The UK’s Attitude to Work

11 mins. to read
The UK’s Attitude to Work

The rise of the ‘quiet quitters’

In an ideal world, work would be fulfilling, interesting and stimulating. People would jump out of bed in the morning, looking forward to another day in gainful employment. Alas, the reality has always been that only a minority of people love their jobs. But now, things have changed: a lot of people hate their jobs and they are not afraid to say so.

There are increasing reports – anecdotal and otherwise – that a lot of employees consciously get through the day doing the minimum possible, without any tangible misconduct. Employees increasingly ignore emails outside office hours or refuse to perform tasks which are not specified in their job descriptions. They disdain ‘hustle-culture’. They do not aspire to promotion. There are even sites on social media which encourage this trend. The TikTok social influencer @zkchillin advises followers “to reform” their work environment by doing less. Workers who cruise along on half throttle are now called ‘quiet quitters’.

Managers claim that younger workers seem to think that they are doing their employers a favour by turning up each day. Many expect incentives to meet minimum performance targets. This attitude is summed up in the phrase “minimum wage, minimum effort” (even if they are paid well above the minimum wage).

Before we assume that this is just a phenomenon of the ‘woke’ West, consider that it started in China as a protest against the long-working-hours culture. There, the hashtag #TangPing (meaning lying flat) was conceived to describe the frustrations of young people exhausted by hard graft for little reward.

Many people, particularly the young, now believe that their worth as a human being cannot be defined by what they do at work. They identify with non-work-related ‘badges’ such as eco-warrior or activist.

Maria Kordowicz, director of the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Interprofessional Education and Learning told the Guardian that the way in which people relate to their work has changed in the post-pandemic landscape. It seems that the people who returned from furlough are not the same people who were put on furlough. They are now more aware of their mortality (note the rise of ‘10 things to do before you die’ books and columns) and more inclined to strike a work-life balance which favours life. Hence working from home and Zoom meetings are still widespread.

We have known for a long time that the paternalistic model of employment is a relic of the past. Workers used to spend their entire working lives – 45 years or more – with the same employer. They were loyal to the company and the company repaid them with a carriage clock on retirement and a liveable pension. The antithesis of that model is the gig economy where freelancers get paid per job performed – delivery drivers are a good example.

In between, the new model is one in which workers offer a few years of service before either moving on to a competitor or even withdrawing from the labour market altogether. In such a model the bonds of loyalty between employer and employee are loose. It is therefore not surprising that we have seen a rise of whistleblowing – such as the case of Desiree Fixler, the former chief sustainability manager at Deutsche Bank Asset Management, who accused her employer of ‘greenwashing’.

Then there is the issue of the quality of management. Many people who work from home spend their time conversing with colleagues, rather than with customers. And there are quiet-quitter middle managers. They have paid off their mortgages and are sitting on a property nest-egg, with a decent pension pot, so they don’t need to do more than the bare minimum to ensure their continued prosperity. The UK water-utility companies, which I discussed two weeks ago, are an example of an industry led by managers who are permanently out for lunch while the sewage spills.

Readers in the UK and abroad will be aware that there are shortages of workers across the board from airport baggage handlers to doctors (the latter especially in the countryside). There has also been a decline in the number of self-employed people in the UK by nearly one fifth since late 2019, according to ONS. Nearly 800,000 freelancers have either taken up salaried employment, gone into training or left the workforce altogether.

More than a quarter of a million people in their late 50s and 60s took early retirement during the pandemic. Now, with inflation rampant, many of those will be wondering if they made the right decision as they contemplate a poorer old age. But even those who want to go back to work may find it difficult to get rehired, even on a part-time basis.

The UK now has a very high inactivity rate – this refers to the number of people of working age who do not have a job and who are not seeking work. That metric is up from 20.5 percent before the pandemic to an estimated 21.4 percent now. One possible explanation is that many workers have left the labour market to become full-time carers for sick relatives. What is curious is that the economic inactivity rate has been falling across much of the developed world, so there is something peculiarly British about this phenomenon.

How the crisis in the NHS is affecting attitudes to work

It is increasingly clear that the record backlogs in the NHS, with 6.6 million people − nearly 10 percent of the UK population − waiting for critical treatment, has left millions unable to work. And it’s not just the wait for the operation, it’s the wait for the diagnostics as well. The UK is once again becoming “the sick man of Europe” (as it was dubbed in the mid-1970s) in a quite literal sense in so far as there are millions of people who want to work but can’t for medical reasons, such as mobility problems. An estimated 2.3 million people are out of the workforce due to long-term illness.

The UK spends roughly the same proportion of GDP on healthcare as France and Germany, and yet they have many more doctors and hospital beds per capita than we do. According to the think tank, Civitas, health spending in the UK amounts to £10,000 per household per year.

Yet every day, new horror stories emerge of elderly patients being kept on trolleys in corridors for days, of ambulances not reaching heart-attack victims for hours and of 48-hour waits for treatment in A&E. And it is still summer: many fear that things will be worse come winter when Covid could re-emerge as well as flu. Meanwhile, NHS staff absences remain well above pre-Covid levels, and the number of doctors has fallen. There are about 100,000 job vacancies within the NHS. As a result, the NHS spends £6bn a year on locum doctors and agency staff.

One possible explanation for the poor performance of the NHS is that British people were less healthy than their French and German counterparts pre Covid. They were fatter and less active. Despite the renaissance in British gastronomy in recent years, many people still eat badly. Further, the social-care crisis entails that many elderly folk reside in hospital, occupying precious hospital beds, when they should properly be discharged to residential care. In comparison, the Netherlands reportedly has excellent homecare, which allows hospitals to send frail elderly people back to their homes without fear of adverse consequences. Another appalling statistic: the OECD has ranked the UK at number 27 out of 38 countries for infant mortality and at 20 for maternal mortality.

The UK now has a smaller workforce than it did before Covid. Conversely, the size of the workforce has increased in France, Germany and Spain since the pandemic abated. Memo to Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss: you cannot solve the labour-market problem until you fix the NHS. I’ll have some suggestions as to how that might be achieved soon.

Sadly, there are things that politicians cannot say. One is that the NHS is sucking resources out of the productive economy. It is becoming evident that a lot of well-educated and highly skilled labour is locked up in the state and its agencies when it should be deployed to the fast-growing, wealth-creating parts of the private sector. That is why redeployment is an emerging buzzword. The Cameron government, let us recall, was successful in reducing the headcount of the public sector; but under the governments of Theresa May and Boris Johnson that trend went into reverse.

The tyranny of woke

Employees, these days, have to be careful about what they say, lest they incur the disapproval of the equality and diversity directorate of the human-resources (HR) department. Many people regard that as a good thing. But anecdotally, people are much less inclined to josh and joke with their work colleagues, and, arguably, that makes the workplace less fun. An environment where employees can be reported to HR at any moment for ’microaggressions’ can feel oppressive.

Similarly, it has become extremely easy for employees to offend one of their co-workers by, for example, admitting to eating meat, not wanting to use a gender-neutral bathroom or confessing to voting Tory. And then there are the endless training courses. Reportedly, response times to 999 and 111 calls have fallen recently in part because operatives have been at compulsory ‘kindness workshops’.

The problem is that corporate managers live in fear of reputational damage arising from ‘Twitterstorms’ and viral backlash on other social-media platforms. Another concern is the threat of hacking from groups such as Anonymous which has targeted companies including Nestlé, for being slow to withdraw from Russia after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It turns out that HR is largely PR.

When it emerged this week that Truss, in a 2019 speech, had said that British workers are insufficiently productive and that some of them need to work harder, various Labour party luminaries described her remarks as “grossly offensive”. So, it is not even possible to discuss the inadequacies of our labour market without offending people. But the fact is that real wages and output per worker have not risen at all since before the financial crisis. The London-Oxford-Cambridge triangle is still relatively rich in GDP terms; but many of the provinces languish at GDP-per-worker levels equivalent to lower-middle-income countries such as Turkey.


If present trends continue, then the UK is likely to experience falling, not rising, productivity at a moment when government finances are under strain and public services are failing. That is a recipe for living standards to fall still further – something that would almost certainly lead to social strife. Industrial relations are likely to deteriorate further – the resistance of the rail unions to accept changes in working practices which would stimulate productivity is symptomatic of the 1970s-style morass in which the nation finds itself.

It is probably too early to judge, but right now the Johnson government looks like a monumental failure, at least on the economic front. True, Johnson was dealt a difficult hand – the Brexit logjam; the coronavirus pandemic; a European war; and surging energy and food prices, resulting in rampant inflation. But there was precious little effort to initiate structural reform, and the reflex of the Johnson-Sunak Treasury was to throw money at problems as they arose. The £4bn lost in fraudulent payouts through the Covid loan scheme is a scandal that has still not run its course. It is significant that one of the loudest voices in the policy arena these last weeks has been not Sir Keir Starmer’s but Gordon Brown’s. Ideologically, we have regressed to late New Labour.

Astonishingly, the Tory leadership contest has hardly addressed the need for structural reform of the UK economy; rather it has focused on how to help households with soaring energy costs. My proposal would be to abolish VAT on thermal underwear – but then, I’m not a politician.


What a strange way to select a national leader. The 160-180,000 members of the Conservative party are currently voting for one of the two candidates who topped the ballots of Tory MPs. Many paid-up members are not even entitled to vote in the UK as they are not British and live abroad. I wonder if Putin is a member of the Tory party – though if he is, it would probably be under an assumed name. Most members had already made up their mind before the contest started, so the six weeks of hustings is a charade. There is no evidence that Tory party members have any privileged insight into the merits of either candidate – we may as well ask the memberships of the National Trust or the National Union of Farmers to select the prime minister. They would be less susceptible to claims that one candidate is more Thatcherite than the other.

We shall never know whether Sunak or Truss would have been favoured by Tory MPs – who generally vote based on who is most likely to give them a job. In the good old days, the leader of the party was chosen by a conclave of ‘the great and the good’ over cigars and brandy – it was called the ’magic circle’ method. It worked rather well. Sir Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home all emerged as prime ministers without the histrionics of the present contest. Meanwhile, the country is in stasis as no key decisions can be made until the new prime minister takes office.

I confess I shall not have a vote. My direct debit was cancelled at the beginning of the lockdowns in protest at Johnson being taken hostage by Professor Whitty et al, by “following the science”. I still get invitations to Tory gatherings, but I have not received a voting form. I suppose I should have accepted an invitation to have dinner with Truss (who is my MP) last Christmas – but somehow, I just didn’t fancy it. It seemed ‘un-Christmassy’. Not that my vote would have made any difference.

Comments (14)

  • Olivier says:

    Clutching at straws for a last minute article? Lazy work.

  • Tony Airey says:

    Excellent. Thank you.

  • Bob edwards says:

    Don’t you think that the reason the NHS spends so much money compared to Spain Germany and France is because they have less managers and more front line staff
    In Spain where I live the NHS is run by a computer system and we all have chip Heath cards and a digital signature . So less admin staff needed .

  • Bob Mackintosh says:

    Decrease in productivity seems to be a problem not just in the UK but also in the US, and from more than one cause. I recently did some part-time work at a UK university, and was required to complete an online “equality, diversity and inclusion” training course during my time there. Managers were advised to seek feedback from their staff on their leadership styles, and the course sought to re-educate all employees to face their unconscious attitudes and prejudices. While all this has its place (some requirements are legally binding (Equality Act 2010)), it can also be very demotivating and disruptive. Universities are particularly prone to this, although education is a vital part of the creation of a more productive workforce. As to the US situation, a commentary that I read today rooted low productivity in a different area: the practice of firms over recent years to use profits for share buy-backs, instead of investing in new plant and machinery. Short-termism (yes, the Prince of Wales was correct to highlight that) – supporting the share price – smoke and mirrors instead of true value creation. I am sure this is equally true for the UK.

  • Stephen Tye says:

    Nothing new with this ‘quiet quitting’ lark, and it isn’t just a British problem. I tried to work in Pakistan for a while in1996. Couldn’t get anything done and in a moment of frustration asked my Pakistani co-workers (government employees) why they just didn’t do anything. The answer – “they pretend to pay us, so we pretend to work”.

    Let’s hope the UK doesn’t end up like Pakistan!

  • Paul says:

    I have sold most of my shares recently, I am content to get 2.9% 1 year fix from Blme and 1.71 % instant cash with Virgin.
    Spending recklessly on Ryan air while I can. ( £20 Birmingham to Venice )
    Investing in companies is HARD work in a bear market.
    I am putting my greed and work ethic aside for a while.
    It seems we all want to live a little.

    Yes agreed dinner with your MP is un Chritmassy.
    But England expects.
    Our political class is dangerously and wildly out of touch with reality.
    Almost verging on insanity.
    So some common sense from your good self this Chritmas may be heard by your MP.
    My response to energy inflation is woolen thermals, one warm room for the winter and more travel.

  • Jimmy says:

    Go on Truss, my son!!

    I feel something in the force..

    Something I’ve not felt since….. 1979?

  • Lawman says:

    A realistic and pessimistic review. For decades lower skilled people have been called scroungers, social security cheats and worse. ‘Human Resources’ says it all: you are resource to be used and discarded at will. The many who have families and mortgage debt have to turn up. Single people can usually take time off and then take another minimum wage job. I consider myself so fortunate to have had interesting work and been self-employed.

    The shambles at the NHS will soon lead to worse. How could we improve the NHS – without privatization (see USA)? – a scheme as in mainland Europe?

  • Neal Hattersley says:

    This is actually interesting! I look forward to the NHS /healthcare review.

  • Ian says:

    NHS problems not helped by the cap on the number of places on medical qualifications

  • Steve says:

    Too late!

  • Richard says:

    Let’s take a look at this from the other side. When I was working, I had eight employers and clocked up five redundancies. At the age of 51, I was deemed too old to remain in the IT industry, so I retired. So you now have a well-qualified IT security person (with degrees in three different STEM subjects tuning out to be far less transferable than advertised) no longer working in IT. One previous employer now subcontracts its IT operations to India (it’s cheaper, and – as they are only now noticing – to hell with the quality).

    I am now 63 and not in the best of health (I am diabetic and recently had a cataract operation), so I would now be close to retirement even if my employment had taken a more stable course.

    My younger brother, a GP, took early retirement – before COVID – from ill-health (stress-related), after years of working hugely long hours.

    To me, it does not make sense to push out your most qualified people and then complain about skill shortages.

  • John Eaden says:

    I left the world of employment 45 years ago to start a small manufacturing business. Now in my 70s I still have commercial property tenants to look after. Have always liked the involvement and would not swap the independence it provides even for luxury holidays.

  • Tony says:

    If we really spend the same proportion of GDP on healthcare as the far better performing German and French systems, who also have far more beds, then where is all the UK money going?

    Anecdotally, my wife – a senior NHS speech pathologist – would say “on managers”. The NHS has been obsessed for at least 25 years under Tony Blair with Big Hospital culture and endless monitoring and devising working practices to maximise bed occupancy rates, in the supposed name of “efficiency”. But when you positively aim to run “hot” at 99% occupancy all the time, common sense should tell you what happens when events are unusual – like, er, an pandemic or even just a mild winter flu epidemic – the system clogs up. This is made worse by bed-blocking for social care reasons and because we have so few respite beds left in cheap community hospitals near to where people and their friends live.

    There is a massive need for step-down beds, to the point my employer – an adult social care provider and developer – is converting some of its rental HMOs into small recuperation houses, with either us or the local NHS Trust providing nursing care, cleaning, food etc. There’s innovation for you.

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