The Perfect Enemy | Whether it’s ‘soft lifers’ or ‘quiet quitters’ COVID created a new workforce
December 2, 2022
Read Time:5 Minute

Strip away all the bot-generated content and social media — or more specifically, trending content on social media — can be used as an insightful window into the cultural mood.

Take for instance the recently trending “soft life” or “quiet quitting” lifestyles circulating on various social media platforms. What these trends have in common at their core is they represent a consciously pursued or aspired balance between work and life. Yet there does appear to be divergence with regard to the respective audiences they are trending with. 

For example, soft life appears to resonate more among younger non-white female adults, and in contrast, quiet quitting seems to have more traction among middle to upper-middle-class white-collar workers. Regardless of the demographic, together these topics are a stark contrast to the mindset regarding work-life balance before the pandemic.  

This is not to say there were no warning signs.

In the year leading up to the start of the pandemic, a trending topic of social media interest concerned the concept of “workism.” First introduced by Derek Thompson, workism was referring to a growing trend among many workers to put in hours beyond what was required of them. Thompson believed that the impetus for this has been the increased integration and dominance of our work life into our social identity. As he so aptly noted in 2019, such pursuits in tying work to identity were destined to leave workers feeling empty, that no accomplishment in this capitalist society would ever be internally fulfilling. 

Much of the social media conversations on workism were philosophical in nature, evaluating the role work plays in relation to our social identity. In contrast, the post-pandemic social media conversations of soft life and quiet quitting are trending topics of redefining and action.

They directly call into question the virtuousness of America’s ethos of hard work and its spirit of materialism. Social media is providing an amplified forum for a rigorous cultural debate about how much we should allow our work life to control and define us.  

Compared to many of our OECD peers, American workers annually put in more work hours. Some argue this hard work ethos is what makes the United States the richest nation in the world. Yet the gap in the valuation of what workers produce and what they earn in return has steadily expanded

What this means is that American workers have continued to see the value of their productivity grow only to be met with stagnating wages and salaries as rewards for their efforts. That stagnation has been made worse when considering the escalating costs of goods and services. For decades, workers have seen their work-life balance move away from family and home life in attempts to keep up materially with the cultural “Joneses.”

It should come as no surprise that the pandemic served as a wake-up call for many workers. Despite early wage growth at the beginning of the pandemic, data suggest such growth was short-lived. It has since regressed to its old form. As of January, workers have actually experienced negative wage growth. The shutdown of workplaces, and the shuttering of hours and locations from which to work, brought into sharp contrast the extent to which many Americans were aimlessly treading water in their previous work roles with little to show for it in terms of reward or satisfaction

The pandemic caused many Americans to take stock of their work-life balance and to ask if their years of hard work had produced the sort of balance they sought. The pandemic appears to have accelerated the undercurrent of lingering worker dissatisfaction. This seems especially true when employers made the clarion call of return to action, and workers realized that would mean a return to the status quo of a work and life imbalance.

It would be foolhardy to presume social media was the causal mechanism for such collective reexamination. What the trending topics of soft life and quiet quitting reflect is our ongoing public negotiation regarding the collective sentiment surrounding work and its place in our everyday life. These are lifestyle movements and social media is amplifying the discussion, bringing together individuals who may be quietly experiencing a similar milieu. Their popularity as trending topics indirectly adds legitimacy to the lingering dissatisfaction workers have with maintaining their work-life balance. 

Critics might charge that soft life is actually the embrace of materialism, or that quiet quitting is the abandonment of a work ethic. It is understandable why the business class would find the underlying sentiment of these messages potentially threatening.  

Soft life is antithetical to the status quo of materialism for nothing more than consumptive sake. The pandemic has laid bare just how vacuous our materially driven pursuits have become. Quiet quitting is not the refusal to work, but instead the refusal to be exploited by putting in only that amount that is required of them and agreed to with their employer.

This lack of real-life fulfillment from work and the supposed fruits it bears appears to be moving the needle as a recent Gallup poll estimates that nearly 50 percent of the U.S. workforce are now quiet quitters. These social media trends do not reflect a declining American work ethic or an abandonment of material desires. As a recent study suggests, quiet quitting sheds more light on how bad the work environment is or was for many workers.  

The pandemic appears to have awakened a new form of worker consciousness that social media is tapping into and helping to amplify. The trending topics of soft life and quiet quitting are asking workers to confront the very important question of whether we live to work or work to live.

Kent Bausman, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology in the Online Sociology Program at Maryville University.