Act Your Wage: Why More People Are Embracing ‘Quiet Quitting’

At a time when workplace burnout is on the rise like never before, might a simpler, more practical, do-only-what-you-are-paid-to-do mindset of approaching work be the answer?
quiet quitting at work
Photo: Getty Images

For Umar Para – a 22-year-old photographer from the Indian union territory of Kashmir, the world’s most militarised zone – New Delhi, the national capital, was always the land of equal opportunity when he moved to the city seeking employment, last year. At least that’s what he was led to believe through the numerous shows and movies about the promise of the Great Indian Dream he’d grown up watching. Against the harsh socio-political landscape of Kashmir, the sprawling metropolis gave him hope that he could finally work, follow his passion for photography and make money from it, without the fear of the air being punctuated by gunshots and curfew sirens. 


This was last year when “quiet quitting” wasn’t as popular a concept as it is now. While the term was likely coined in 2009 by an economist, there are similarities to the Chinese lifestyle and passive-resistance movement Tang Ping, which loosely translates to “lying flat” that gained ground, around May of last year. Tang Ping rejects the culture of overwork, and harsh working conditions, including the 996 work culture (a work schedule adopted by certain companies in China that have employees work from 9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week), and takes a stand against a fiercely competitive job market. 

Quiet quitting or quitting the idea of going above and beyond at work is a concept that is gaining traction. In July, TikToker @zkchillin (now @zaidleppelin) made a video on quiet quitting, explaining that it simply meant quitting the idea of going above and beyond what you are getting paid for and not deriving your self-worth from your job. The video soon went viral and has already racked up more than 4 million views and nearly 500,000 likes. 

Quiet quitting is a philosophy that champions prioritising an individual’s well-being and mental health by doing exactly what one is paid to do – nothing more, nothing less – to avoid job burnout. This means, no working weekends unless you’re being compensated to do so; no working overtime; no overpromising on projects and deadlines; and definitely not taking on extra responsibilities. It means that instead of burning out or actually quitting out of frustration, you establish clear boundaries between your work life and your beyond-work life. However, there might be work cultures where even what you are paid to do might be inherently toxic with unrealistic demands, as was the case with Para who realised that he was being ripped off for barely any money. If he had understood his boundaries earlier and demarcated them with his employer, perhaps he wouldn’t have been overworked to the bone. 


“In my first job as a photographer, I was made to work three to four nights straight for almost 13 hours at a stretch, shooting those endless weddings,” he said. “My official title in the job was ‘candid photographer,’ which meant whatever the employer wanted it to mean. [I was] expected to shoot random skies as well as gruelling weddings for the same pay.”

Para was paid Rs 25,000 ($315), per month, which involved, on average, at least 12 gruelling shoots. The realisation that his employer was working him to the bone and paying him a pittance, dawned on him only much later when he saw the physical toll the job had taken on him – he’d lost more than 20 kgs in just two months. 

“When I quit the job after a year, I found that it was a classic case of exploiting your workforce,” he said. “As a freelancer, I was earning Rs 10,000 ($125) for a single day of a wedding shoot, as opposed to Rs 25,000 for the whole month. That was the level of exploitation and overwork.”

One can easily contrast quiet quitting with hustle culture – both seem to be markers of the Gen-Z workforce. The idea that you must unrelentingly love your job to the point where “minor quibbles” such as low pay, erratic bosses, and non-compensatory overtime shouldn’t bother one has defined toxic workplaces for a while now. It’s no coincidence that “Rise and Grind” is both the theme of a Nike ad campaign and the title of a book by a Shark Tank shark. In 2018, LinkedIn was even testing its own version of Instagram stories, thus raising fears that personal and professional identities would now be inextricably fused. Recently, the CEO of a shaving startup said that freshers must not cry hoarse and be willing to work for 18 hours a day. In a now-deleted LinkedIn post, another CEO was under fire for his toxic interviewing techniques that included calling his potential employers late in the night to check if they can indeed work late hours, calling them early in the morning to check if they are early risers, and asking outstation candidates to show up in the office the next day to test their “hustle.” 


Psychologist Jasleen Kaur Sachdev told VICE that the idea of overwork has a lot to do with certain narratives we are fed when growing up – how we have to be the hardest working person in the room if we are to ever achieve a modicum of success. This is the same rationale that goes into students stressing themselves with gruelling internships and participating in extracurricular activities that don’t interest them, during the summer holidays that are meant for leisure. 

“There is also the idea that hard work is rewarded with more work, so quiet quitting must be understood in a larger context,” she added. “If our entire identity is based on just work, we will never even realise that we are severely overworked. We need to have better role models and find joy in avenues outside of work.”

She explained that knowing when the time is right to embrace quiet quitting is by asking ourselves if we even have the time to cultivate hobbies and interests outside of work. Or are we just going home from work every day, with no energy to even change our clothes, often falling asleep in the dystopian glare of our mobile screens?

“In such cases, you must reevaluate your days, your boundaries, and slowly disengage from the aspects of your work beyond your pay scale,” she said. “You need to have that conversation with your boss about boundaries. If you have a crushing fear of even having that conversation in the first place, the job was never worth it.”


In the case of Pankaj, a 24-year-old fashion designer who preferred to be anonymous fearing legal repercussions from his current employer, whenever he tried having a conversation about demarcating boundaries with his employer, he was always met with the same refrain. 

“She tells me that as a fresher, it’s important for me to take on multiple responsibilities beyond my pay scale because that’s how I’ll learn,” he said. “I’m a designer, but I’m made to work on practically everything non-creative from merchandising to shooting models for e-commerce images. I have zero bandwidth to do the very job I was hired for.” 

Ironically, whenever Pankaj has broached the topic of higher pay, he’s been told that he is a “creative person” and must leave the “logistical end of things” to HR and the administrative wing of the company, who are more qualified than he is in these matters. He works six days a week, for at least nine to 10 hours a day, and is often expected to log in once or twice a month on Sundays as well, when a special shoot is planned. 

Lizanne Dsouza, who runs an HR and recruitment agency, emphasised the need to be clear about the job description before signing a contract. This, she said, helps us make a stronger case when having that discussion with employers on demarcating boundaries. 

She noted that it’s also important for businesses to understand that there has been a sea change in the motivations to get a job in the first place. 

“Our parents worked in the same company for almost 20 to 30 odd years, sometimes even starting and retiring in the same job. They did so because they wanted to build a certain life for themselves and have job security,” she said. “However, the present generation doesn’t want that because they can easily upskill for free. Their motivations to get a job are not the same as their parents’ – they want to work to gain respect, for a better quality of life, and they will not compromise.”

The way she sees it, until businesses don’t realise that they need to hire more people and treat them with empathy and respect, it will be their loss. 

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