For UK-based journalist and social commentator Alexandra Jones — who graduated from university in 2009, a year into the financial crisis — this is unsurprising. “My parents’ generation could have expected to get a job in their twenties and still be there in their forties,” she says. “Work happened within specific hours and they were accruing wealth through their pensions. After the 2008 crisis, a lot of pensions were devalued and the technological revolution made jobs and even entire industries much more unstable. Add the UK house price boom and you have a perfect storm for people to re-assess what they’re doing this for.”
Why are fashion workers susceptible to burnout?
Quiet quitting can be a symptom of burnout, and the narratives around fashion make its workers more vulnerable to this, says Arnav Malhotra, founder of Indian menswear label No Gray Area. The widespread narrative is that you have to go above and beyond to succeed. “Employees overcompensate through hustle to prove that they deserve these coveted positions,” he says. In this context, it’s easy for brands to take advantage of enthusiastic employees because they see them as replaceable, adds Levi Palmer, co-founder of emerging brand Palmer Harding.
“Part of the problem is that older employers believe younger employees have to work just as hard as they did to prove their worth and get promoted,” says Drexel University professor Joseph H Hancock II, who quit his 20-year career in fashion retail for a lower-paying role in academia after a period of burnout. “We need to learn how to let people rest.”
Fashion is based heavily on personal relationships, and out-of-hours events often mean work life bleeds into social life, notes one fashion journalist. “In fashion, so much of our performance is judged on social performance. You can check out practically, but you cannot check out emotionally.”
The informality of fashion extends to contracts, too. “In fashion, there are lots of cultural expectations — and contracts are a bit ropey, if they even exist,” says Naomi Taylor, a negotiations executive at Bectu, a British trade union working with @fashionassistants to establish minimum pay, day rates and job specifications for freelance fashion assistants, similar to those in the TV and film industry. Quiet quitting isn’t always possible because the work is so precarious and new jobs often come through personal recommendations. “If you don’t take the job, someone else will jump at it and maybe even do it for less money, because they have family support. So, you just get on with it,” says @fashionassistants.
In an industry where overwork is not only normalized but prized, any hint of avoidance of overwork can imperil promotion opportunities. “I’m often compelled to quietly quit, but I don’t think it’s really an option for people who don’t have an existing financial cushion,” says one fashion editor. “It feels like having an unhealthy work ethic is a prerequisite for promotion.” Indeed, one recruiter told Bloomberg that the flip side to quiet quitting is “quiet firing”, where managers deny promotions, opportunities and useful feedback to employees to prompt someone to quit.
What can employers do to reduce quiet quitting?
Laura Whaley, based in Toronto, and her anonymous, off-camera “work bestie” have gained 2.8 million TikTok followers for their satirical take on contemporary hustle culture. Boundaries — a key element of quiet quitting — are a running theme. She can be heard telling fictional co-workers: “Volunteering my personal time and devices isn’t part of my job description.” However, Whaley isn’t a fan of the term quiet quitting, because of the shame and guilt implied. Instead, she recommends that people communicate their boundaries to their employers, and continuously — respectfully — reinforce them. “You should decide on your boundaries quietly because you need to reflect on what works for you personally, but implementing them should be collaborative,” she says.