Written by Katie Rosseinsky
From quiet quitting to career cushioning, work-focused buzzwords are everywhere.
Navigating the world of work in 2023 seems to require an entirely new lexicon. First came quiet quitting, the TikTok-fuelled trend that encouraged workers to fulfil only the minimum requirements of their job and nothing more, taking a stand against widespread overwork and looming burnout.
An appealing solution to an all-too-familiar office scenario summed up in a snappy, alliterative phrase, ‘quiet quitting’ caught our collective imagination; over on TikTok, the hashtag has notched up 417.6 million views to date.
It opened the floodgates for an influx of work-related vocabulary, from career cushioning (building a safety net to prepare you for recession) to rage applying (firing off CVs in a fit of pique). Things came full circle earlier this month when loud quitting (being open about looking for work elsewhere and using this as a potential negotiation tactic) made headlines. Clearly, it’s boom time for career buzzwords, but how did we get here, and can these terms go beyond the digital echo chamber to impact our work lives?
According to Jill Cotton, a career trends expert at employment platform Glassdoor, a “perfect storm” of causes has allowed career buzzwords to take on a life of their own in recent years – particularly during that panicked early pandemic period when office workers grabbed their laptops and decamped to work from home in droves.
“The pandemic upended the world of work in March 2020,” she says. “With the entire nation on lockdown, the vast majority of people’s working lives transformed, making how, when and where we were working (or not working) a hot topic of conversation.” With socialising put on hold, work became a topic of conversation we could all indulge in – especially online, where relatable career anecdotes gained currency, offering glimmers of connection “when the world around [us] faced unprecedented change”.
Since then, it feels like the office has become a cultural battleground, a site of debates between older and younger generations of employees about big topics like work-life balance and flexible working. “We can’t simply go back to how things were before the pandemic,” says Mo Kanjilal, co-founder of diversity and inclusion consultancy Watch This Sp_ce. “Employers had to adapt overnight, and those who didn’t are the ones now struggling to recruit or experiencing The Great Resignation,” he says, referring to the trend that saw swathes of workers quit their jobs post-pandemic.
It’s hardly a surprise that we’re reaching to coin new words that encapsulate these flashpoints or that we’re finding new ways to describe and let out our angst during a historic economic crisis (which, according to 2022 research from the Living Wage Foundation, is already disproportionately impacting women and their mental health, with 50% of low paid women reporting that their levels of pay negatively affected their levels of anxiety).
Deloitte’s most recent Gen Z and millennial survey discovered that the cost of living was the leading concern for its 21–39-year-old participants, while Glassdoor has found that employee discussion around the same topic has jumped by 297% in the last 12 months (mentions of ‘recession’ have also soared by 804%). The Great Resignation has slowed down too, thanks to concerns about job security: Totaljobs’ recent survey of over 2,000 UK workers found that 31% of workers plan on finding a new job in 2023, compared to 89% two years ago.
“Rafts of workers are finding that their wages aren’t keeping pace with living costs and are more burnt out than ever before,” says Molly Johnson-Jones, co-founder and CEO of Flexa Careers.
“But faced with job insecurity and wider market uncertainty, many also feel unable to quit.” Feeling trapped, she adds, they are turning to work trends to vent their frustrations and find connection.Personal branding photographer Alexis, 34, explains: “It’s certainly helpful when you realise the feelings you have about your career situation aren’t because something is wrong with you, and there’s comfort and potential support in finding others who relate to it.”
Of course, some of these phrases sum up situations that go way back: when I try to explain quiet quitting to a friend who (wisely) spends far less time scrolling the internet than I do, she astutely points out that “action short of a strike has been around for years… I guess this is just individuals doing it themselves” (which, of course, calls the long-term impact into question).
In many cases, these buzzwords really are just “catchy new ways of describing established work trends and practices”, as Cotton puts it. Jenny Holliday, a business coach, adds: “When I was working in a staff role as a writer on a magazine, the buzzword was ‘coasting’ – you were turning up and doing enough, but it was a stop-gap role or you knew you were on your way to something else.”
Still, Holliday’s coaching work has taught her that when people can put a name to something they’re feeling, they can address it and move forward. “So, if someone knows they are quiet quitting, they can make choices as to where to go next, whether to carry on or take action.” She adds that she’s a fan of anything that encourages more open conversations about our mental health and work.
Isobel, a 28-year-old PR, agrees that they’re helpful for putting a name to broader trends, like the impact of burnout and pandemic working, but for her, chatter about trends “100% act[s] as a distraction to providing solutions or addressing important issues such as parental leave, childcare costs and the gender pay gap”. Her comments get to the heart of why these terms have proved so polarising. For some women, they are a way of papering over bigger issues – in some cases, gaping flaws – in the workplace. “All the buzzwords do is hide the uncomfortableness around these complicated issues which need to be faced,” Kanjilal agrees.
But for Jo, a writer from London who’s currently based in Amsterdam, the buzzwords themselves can act as a way into those difficult conversations, rather than a diversion tactic. “I’d argue that buzzwords can lead to deep-diving into structural issues,” she says. “The quiet quitting uproar raised the topic of what’s expected as a baseline for professional productivity and ‘presentness’ and made us question why. It made people think about their own behaviours and responses, even if they hated the phrase.” So, delving into the phenomenon made us question why overworking is seen as the norm and recognise that quiet quitting might be a privilege that’s not always afforded to all employees.
“Buzzwords that inspire heated responses like that serve a purpose: engaging people in discussions that might otherwise not be had,” she adds. “Another example is girlboss – a horrendous phrase that’s inspired really interesting and important discussions around the infantilisation and undermining of women within the workplace.”
Marisa, a 26-year-old social media professional, agrees: “Regardless of the longevity or cringiness of some of these terms, they have sparked a conversation that is worth having. Having these conversations can only empower people to know and own their worth as an employee.”
Love them or hate them, perhaps the key is in remembering that these trends say a lot more about the employer than the employee. As Marisa puts it: “Employees aren’t quiet quitting or rage applying if they are satisfied with their workload, respected by their leadership teams and being paid competitively.” Johnson-Jones agrees, adding: “Rather than talk about what workers can do, we should be putting the onus on employers to improve workplace cultures and ways of working, and to offer better mental and financial support for staff. Otherwise, employee dissatisfaction and disengagement will continue to bubble away under the surface and career buzzwords will continue to reinvent themselves.”
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