The first thing you need to know about silent abandonment is that it is not really abandonment. Instead, those who give up keep their jobs and choose to do only the bare minimum rather than go further. The second thing you need to know is that the term is brand new, so everyone is still trying to figure out the rest. To quote the Oxford English dictionary of our times a lot online, Google searches quit quiet they were practically non-existent until last August.
But now it is everywhere. TikToks analyzing the concept have amassed millions of views, prompting many national media to publish explanations on the subject. Polling firm Gallup found that at least half of Americans, perhaps more, fit the definition of silent resignation.
Is it really something new? Many people have criticized the term, saying it’s just another phrase for getting a job. “It used to be called a normal shift,” reads the comment above, with over 24,000 likes, on a TikTok. Others have argued that downsizing at work is too risky for women and people of color.
Amelia Nagoski, co-author, with her sister Emily Nagoski, of the book Burnout: the secret to unblocking the stress cycle, thinks the new term is useful, even if she is not surprised by the discourse that surrounds it. “This is all very familiar to me,” she told me via email. “I am happy to see the younger generations giving up exploitative work cultures”.
I was curious about the relationship between quitting smoking and the more scientifically established phenomenon of burnout. Nagoski and I discussed this – and the deeper link between silent abandonment and a broader push for better job protection – via email.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Caroline Mimbs Nyce: How do you think quitting smoking is related to burnout?
Amelia Nagoski: I expect quitting smoking can be part of a lifestyle to prevent burnout or help someone recover from burnout. Burnout begins with relentless demands and unsatisfactory goals, the kind employers thrive on as they squeeze their employees not only for their time and work, but for their obedience, their humanity and their soul. Many of these demands are unspoken cultural expectations rather than actual job demands, and include the bullshit that workers give up when they quit smoking.
If we don’t abandon cultural demands that force us to conform in ways that aren’t natural to us, burnout progresses as we worry about the gap between who we are and who we are expected to be. When we understand that we will never cross that gap, and see that we really don’t want to be the people we are told we “should” be, we are free to understand our worth on our terms.
Nyce: Because it’s so new, I guess there hasn’t been a lot of research on silent abandonment. But based on what we know about burnout, how much would you expect it to be rooted in psychological phenomena?
Nagoski: We talk about frustration and abandonment research very early in the book, because understanding it is key to managing burnout. Basically, when we have unsatisfactory goals, our brains can’t handle it. Our frustration turns to anger until eventually we are plunged into a pit of despair. So we swing between frustrated anger and hopeless despair, where we get stuck in a cycle of I hate this job; they can push it! Oh, no, I have bills to pay and kids to raise, and I can’t just give up, but goodness, I want to set that building on fire !!!
And how you get out of that cycle depends on whether or not you can control the thing that is causing your frustration (the “stressor”). Quitting smoking is a strategy for when you can’t control your stressor. The revelation for many people is to find that they have the ability to change the way they approach their work, that they don’t have to burn themselves. And the hard part is dealing with the feelings that arise after implementing the change.
Nyce: Some people have dismissed the term, calling it a misnomer (i.e. you are still working) or just another term for doing your job. How useful do you think the term itself is?
Nagoski: Quit quiet it comes from the perspective of people who have sold not only their time but themselves to their employer. Hence their experience hears how to stop. In that context, the term makes a lot of sense and is useful.
If an intrigued person wants to say, “This is simply called ‘doing your job’, duh,” then that person is missing out on the opportunity to learn something new about the experiences of others.
Nyce: What kind of psychological relationship with work would you expect to see in someone who is thinking of quietly quitting?
Nagoski: If anyone is thinking, Quitting Smoking Could Be For Me!I expect that, in the past, they have invested a lot of themselves in their work and have felt like part of their self-esteem comes from their contribution to the employer.
Throughout history, workers have found the strength to detach the sense of self-esteem from unreasonable working conditions, to carry out their work without giving in to the pressure to value themselves based solely on their own contribution to the economy.
For people who have gotten their sense of meaning and purpose from work, quitting smoking could result in a sense of disillusionment, loss, and pain. But the good news is that we can all get a sense out of a variety of activities, even if capitalism and the grind culture tell us we’re lazy if we don’t do our work.
Nyce: Is it realistic for a person to stop worrying about work? How easy is it, in practice, to change one’s mentality?
Nagoski: Each individual will vary on how easy it is for them to change their mindset at work. Once you see evidence that quitting smoking would be better for you, the real challenge is grieving the loss of something you thought was valuable, mourning the time and energy you invested in a relationship you weren’t valued in. the way you deserve to be, and finding something new in your life that gives you what you thought (and were told) you would get from your job.
Nyce: Your book specifically focuses on burnout in women. Would you expect quitting smoking to look different for women?
Nagoski: In general terms, because systemic sexism is one thing, it is usually assumed that women should and will be carers as well as whatever their job description says. So I expect women to face greater consequences if they choose to stop doing the emotional work and intuitive tasks we often do without being asked.
We also zoom in on an intersectional feminist perspective, where we can recognize that it is not just misogyny, but a broad spectrum of fanaticism that will make people suffer for protecting their borders. The consequences will be harsher for those who already experience more prejudice: people of color, those with less access to education, anyone with a disability or living in poverty, anyone who has lost or never had a family to provide a network security due to being LGBTQ.
Nyce: A lot of silent resignations seem to have to do with the amount of psychological space we give to work. Do you think culturally we are late for a recalibration?
Nagoski: It’s not just that we’re late for a recalibration. We are late for a revolution.
The psychological space we give to work is not just a choice we make as individuals or even just in our mind. It is a cultural change that must be pushed and supported by legislative support. Quitting smoking is a step towards rational and fair work practices, but not everyone will have that choice. This is why we say in our book that the cure for burnout is not self-care. The cure for burnout is that we all take care of each other.