From the moment the phenomenon known as “quiet quitting” transitioned from niche TikTok topic to mainstream buzzword, it took on the kind of amorphous meaning that only a forced trend can. According to its very recent entry on Dictionary.com, “quiet quitting” means “reducing the amount of effort one devotes to one’s job,” like declining “any tasks not explicitly stated in the job description.” But few interpretations proved as literal. For Bloomberg readers, it meant CEOs were in a “state of fear.” For the Wall Street Journal, it was a symbol of Gen-Z’s “quiet privilege.” For tech writer Ed Zitron, it meant the demonization of “workers who aren’t doing free labor.” For at least one motivational speaker, it offered a job opportunity (he hawks corporate solutions for $15,000 a day), while for the Atlantic and other outlets, it was, simply, fake. “What people are now calling ‘quiet quitting,’” the Atlantic argued, “was, in previous decades, simply known as ‘having a job.’”
The fad also struck me as fake, or at least irrelevant. Who cares if workers are doing exactly what they’re asked? That’s what a job is. The whole cycle smelled like an employer psyop, managers trying to claw back control in the midst of pandemic-related mass resignations and mounting support for organized labor. But even psyops come from somewhere. If this was an “epidemic,” there had to be some patient zero — did quiet quitting waft down from some S&P 500 conglomerate’s panicked annual report? Was it a grassroots movement triggered by frustrated Zoomers tired of sending 8 p.m. emails? The answer should have been straightforward. But in the endless stream of search engine optimized articles, its origins seemed oddly hard to find.
The consensus has been, broadly speaking, that the trend burbled up from TikTok, as laid out by this Aug. 12 Wall Street Journal piece, one of the earliest on the subject. That is certainly where the phrase was popularized; the #quietquitting hashtag has now racked up nearly 170 million views. The first such video seems to have come from a career coaching account run by corporate recruiter Bryan Creeley, aka “lifeafterlayoff” — who made a March 4 video about an Insider article that described the quiet quitting phenom without using the phrase. Creely added it in the caption, though without the fanfare of coining a new term. “More people,” he wrote, “are ‘quiet quitting’ instead of leaving” their jobs. From there, the phrase got picked up by an inspirational teaching account, a corporate comedy account, and a hustle-culture preacher, before eventually going viral in a video from New York musician @zaidleppelin.
Wikipedia, on the other hand, cites a much earlier genesis story:
Some outlets cited this older coinage. “First things first,” a Sept. 4 Chicago Tribune article read, “the term ‘quiet quitting’ was originally coined at a 2009 economics symposium at Texas A&M by economist Mark Boldger.” A Medium post agreed: “Economist Mark Boldger coined the term ‘quiet quitting’ in 2009.” Boldger’s name popped up everywhere from Jesuit News to South African outlet IOL to the blog copy of productivity management software.
The interesting thing? Boldger himself doesn’t seem to have much of an online footprint. Wikipedia’s claim was uncited, and Google yielded no well-known economists by that name. I couldn’t find any record of a “Texas A&M economics symposium on diminishing ambitions in Venezuela in September 2009” either. And while Wikipedia also claimed the term “continued to be used by other figures, including writer Nick Adams and economist Thomas Sowell,” I couldn’t find the phrase in any of their available work. Those names were at least easier to recognize: Adams is not, as Wikipedia suggests, a TV writer for BoJack Horseman, but a MAGA pundit and Australian author behind titles like Trump and Churchill: Defenders of Western Civilization and Trump and Reagan: Defenders of America. (His Twitter banner dubs him “President Trump’s Favorite Author.”) Sowell is an infamous conservative libertarian who has spent decades proselytizing the virtues of free market capitalism and pitfalls of social welfare at whichever right-wing outlet will hire him.
Wikipedia’s edit history only made these details more mysterious: the lines about Boldger, Adams, and Sowell all came from the same editor, who added them on Aug. 31. That editor claimed in a note that they had “sourced the original copyright author of the term, and referenced two New York Times best selling authors who have been known for using the term for 12+ years in free market writings and discussions” (ital theirs). But there is no copyright for “quiet quitting” in the U.S. Copyright Office database. Moreover, the editor had never worked on a single other Wikipedia page, and their account has since gone defunct (though it was not, per Wikipedia’s deletion log, banned).
