Generation X: the original quiet quitters

 

By Christopher Zara

August 29, 2022

They’re “defining a new work ethic based on balance and fulfillment.”

 
Generation X: the original quiet quitters
 

They’re embracing a “laziness that values raw honesty over prestige or job security.”

They’re a “nomadic” workforce that “sees every job as temporary.”

No, those quotes are not from the latest round of hot takes about Gen Z and “quiet quitting.” They’re all from ’90s-era newspaper articles describing the generation that was then taking the workplace by storm: Generation X.

 
 

Quiet quitting, the TikTok-driven trend in which young workers admit to doing the bare minimum for their jobs, has been in the cultural zeitgeist for at least a few weeks now, long enough that it has already gone through the typical point-counterpoint media cycles that have become so familiar to online news consumers. Plenty of stories have pointed out that this trend is “nothing new,” or that it’s merely an expected consequence of evolving workplace power structures, or that it might just be “work” by another name. And last week, stories about the inevitable quiet-quitting backlash began making the rounds—right on cue, as a matter of fact.

But a cursory search of newspaper archives from the era of dial-up modems and Bill Clinton reveals that the discourse around generational workplace friction back then was strikingly similar to what it is today. In fact, if you read just a handful of articles from that time period, you may conclude that Gen-Xers were the original quiet quitters.

“What these young people have done is looked at their older brothers and sisters and their parents, who were working for the same company for 30 or 40 years only to be downsized or retired to wait for the Grim Reaper,” one consultant was quoted as saying in a Knight Ridder business article from 1997. “They look at that and say, ‘Excuse me, this is not the life I want to lead.’”

 

Generation X: the original quiet quitters

A headline from the Guardian, November 30, 1994

[Source Newspapers.com]

One article, published in the Chicago Tribune in 1995, quoted a 31-year-old local nonprofit executive named Michelle Obama, who astutely recognized how the younger generation was showing up to work with an evolving sense of what they wanted from their employers. “They’re disillusioned because their parents, who were so loyal (to their employers), didn’t get loyalty in return,” the future first lady said. She added that “working for the same company for 20 years isn’t even an option” anymore.

This was a time when many business journalists were framing the modern workplace as a simmering battleground between Generation X and the generation that preceded them, the baby boomers, a much larger demographic cohort that had long dominated the cultural landscape, and one that was seen by some Gen-Xers as not wanting to make space for younger workers. “Boomers are a uniquely self-absorbed generation,” consultant Bruce Tulgan, then 29, said in the Knight Ridder article. “That’s not a criticism. It’s just true.”

By contrast, Gen-Xers were often depicted as cynical, skeptical, or disaffected—not unlike the quiet quitters of the 2020s—and the dominant media narrative suggested that they were disengaging at work to an unhealthy extent. “Some worry that this Generation X may be opting out of society,” the Guardian wrote in 1994.

 

Generation X: the original quiet quitters

A headline in the Central New Jersey Home News, April 12, 1995

[Source: Newspapers.com]

Just like today, however, journalists were also all too eager to debunk generational myths and stereotypes. That same Guardian article cited a then-recent survey from Demos, which indicated that younger workers of the era were not merely a bunch of loafing slackers but actively rejecting the “Protestant work ethic”—aka a sociological phenomenon that was seen as perpetuating the worst ills of capitalism. (Sound familiar?) The Demos survey, the story continued, was “based on interviews with over 1,000 higher-educated young people in North America and Europe, a generation formed by TV and videos, computers and Nike, CNN, mass unemployment, and the first middle-class recession.”

Swap out those era-specific signifiers for TikTok and the Great Resignation and you could write the same article today.

Lest we walk away from this exercise with the mistaken belief that Gen X was the first generation to challenge the precepts of older employees, plenty of articles from earlier decades also have remarked on the changing face of workplaces, and sometimes it was the boomers who bore the brunt of the hot-take machines. “The work ethic, at least as grandpa knew it, is fading rapidly,” noted the Chicago Daily News in 1972. “Younger persons, particularly those in blue-collar jobs, no longer dutifully worship the god of work and its major icon—the paycheck. They want something more—and regardless of how things turn out, the workplace won’t be the same.”

 

Now that’s something all generations can agree on.

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