
‘Quiet quitting’ has become the latest online buzzword that has set the internet ablaze. A quick Google search of the term will open a sprawling list of articles, but where did it originate?
The term started from a Tiktok video posted in early 2022 by career coach and YouTuber Brian Creely. Summarising an Insider article written by senior correspondent Aki Ito with the headline, “My Company is Not My Family”, Creely stated that employees are taking greater control over their working schedules to find a healthy balance between their careers and personal lives. While Creely’s post gained much traction online, it was a video by TikToker @zkchillin that viralised the term and succinctly described the term when he mentioned:
“You’re not outright quitting your job, but quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life – the reality is, it’s not and your worth as a person is not defined by your labour.”
The video garnered a whopping 491,000 likes and 4,500 comments on TikTok. The post has opened up an ongoing debate about the ethicality of having such an attitude within the workplace, particularly between the younger generation and the older generation.
While there seems to be much contention about the trend, it is not one that is isolated to attitudes held abroad. It can similarly be seen in Singapore, where in a survey conducted by job portal Indeed, it was found that Singaporean workers surveyed had identified quiet quitting as “saying no” to hustle culture, which advocates for the constant need to work, and view work as a priority. Notably, the survey found that among various age groups, individuals aged between 16 and 25, known as Gen Zs, are amongst the highest to ‘quiet quit’, with more than half already planning to do so.
However, since then, the trend has particularly vilified Gen Zs, who have now been pitted against the elder millennials. Much of the discussion surrounding quiet quitting has framed it as a new phenomenon, predominantly driven by Gen Zs as being lazy, entitled, and less dedicated to their work compared to their older counterparts.
While quiet quitting has demonised and chastised Gen Zs as ‘strawberry generation’ workers against older generation workers, who are more willing to prioritise their work over their personal lives, it detracts us from the core issues the trend has brought to light. This begs the question, why is the trend of quiet quitting significant within the context of Singaporean society? The answer to this perhaps lies in Karl Marx’s postulations.
“The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labour produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.”
In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx warns against the commodification of workers through the division of labour. He cautions this through the use of this very powerful paradox: as society advances and the production of goods and services within the labour market expands to meet the demands of the economy, this becomes a powerful and counterproductive force for workers themselves who are not only commodified but are also likely to face worsening working conditions.
When quiet quitting within the Singaporean workforce becomes summarily reduced to an issue of differing attitudes between the younger and older generation of workers, it becomes a gross oversimplification of the issue at hand. Such an us-versus-them perspective is a red herring, and avoids the salient, core issues the trend has brought up. Marx posits a very grim, albeit pragmatic reality, wherein no individual is indispensable to the organisation they work for. And certainly, not their labour.
It takes two hands to clap, and the nonchalance of companies towards ensuring work does not extend beyond business hours for employees or competitively remunerating staff has triggered a wave of changing attitudes. This seismic shift in how work is coming to be viewed can be accounted for by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic and previous lockdowns have also brought to light how easy it is to slip into not having boundaries within the realm of our work, particularly when working from home. Notably, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed many chronic faults within the workplace as many had to work from home due to the lockdown and regulations, and often late into the night as the boundaries between working hours and personal time became obfuscated. With the changing times, it could be argued instead that perhaps, this reality is one that the younger generation has a firmer grasp over, compared to their older counterparts.
This dramatic juxtaposition in attitudes toward being in the workplace between the younger generation and their older counterparts can be accounted for by the ‘Singaporean Dream’. When Singapore attained independence, our founding father, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, had endeavoured with his colleagues to build a Singaporean work ethic, where Singaporeans had to be productive workers, punctual, worked hard, did not slack off and took ownership of their tasks to be rewarded accordingly.
Singapore’s rapid rise to a booming economic hub and dramatic increase in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is a testament to the success of Mr Lee’s leadership. While this approach may have worked for the past five decades since Singapore’s independence, the economy has transformed significantly since then.
While times have changed, this belief in working hard, however, has not changed. As a result of the astounding success Singapore has achieved as a very young nation, many in the older generation still subscribe to this belief. After all, if it has worked for the past decades, why should we not abide by it? However, this adherence to the ‘work hard and you will be rewarded’ mentality has become a double-edged sword: it has led to a fetishisation of the Singaporean Dream – where if you work hard, it is certain that you will be rewarded.
