Leaving the Office at 5 Is Not a Moral Failing

In my 20 years in the work force, I have had many types of white-collar jobs at wildly different organizations. I have been an assistant at a midsize company, I have been the head of editorial at a tiny start-up, I have been a middle manager at a large corporation and I have been fully freelance. I have hired several people over the years. I’ve worked remotely for companies with no main office, I have worked with teams distributed across multiple cities and I have been a five-day-a-week, butts-in-seats, regular office-dwelling employee.

Because I have held such a wide variety of roles, and have seen people do truly excellent work in any number of circumstances, I am continually frustrated by the way we talk about work and its shortcomings in a post-2020 landscape.

We have allowed chief executives of enormous corporations to frame the entire conversation around what makes a “good” employee. In their estimation, it’s “morally wrong” (Elon Musk) to work from home, because a good employee is one who wants to “hustle” (Jamie Dimon) working long hours in the office every single day. Joan Williams, the chair and director of the Center for WorkLife Law, has called this the “ideal worker” norm — a set of beliefs that assumes labor will be performed by full-time employees with no caregiving responsibilities or life outside work, continuously, for 40 years.

Legitimate pushback against these rigid standards — which leave no room for the typical rhythms of human life and frailty — is often framed negatively, even by those pushing back. Which brings me to the terms “quiet quitting” and “lazy girl jobs.”

These are social media coinages, so their definitions can become hazy as they are endlessly memed. But The Wall Street Journal provided a fairly succinct summary of a lazy girl job in July: “one that can be done from home, comes with a chill boss, ends at 5 p.m. sharp and earns between $60,000 and $80,000 a year — enough to afford the basic comforts of young-adult life, yet not enough to feel compelled to work overtime.” Harvard Business Review ascribed “quiet quitting” to employees who “continue to fulfill their primary responsibilities” but are “less willing to engage in activities known as citizenship behaviors,” such as “staying late, showing up early or attending nonmandatory meetings.”

Gabrielle Judge, the TikTok creator who claims to have coined the term “lazy girl job,” told The Journal that she knew the word “lazy” would have a negative connotation, but that it “could start a conversation” about work-life balance, and she was right. We’re talking.

But now that these ideas are becoming mainstream, I think they deserve a more positive spin. These concepts aren’t about goofing off all day or shirking responsibility; they’re about creating reasonable boundaries based on actual job descriptions. This shouldn’t be framed as a moral failing. In a phone conversation earlier this month, Williams told me, “There is a distinction between not being available 24/7 and just putting in the minimum effort on your job. Those are different things.” In all the discourse about these terms, she said, that is being lost.

Executives should take note: Laying down acceptable boundaries between the home and work lives of your employees doesn’t mean less profit. A four-day workweek pilot program in Britain, for instance, was so successful that 92 percent of the companies participating said they would continue to offer the truncated schedule because there was no loss of productivity — in fact, it seemed to boost productivity. It is the quality of work, not the quantity of hours, that should be valued. As my former newsroom colleague Lora Kelley explained, “The study also found that companies’ revenue stayed broadly the same on average over the trial period — and that attrition among employees dropped significantly.”

I have managed many people over the years, and the easiest people to manage are those who get their jobs done efficiently in the time allotted to do those jobs, without much fuss. Not everyone should be a raging ambition monster — it is not sustainable for a varied and functional workplace. If, as a manager, you’re constantly requiring people to work overtime or out of the scope of their job description, it’s a sure sign that your company is not well structured.

In The Washington Post, the columnist Megan McArdle encouraged women to think twice before accepting a “lazy girl job” because those who work remotely or who aren’t seen as going above and beyond are more likely to be laid off during an economic downturn or a tech disruption. But if ChatGPT or some other type of artificial intelligence is coming for your job, no amount of overtime work or face time with the boss is going to save it. Just ask the Pulitzer Prize winners who have been furloughed and laid off over the years because of an ever-shifting economic landscape for journalists.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that opting for a less challenging job at one point in your career doesn’t mean you will be permanently stuck there. As Samantha Subin pointed out in a 2021 article for CNBC, “Every generation job hops in their youth in the search for the right career fit.” You may want to rev up or rev down at various points in your career, depending on your circumstances.

It’s true that some of the executives railing against remote work have a point: If you want the corner office at a Fortune 500 company, you will have to go above and beyond your job description constantly, making work the blazing epicenter of your life. But lots of people don’t want that. They know that while the financial upside of a maximally successful corporate career could be great, it would mean sacrificing much of your personal life. There’s absolutely no reason this should be the standard that all workers are held to.

If I were a viral content creator, I might come up with some cutesy terms to replace “lazy girl jobs” and “quiet quitting.” But it doesn’t need to be some weird new trend the young generation is trying out. It should be the basic way we think about work.

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