Why Gen X Is Quiet Quitting in Tech

By Pascal Potvin Lead Data Scientist
Jan 11, 2023 2:00 PM ET
A person looking up in a densely forested area.

Originally published by Ericsson

One thing that I haven’t seen said about quiet quitting though, is how different it can be from one job to the next. Let’s start with the Wikipedia definition of Quiet Quitting: “an application of work-to-rule, in which employees work within defined work hours and engage in work-related activities solely within those hours [...] doing precisely what the job requires”. In simple terms, it means doing your job without going the extra mile. It means doing your job only during working hours. If you’re familiar with hockey, you might know what a plumber in a team is. A plumber is basically a reliable and consistent player whose never going to be the highest scorer. So basically, a quiet quitter can be seen as the plumber of the workplace. And this approach might look like a good way to balance work and life. But in reality, is it?

Different types of jobs and different types of quiet quitting

Let’s assume for a moment I was a plumber (a real one), or any physical workers in the construction domain. Doing my job, following the state of the art in plumbing during the agreed working hours is most probably a really good way of working. In that domain there may be an occasional request to do extra work or work extra time and a quiet quitter might not want to do that. As an employer, this can be annoying, but the employer can also look for someone else to work those extra hours.

Now let me go back to my technology shoes. I’m a thought worker and this makes quiet quitting a bit fuzzier. What does it mean doing exactly what the job requires from me? Many companies have different ways of evaluating the performance of their employees in tech. Some have tried using hard numbers, for example, the number of tickets closed, the number of pull/merge requests implemented, the number of lines of code written. Every time I’ve seen such an attempt to measure output, I’ve seen it’s failed. Such efforts fail because they don’t measure a lot of other quantitative as well as qualitative measures which are in conflict or equilibrium together. I’ll always remember the anecdote I heard about a company which decided that to curb bugs in the code base, it would offer bonuses to developers to correct bugs. It wasn’t long before even the most righteous coders started including some very minor bugs they could fix in a minute to get the bonus.

Evaluating employee performance

One aspect of jobs is that they make it more difficult to evaluate employee performance in an absolute manner. But even if the job description is generally more fuzzy for an intellectual job, it’s still some kind of a guideline on what’s expected. Even if evaluating quantitatively the performance of the worker is more difficult, we are able to say whether the person works well, average or badly. So quiet quitting in that context is probably staying in that middle range, being an average worker. In general, those who don’t work well create problems, but those who work OK or above average are fine to work with. So, is Quiet Quitting a problem for tech workers?

Detaching from work

As a thought worker, it’s very hard to detach from work outside the work hours. You always somehow think at least a bit about your job. I remember multiple times being woken in the middle of the night by my brain which thought it had found the solution to a problem I had had during the day. In such situations, I can try to ignore the thought, note it down, or go straight to work on it. If you go the path of quiet quitting, you would try to ignore any work-related thoughts which take place outside working hours. Just having ideas outside of work hours and noting them, thinking about them, are these signs that you’re in fact not a quiet quitter? How easy can it be for a thought worker to shun a thought about a certain subject outside certain hours?

The more physical manifestations are easier to categorize. There’s already legislation being drafted in certain countries which create legal obligations around the right to such behaviour, so can we consider that quiet quitting simply means creating some boundaries between work and life?

I’m asking more questions than I can answer. It feels to me that the definition of quiet quitting is not so easy to apply to thought workers. It can be as difficult to observe quiet quitting in thought workers as it can be to objectively measure the performance of them. It might drill down to a feeling of engagement, of purpose with your job. If you feel that purpose, you go the extra mile and you’re not quiet quitting. If you can’t feel it, you may quiet quit as a self-protection mechanism.

In my mind, at some point in my career, I participated in quiet quitting. My personality makes me always look toward the future. I like the openness of blank sheet designs and like finding ways of making the unimaginable become possible. So, when there comes a time where I’m needed to fill a gap in-between projects, my interest levels will go down. I will still do what needs to be done, but the engagement level may lower to the point of just doing that. This is for me the definition of quiet quitting and it happened to me a number of times in the past. But then the new blank sheet comes to me, thanks to multiple fantastic managers I’ve had in my career and I’m back in the zone in no time.

Differences with regular quitting

Beyond those periods of just quiet quitting, I’ve also quit my job a number of times. The decision for straight out quitting had (for me) no link to quiet quitting. It had been for salary, expanding my knowledge in an area beyond what was possible where I was working, finding more work-life balance, new interesting challenges being proposed… but never as a consequence of quiet quitting. I have the feeling that quiet quitting and quitting are rather different. You quiet quit because you don’t hear the call anymore. You quit because you’re hearing the call but need something else your company cannot provide.

The role of gamification

Gamification consists in applying typical elements of game playing, for example. point scoring, leaderboards, rules of play, and so on, to other areas of activity. I think it might be true for physical or repetitive work. But those jobs are probably the ones that will be lost to automation eventually. If you have an exciting job, one which challenges you, it’s probably not a really repetitive thing, and you can therefore probably not set clear objectives to reach to earn points and therefore be compared to other participants in a fair way. Maybe some part of the job can be gamified, but for the most part, I don’t think it would be a wise idea. Because mostly, it’s not about exploiting the game system to get the most points, it’s about figure out what the game (the real world) is and creating something new from almost nothing. And if you start counting points, you’ll break the spirit that enables it to happen. This is a little like the bad performance evaluation practices I touched upon earlier. We need to find what is uplifting in our jobs and figure out how to make it even better in this new work from home/hybrid way of working. Companies that manage that transition well will become even more attractive for the future.

AI and quiet quitting

Finally, I would like to touch on the idea that the future of AI might be encouraging quiet quitting by sending out a message that people may lose their jobs. It might be true for some repetitive jobs as I suggested earlier. However, for the foreseeable future, I think AI is going to augment the capability of humans. We can already see this with image generating AI. The best images I’ve seen were the meticulously crafted generation quotes and manipulations on those quotes by the human, followed by a rigorous selection process through a number of generations of images. The AI in this case is augmenting the human capacity to generate highly detailed images, meaning it cannot work alone. The human is still in charge of the wanted subject, the message it conveys, the emotions it can carry. The same could be said for text generation AI. Here, it is most useful when guided by humans who really know what they’re doing and what they want to achieve, meaning it’s a powerful tool of collaboration.

In the telecom industry, the domain in which I work, we see that the complexity of the networks is exploding. I don’t think the real question is if people will lose their jobs to AI. Some will, if the work they do is repetitive and can be automated or if they can’t adapt to the new AI augmented tools, but for most, it will be a question of adapting to use AI tools to achieve more through augmentation. In that context, the right reaction is probably not quiet quitting, but learning. Learning how to use AI to augment your powers. And learning is something we usually know how to do in tech. We learn our whole life, just to stay on top of the technological wave. We are not in the AI augmented era yet in the telecom domain, but I feel there are exciting times to come!

This blog is part of a series on Quiet Quitting. Check out our earlier post:

The Meaning of Quiet Quitting by Heraldo Sales-Cavalcante

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