If one does not achieve success in the employment market, it is because you are lazy. And thus, this has unfortunately led to the attitudes that the younger generation has towards work be disparaged. The younger generation, with their exposure to the Western world through the internet, have unapologetically shed beliefs of slogging themselves to the bone for their careers and possessing ‘the boss is always right’ mentality, and with arguably clearer work and personal boundaries.
It is also important to consider the climate of the workplace for employees within Singapore. In a poll of employees in 14 developed countries by data, insights, and consulting firm Kantar, it was found that 24 percent of workers in Singapore shared that they have been bullied in the workplace within the past year and this is among the highest levels in the world. Additionally, compared with those in other countries polled, 32 percent of Singaporean employees were also the most likely to be made to feel “uncomfortable”. The findings also showed that Singaporean workers were struggling to deal with pressure, with 44 percent reporting that they were affected by stress and anxiety at work, above the global average of 39 percent. The evolving expectations of companies and superiors render the employee feeling increasingly enslaved to the demands of the employer to ensure they remain employed.
While the Singaporean Dream has been successful in transforming Singapore into the vibrant business hub it is today, the list of expectations from employers within the workplace at present context is endless and constantly evolving. Framing the issue of quiet quitting as one that vilifies the younger generation of workers while their older counterparts have no qualms about the status quo has eschewed us from objectively examining our work environments and whether they are conducive to our personal growth and mental health. The harsh reality is that the Singaporean worker occupies a very precarious position within the workplace – while acceding to the requests of their employer within the workplace that exceed beyond working hours, they more often than not inevitably compromise their mental health and time with their families.
Marx warned against capitalism because it could render the worker powerless and alienated not just from their work but also from themselves. And perhaps, the practice of quiet quitting could be the mark of the worker fighting back against their impending alienation. While many have dismissed the younger generation for choosing to quiet quit, seeing it as a ‘new age’ trend by the ‘strawberry generation’, this pushback could be the markings of a revolution towards how we view work. After all, the youth of today are brilliant, are very aware of the world, having grown up with the Internet and are well-read. And most importantly, while they may not have gone through struggles of hardship similar to their older counterparts, they are hardy.
Often, the term ‘strawberry generation’ trivialises the younger generation’s awareness of issues such as toxic workplaces and mental health, as compared to their older counterparts who faced challenges such as famines or water shortages. While the younger generation is fortunate to not have to experience such crises, their difficulties should not be shrugged away.
It is important that we take a moment to examine our own boundaries and relationship with work. The practice of quiet quitting has brought up a much needed discussion about the workplace and our relationship with it. While work is something we spend a significant amount of our time on, it should not be the central aspect of our lives. Quiet quitting is a call to action for us, as individuals, to have clearer boundaries within the workplace. Our work does not define us. There is a need for a healthy balance between work and self-care. We might not have found it yet, but it is something that all generation of workers should strive towards.
1 Singapore Business Review. More than 1 in 2 Gen Z Singaporeans are ‘quiet quitting’. 2022, November 10. Retrieved from: https://sbr.com.sg/hr-education/in-focus/more-1-in-2-gen-z-singaporeans-are-quiet-quitting
2 Marx, K. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 [translated]. Progress Publishers, 1932. pp. 28-29. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Economic-Philosophic-Manuscripts-1844.pdf
3 Chua, M. H. and Chang, R. Did Mr Lee Kuan Yew create a Singapore in his own image? The Straits Times. 2015, March 24. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/did-mr-lee-kuan-yew-create-a-singapore-in-his-own-image
4 The Straits Times. Singapore is 2nd-worst globally for workplace diversity; 1 in 4 workers bullied: Poll. 2019, September 17. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/business/companies-markets/singtel-among-worlds-top-100-most-diverse-inclusive-workplaces-refinitiv
Sinchita Valalan-Rajendran is a part-time Research Assistant at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA) and a Master’s candidate in Sociology at Nanyang Technological University. Her research interests are on issues concerning family, social inequality and gender relations.
This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, January 2023, Volume 18, Issue 1.
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