The only information about that editor is their old username: “BOLD ThoughT.” That name did bear a notable similarity to one used by the sole Mark Boldger I did find — a 15-follower Twitter account, @MarkBoldger, with the display name: “BOLD Thought REPORT.” This user is also an economist of sorts. Though Boldger’s listed occupation is “media personality,” his bio describes a more extensive CV:
Author•TV•Radio•Educator/Free Market Economics•Ret:Merrill Lynch•Edward Jones Invest. MoneyMngr/Margaret Thatcher Foundation•Ambassador/Educator Poland/Hungary
The similarity posed an obvious question: Did a radio educator from Merrill Lynch and the Margaret Thatcher Foundation named Mark Boldger add himself to the “quiet quitting” Wikipedia page, writing himself, intentionally or otherwise, into the unfolding history of this somewhat fake trend? (Notably: Annie Rauwerda, who runs the popular “Depths of Wikipedia” meme pages, told Gawker that editing information about yourself on Wikipedia is a bannable offense).
When I finally reached Boldger by phone, his answer was — sort of. As he put it: “It was my PR guys.”
Boldger, it turns out, is a real person; a retired money manager based in Texas. I found him the old-fashioned way: emailing several addresses with various formulations of his name; calling a dozen phone numbers that had, at one point, been associated with him, including the Chamber of Commerce in a small Texas town called Burleson and a local chapter of the Humane Society; and DMing him on Facebook. Boldger’s background resembles much of what’s listed in his Twitter bio — he says that after working at Merrill Lynch in the ’80s and ’90s, he moved on to the financial services firm Edward Jones and the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the ideals of global free trade and “economic freedom.” He retired in 2009, shortly after when, by Wikipedia’s telling, he would have coined the phrase. Bolger says he moved on to host the radio program referenced in the username — the “BOLD Thought REPORT,” which he discontinued after the show, he claims, was shadowbanned.
According to Boldger, he’s working on a book which cross-references the “quiet quitting” phenomenon, and his publicists added him to the Wikipedia page without his knowledge. “They should not have been doing that,” Boldger said, claiming the lines were riddled with errors. For one: “Nick Adams has not ever used that term. That is wrong. I don't know how that got in there. I've been associated with Nick Adams. I have Nick speaking on a Mensa zoom call,” said Boldger, who is a member of the “High IQ Society.” He claimed Thomas Sowell had used the term — “He was actually talking about the lack of motivation you have in a socialist system, because there's no way to rise to the cream” — though he couldn’t remember when or where. (When I followed up to ask about who his publicists were, exactly, Boldger said he didn't have time to talk).
The “symposium,” it turns out, was also not a symposium. (“I was not happy with them using that term.”) It was an anti-Obamacare protest held at Texas A&M by the Brazos County Republican Party. Per Boldger: “It was on the same day that Obama was visiting Texas A&M for the ‘1,000 Points of Light’ celebration,” referencing the awards ceremony for the non-profit founded by George H. W. Bush to promote private-sector solutions to social welfare issues. According to the Bryan-College Station Eagle, the protest drew some thousand supporters, carrying signs like “Don't Tax Me, Bro,” “Volunteerism = Socialism,” and “Obama Call Glenn Beck.”
Boldger clarified that he is “a libertarian, right down the middle,” whose social views are “100 percent on the liberal side.” But on fiscal issues, he ascribes to the “trickle down” theories of Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. “I haven't been happy with the government from Reagan on since we've amassed so much debt, which is actually a taxation on the poorest of people,” he said. “All the corporate taxation that's going on is more quiet quitting justification.”
The speech in question was about the Hugo Chávez administration in Venezuela, whose economic issues he attributed solely to socialism. “Quiet quitting is what happens when socialism comes in,” he said. “When a company turns communist or Soviet, or socialist, in nature, the wind gets taken out of the sails of the entrepreneurial spirit. The demonization of profits, the demonization of productivity, that’s what’s really happening now.”
But Boldger himself isn’t concerned much with his own productivity these days. Like many members of the American workforce, he has health issues; Boldger was diagnosed with a pancreatic growth in the 2000s that doctors said gave him two years to live. Two decades later, he’s more interested in enjoying his time outside of the office. “Honestly,” he said, “right now I'm worried about building my house.”
The quiet quitting news cycle, on the other hand, is still very much employed. According to EdWeek, it’s coming for teachers; for Mashable, it’s about “drawing boundaries.” At the Conversation, it’s an occasion to “watch more movies.” And while one “exodusing millennial” wrote in the Guardian that it’s making him “more annoying than you could possibly imagine,” Bloomberg offers some Thatcherite comfort: “Quiet Quitting Hasn’t Killed Hustle Culture.” Boldger, for the record, doesn’t care much about the fate of the term he may or may not have coined at an anti-Obamacare rally in 2009. “It is all over the internet now, isn't it? It doesn't matter to me,” he said. “This means nothing to me. In the grand scheme of things it's like, so?”