Ancient Wisdom on Quiet Quitting

Erica Brown Tradition Online | September 27, 2023

In the airport, I spotted a large man going through security wearing a T-shirt that read “I’ve done terrible things for money…like waking up early for work.” Let’s hope he was heading out on vacation.

I was raised with a different narrative about work. You should wake up early, and when you find a job that reflects your identity, talents, and personality, you’ll be happy to. Once you identify that elusive career path, you’re fast-tracking your way to achieving life satisfaction, to actualizing your potential, and to realizing your dreams. The ideal job will provide financial stability, friendship, and the time and bandwidth to grow a family and pursue other interests. Most importantly, it will contribute to the good of the world.

Gustave Doré, “King Solomon in Old Age” (c. 1866)

But not everyone was raised with this work narrative. My grandfather would not have said, for example, that being a tailor and a dry cleaner was a lifestyle choice. He was skilled. He was kind to his customers, he paid his bills, and earned his bread, all in order to raise a family. As a child, I felt sorry for him. As an adult, I recognize the nobility in his work that I failed to see earlier. He was actually happy at work. He also expected far less from it.

Many of us regard work as a vocation, a calling, or an expression of service; such perceptions are a privilege denied to most. Trapped in field or factory, so many people around the world still work under challenging conditions that come with a daily tangle of discrimination and irritations: a mean, overly demanding boss, purposeless repetitive tasks, low pay, poor conditions, and few chances of advancement.

Observations about the tyranny of work surfaced at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution. In 1844, Friedrich Engels published The Condition of the Working-Class in England to articulate the diseases, inequalities, and malignancies of the working class that Dickens not long after fictionalized in David Copperfield. In the same century, Dostoyevsky described the stark consequences of this kind of toil: “The thought once occurred to me,” he wrote in Notes from a Dead House, “that if one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment…all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.”

Unsurprisingly, those who experienced this workers’ ennui were taken by the boldness of Marx’s Das Kapital, first published in 1867. Decades later, Upton Sinclair’s muckraking commentary on Chicago’s stockyards in The Jungle (1905) showcased how grueling and unsafe factory work had become. The physicality of labor then has been replaced by a different soul-crushing view of work now. Employees are tired of long commutes to sit in front of a screen mechanically answering emails in sterile open-space offices. Dolly Parton’s 9-to-5 day has become 8-to-7, if you’re lucky. Then there are a few more emails that need attention after dinner because, well, they have to get done.

When work is a slog that’s more reactive than creative, it’s not hard to disengage. There is evidence everywhere today of quiet quitting. Post-pandemic, offices large and small have emptied of employees. There are fewer water-cooler conversations. Bosses struggle to bring people back to in-person meetings. According to a recent Gallup study, employees who have returned to offices are half as likely as they once were to put in the maximum amount of effort to keep their jobs.

Research on workplace culture tells us that employees today volunteer less frequently for additional responsibilities, speak up less at meetings, take on fewer tasks, and refuse overtime. They’re not willing to go the extra mile. About 50% of Americans who once cared about their work product, are much less invested. The same poll rates those engaged at work to those actively disengaged is now at the most dispiriting it’s been in almost a decade. The pandemic left us its residual impact on the workday.

Much of this dissatisfaction can be traced back to the narrative of work I grew up believing. What happens when we are expected to love our jobs, but we don’t? The title of Sarah Jaffe’s 2021 book says it all: Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. She calls out the delusion of “the labor-of-love myth,” where “the work you put in produces more value than the wages you are paid are worth.” We tell people they should love work as a means of emotionally exploiting employees, especially when they feel overworked, underpaid, or undervalued.

The workplace, however, does not confer membership in a loving family and community, no matter what you think or what your supervisor tells you. Just look at corporate layoffs. Guess they didn’t love you enough? The very idea of “loving work” makes the reality of not loving work our problem rather than a systemic, structural flaw in the way we view employment culturally. On a bad day, a colleague uses the mantra: “I get my love at home.”

What helped me most outgrow the love-work myth and understand its psychological limitations was not a fire-engine red leadership book or a volume of self-help. It’s that existential, ancient biblical tome Ecclesiastes. As a twelve-chapter collection of wise and sometimes cynical sayings, Kohelet repeatedly questions the value of work. Its author describes the sinking feeling of wasting our waking hours in enervating rather than energizing tasks.

“So I hated life,” Ecclesiastes states, “because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (2:17-23). Reflecting on this state of affairs, Ecclesiastes names the psychic cost: “So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun” (2:17-23). He ponders the worth of labor, and becomes despondent: “What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun?  All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless” (2:17-23). Even when not on the job, our minds are stuck there.

In Tanakh, the grief of work can be traced all the way back to the first human being, Adam. He was cursed with hard, physical labor as a punishment for his disobedience in the Garden of Eden: “By the sweat of your brow, you will eat bread.” Kohelet has still not recovered from Adam’s life sentence. The book often uses the word “amel,” defined as strenuous, manual labor that is generally tedious, unstimulating, and usually without purpose. One contemporary scholar translates it as overdoing rather than merely doing work. Daily drudgery may bring home wages, but then others may spend those earnings unwisely, leading to more humiliation and hardship.

The irony is that this biblical book is read liturgically on the upcoming holiday of Sukkot, a harvest celebration called “the season of our happiness.” We eat meals in temporary booths with family and friends, reenacting a time when our ancestors lived in makeshift homes in the biblical wilderness. Kohelet sounds like the grumpy uncle at the table. His presence seems to sap the joy, but only if you ignore the cluster of seven verses in the book about the importance of the joy that comes with festive meals, like the discovery Kohelet makes about what is genuinely worthwhile: “Only this, I have found, is a real good: that one should eat and drink and get pleasure…” (5:17) or the mandate he makes later: “Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God (9:7). This feasting, he writes, is a sanctioned gift from God.

The duality here is the point. The drudgery of sowing, planting, and harvesting coupled with uncertain conditions and bad weather results in the glorification of labor when farmers enjoyed the results. The delayed gratification of the harvest is itself a lesson in human patience and stamina. For Ecclesiastes, it was more. Even when work was backbreaking if it could purchase the temporal pleasures of a meal with friends, it had worth: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment from his toil” (2:24).

Kohelet accepted work for what it often is. Rather than searching for and praising its intrinsic emotional benefits, he lowers his expectations and focuses instead on the extrinsic outcomes of work. Don’t forget, he tells us, that the purpose of work is to facilitate happy gatherings with people we love. When the love-work narrative dominates, we ironically spend less meaningful time with those we love. This misplaced love becomes the residual curse of Adam’s labors.

Kohelet set me straight. I do love my work, but I don’t expect it to love me back. I get my love at home.

Dr. Erica Brown, a consulting editor at TRADITION, is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).

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