Some social media sites have recently seen a trend of posts by and about so-called Gen Z employees “quiet quitting” their jobs. The phrase is misleading because these workers are not actually resigning their positions. On the contrary, quiet quitting is a strategy to stay employed. But these workers are making intentional decisions to extend no more effort, or do no more work, than the minimum expectation. They are refusing overtime, ignoring email in off hours and not exerting worktime energy beyond basic contractual requirements. As cited in the Wall Street Journal, the polling company Gallup classifies these workers as “not engaged”; and a survey conducted by Gallup demonstrates that more than half of employees born after 1989 fall into this category of unengaged “quiet quitters.”
This is occurring simultaneously with a small but conspicuous uptick in workplace unionization efforts in the United States. Prominent companies such as Apple and Starbucks, who boast of excellent benefits and strong relationships with their employees (respectively referred to internally as “associates” and “partners”), have seen workers at some of their retail locations attempt to (and in some cases succeed at) unionization. Statements from workers indicate that their grievances have less to do with salary and benefits and more to do with the stress of their jobs. They feel overworked and overextended. At Starbucks, especially, employees want better communication with the corporate office, larger staffs to ease workday burdens and more autonomy in scheduling and other workplace decisions. These tendencies — quiet quitting and a surge in union activity — raise some important questions both about the purpose of work and the duties that employers and employees owe to one another. These are questions that Catholic social doctrine is well-equipped to address.
As a distinct discipline within Catholic moral theology, the Church’s social doctrine is a relatively recent development. Most theologians date the beginning of the Church’s social teaching to Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, known in English as “On Capital and Labor.” While Catholic social doctrine has expanded over the decades to include a broad range of social, political and legal concerns, at its heart are issues related to the nature and purpose of work, especially the well-being of the worker in his or her relationship to his or her employer. Two principles of Catholic social teaching that speak to quiet quitting and unionization efforts are the duty to work and the proper relationship of employers to employees.
Work as co-creation
For those who are able, work is an expression of the imago Dei in which we are created. Whether for wages outside the home or to support the family within, human work is a collaboration with the work of God in creation. We reflect God’s image when we cooperate with his work to beautify the world and to contribute to its growth and development. “Work honors the Creator’s gifts and talents received from Him,” explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2427). Additionally, in work, we contribute to the good of others and thus advance the common good. Thus, the duty to work is related to obligations of charity: Those who can work contribute to the good of those who are unable, whether because of age, infirmity or disability. As the Catechism notes, work “can also be redemptive” when it is properly ordered toward love of God and others (No. 2427). “Quiet quitters” are at least doing what they ought, both in terms of the natural duty to work and to fulfill the minimum obligations to their employers. But should they do more?
The answer is not as obvious as it might seem. Certainly, one does not act immorally by fulfilling one’s agreed commitments, even if only minimally. A barely completed duty is, after all, a completed duty. And if work is reduced to the bare contractual agreement between worker and owner, then the quiet quitter has fulfilled his responsibility. Moreover, to the extent that “quiet quitting” is nothing more than a description of establishing the appropriate boundaries between work and nonwork, it may be a salutary phenomenon.
On the other hand, however, quiet quitting may be a manifestation of unhealthy tension between employee and employer that is corrosive to a healthy relationship between them. Quiet quitting may be caused by “quiet antagonism” between laborers and management, in which they see themselves at cross purposes with one another. Thus, the employee does nothing more than required because he has no desire to assist his “rival” employer. She sees any additional effort as ensuring the benefit of her employer, but without any reciprocal benefit to her. When the employee sees himself as nothing more than a vendor of his time and effort, and the employer sees itself as nothing more than a purchaser of a service from the employee, the worker and enterprise both suffer. In this scenario, quiet quitting is the result of a zero-sum workplace that is nothing more than a battleground between competing interests. This scenario also accounts for the felt need of the employees to form unions so that they have collective protection from their “opponent” employer.
Properly constituted, the relationship between worker and owner should be cooperative rather than antagonistic. Owner and worker should see themselves engaged in a common enterprise ordered toward the same goals and objectives. Framing the relationship this way, the employee and employer are not rivals but teammates cooperating with one another in a positive-sum relationship. When occasion requires it, the employee will do a bit more than the bare minimum. Similarly, the employer will acknowledge the additional effort through some kind of appreciation and commendation. This kind of workplace relationship will not encourage worker burnout and fatigue but will recognize and reward additional effort.
Collaboration between labor and management has been commended throughout the history of Catholic social doctrine. Pope St. John Paul II suggested that employee ownership programs are an optimal way of inducing cooperation between worker and employer. In such an arrangement, explains John Paul in Laborem Exercens, “each person is fully entitled to consider himself a part-owner of the great workbench where he is working with everyone else.” Employee and employer “pursu[e] their specific aims in honest collaboration with each other” (No. 14).
In such a relationship, employees may be less likely to feel the need for union representation. Often, the need for unionization is an indication of a toxic workplace. This is not to suggest that unions are bad or that unionization should necessarily be resisted. On the contrary, historically, unions have been crucial for the protection of workers. But just as medicine is both a sign of and a cure for an illness, so unions are a sign and cure for workplace maladies. Both quiet quitting and unionization efforts may be signs that both employee and employer should address the causes of workplace stress, for the benefit of the common enterprise.
Kenneth Craycraft is the James J. Gardner Family Chair in Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati.