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What’s In a Name: Keeping up with Trendy Workplace Catchphrases

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If “a picture is worth a thousand words” then how much is a trendy workplace catchphrase worth?

Judging from TikTok posts and Google searches, these proliferating pithy slogans – from “The Great Resignation” to “Quiet Quitting” to “The Great Regret” to “Quiet Firing” – are worth millions and millions of words!

There appears to be no shortage of HR catchphrases, considering that current Google results include:

  • Quiet Quitting: 12.5 million Google results

  • Great Resignation: 6.65 million Google results

  • Quiet Firing: 647,000 Google results

  • Big Regret: 434,000 Google results

And those 12.5 million search results for “Quiet Quitting” come for a workplace catchphrase that wasn’t even a thing until March 2022, and for some, it really is not a real thing at all!

“Perhaps you’ve heard of “quiet quitting.” It’s telling that the phrase has taken off on social media — but this is the fakest of fake “workplace trends,” opines Sarah Green Carmichael in Bloomberg.

From the “Me Culture” to the “Meme Culture”

We may have to get used to HR catchphrases zooming in and out of the zeitgeist as digitally native Gen Z employees take over in the workplace for retiring Baby Boomers.

Some will argue, it’s goodbye “me culture”, hello “meme culture.”

“The TikTok generation is immersive, and it can be confusing at first to be presented with a never-ending onslaught of these short-burst videos. But once you realize that most videos follow a pattern, the real fun begins,” says The Bark Blog. “It’s also when TikTok’s relation to meme culture kicks into overdrive — everyone starts riffing on a single meme format and recording their own versions of it.”

Since the start of the pandemic, workplace trends such as “The Great Resignation” have become a national narrative that has everybody – employers and employees, alike -- riffing on the same topic.

Catchphrases are as American as Apple Pie

Catchphrases, slogans or clever sayings are not new to American culture and have been embraced by the public and media for as long as Old Glory has waved – Ben Franklin’s homespun sayings in “Poor Richard’s Almanack” to “Don’t Tread on Me” Revolutionary War era flag.

The eras and generations changed but the catchphrases kept on coming from the:

  • “The Gay 90s” to “The Roaring 20s”

  • “The Great War” to “The Great Depression”

  • The “Silent Majority” to “The Moral Majority”

“In their form and content, names often employ analogies or metaphors from our past as a bridge to how we might grapple with the present. Different naming analogies will suggest alternate pictures for how to conceptualize an event or idea,” writes Kathryn Hymes in Wired.

Harold James, a professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University and author of “The War of Words” puts it another way: “Names are ways of making connections.”

How Catchphrases Can Paint a Workplace Trend Picture

When they work at their best, these HR catchphrases can paint a workplace trend picture.

Think of “Rosie the Riveter” … just those three words put a vivid image in most minds and this catchphrase represented a real workplace trend as American women rolled up their sleeves and entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers to help with the World War II industrial effort.

“Between 1940 and 1945, the female percentage of the U.S. workforce increased from 27 percent to nearly 37 percent, and by 1945 nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home,” says History.com.

Of course, some slogans can be all sizzle, and not steak … such as the “Y2K Bug” or “Millennium Bug”, which had widespread coverage and enough worried Americans withdrawing their cash from banks that the U.S. Treasury printed an “extra” $50 billion for Y2K emergencies.

Only to have the clocks strike 2000 and … nothing unusual happened, everything worked as normal, and those millions of words spent on the catchphrase might have been better used.

Which HR Catchphrases Will Stand the Test of Time?

It may be too early to tell which of today’s HR catchphrases will stand the test of time – which will live on as strong as Rosie the Riveter and which will fizzle like a Y2K Bug – but “The Great Resignation” which appears to have opened pandora’s pithy phrase box seems to be a true trend.

Hymes explains “The Great Resignation” origin story as simply starting with a May 2021 interview in Bloomberg with Anthony Klotz, then an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University.

““The Great Resignation is coming,” he warned. A few weeks later, the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed a record 4 million Americans had left their jobs in April,” writes Hymes. “Suddenly, people were reaching for ways to refer to the phenomenon unfolding before them—to brand it, to make sense of it. Klotz’s catchy off-the-cuff terminology, now printed on Bloomberg’s pages, seemed to fit the bill. And just like that, a name was born.”

Then the catchphrases kept on coming:

  • The Great Regret: Describes how those often riding off in the sunset searching for greener pastures find that the grass isn’t always greener which is leading some to a “Great Regret”.

  • Quiet Quitting: The labor force trend popular on TikTok and across virtual water coolers this summer where people stopped “going above and beyond” at work without quitting.

  • Quiet Firing: Perhaps the reverse of Quiet Quitting, where an employer's behavior essentially signals to employees that they do not care if they quit, or are actively encouraging them to leave.

“The power struggles between workers and bosses may have buzzy catchphrases now, but they’re really nothing new,” Sharon Block, professor and executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, told CNBC.

HR Catchphrase Incubator is Not Short on Names

The HR catchphrases that make their way into the national dialogue typically beat out other options vying for name recognition.

The Great Resignation, for example, emerged as king over other names such as “The Great Reshuffle” and “The Big Quit.”

“Names can feel emergent and messy. After all, there is no one unassailable source that is charged with providing the language for how we come to call our collective moments. Instead, naming at scale is a reckoning of influences that compete for public adoption, typically sprung from journalists, politicians, academics, celebrities, or those of influential reach. The titles that they choose often become part of our common reference, sometimes without much thought,” writes Hymes.

Believe in the trends or not, Carmichael argues that employers still must pay attention to them.

“The reason for bosses to concern themselves with these trends isn’t that they’re describing real behavior, but that so many people find them appealing. They speak to employees’ fantasies, not their actual career plans,” says Carmichael. “Ideas such as lying flat and quiet quitting will keep taking off online, even if they’re not widespread trends in real life. Perhaps just talking about them is a necessary corrective to an era in which work has often taken on outsized importance — shaping our identities, providing a source of meaning, even reassuring us that we are, in fact, good and virtuous people.”