Thoreau’s Quiet Quitting





The entire world is short-staffed these days, all of us fed up with working. Thoreau would grin and ask what took us so long. He swiftly figured out how to work only one day a week for his few necessities and use the rest of his time to do his own building projects, write in his journal, trudge for four hours a day through the pines.

Emerson, his champion and father-figure, disapproved. Even in his eulogy for his young friend, stricken by tuberculosis at forty-four, Emerson could not help but mark Thoreau’s regretful lack of ambition. He offered what sounded like praise, saying that Thoreau “chose to be rich by making his wants few, and supplying them himself.” Then a hint of disapproval crept in, as he noted that Thoreau was “bred to no profession.” Emerson covered, though, saying that instead of narrowing and specializing, Thoreau kept his scope of knowledge and action large. He never, in other words, bumped along in the rut of what we would call a “job track.” “He had no talent for wealth, and knew how to be poor without the least hint of squalor or inelegance. Perhaps he fell into his way of living without forecasting it much,” (another cut?) “but approved it with later wisdom.” “He had no temptations to fight against,—no appetites, no passions, no taste for elegant trifles.”

One wonders if Emerson felt secretly guilty for his own more lavish tastes. Anyone’s tastes would have been more lavish than Thoreau’s. Yet he was cheerful. He would drop whatever he was doing and go off with friends to pick huckleberries. This must have galled Emerson, the former minister who maintained that “the purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate.” For Emerson, wealth could be equated with civilization, art, refinement, travel. “Every man is a consumer, and ought to be a producer,” he wrote (and no doubt pulled in some hefty speakers’ fees repeating). “Nor can he do justice to his genius, without making some larger demand on the world than a bare subsistence.”

How, then, could he review Thoreau’s minimalist life without wincing? Finally, Emerson burst: “Had his genius been only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life, but with his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command; and I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition.”

People have been piling on ever since, mad at Thoreau for somehow deceiving us because he took his laundry to his mother’s house. But he never claimed to be roughing it: he described the little house he built on Walden Pond as being “in Concord,” not off the grid. His aim was only to cut himself loose of all the norms and standards that kept those around him living dull, claustrophobic lives. The key was not to be idle and oversimple, devoid of motivation, as Emerson assumed his protégé was, but to be free from societal expectations.

Luckily, Thoreau had failed society early. He graduated from Harvard, yes, but in 1837, during an economic depression. He finally found a job as a schoolteacher but resigned two weeks later because he could not abide corporal punishment. After a stint in his father’s pencil factory, he and his brother set up their own school, taking the kids out into nature and talking philosophy with them instead of beating them for real or imagined infractions. Alas, he had to close the school three years later because of his brother’s ill health. He became a live-in handyman for Emerson and a tutor and nanny for his children. Oh, and accidentally set three hundred acres of forest on fire, a mistake the good people of Concord never forgave. Other than a little surveying and freelance writing, that sums up Thoreau’s résumé.

His real job was guiding the rest of us, reminding us to distrust any occasion that requires new clothes and to measure our wealth by how much we can do without. The stuff of life was what tied us to bad jobs, jobs that caused such stress and misery that we spent more money and bought more stuff to calm and cheer ourselves. The cycle was hardly productive.

In Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living, John Kaag and Jonathan Van Belle note that Thoreau was hardly a slacker. “What is leisure but opportunity for more complete and entire action?” he asked. By walking four or six hours and thinking as he went, he managed to write several thousand words a day. “Why would Thoreau, who busied himself with scribbling, surveying, building, nannying, collecting botanical specimens, and otherwise occupying his time with a scattershot of odd jobs, including menial ones such as shoveling manure, have a reputation as the go-easy guru of uncluttered time and New England Zen?”

Because he questioned why we work. He called labor contracts “Faustian bargains.” He claimed that “men labor under a mistake.”

Interest in Thoreau returned during the Great Depression, the authors note, because living simply was no longer a choice. Thoreau made that necessity appealing—and gave it dignity.

Now we are interested again, because we are quiet quitting, buying lottery tickets, dreaming of a universal basic income, asking ChatGPT3 to do our jobs for us.

“We want to wake up to a truly free day,” the authors write. Thoreau wanted freedom, too, but he knew that it had to be laced with purpose. After a feast and a paddle on the lake and “a whopping whiskey hangover,” what would come next? “What is this freedom for? It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?”

He may not have been industrious enough for Emerson’s taste, but he was more than industrious enough for his own purposes. “Forced tasks, jobs that one is absolutely compelled to do, run the very high risk of being meaningless, for the sole reason that they are not freely chosen,” the authors note. Thoreau protested slavery because it stole not only dignity but the chance to choose one’s work and build one’s own life. Slavery forced people “to assume a disproportionate amount of absolutely meaningless work.

Today, we are only wage slaves, but we are disillusioned, painfully aware that no gig is permanent or promised and that the old, reciprocal contracts have snapped in half. We are finally learning to make our own choices, but the transition is awkward, with anybody over a certain age as appalled by entitled Millennials and teenage slackers as Emerson was by Thoreau. Entire sectors—restaurants, hospitals, building trades—are short-staffed, the remaining employees forced to spend large chunks of their time making excuses about delays and cancellations and impossibilities, while customers grumble and wonder where all those workers went.

Dain Lee, Yongseok Shin, and Jinhyeok Park, economists here at Washington University, drafted a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research last month. They found that young men, especially, are working less often, and for fewer hours. Are they heading for the woods like Thoreau, where they will write timeless literature? Analysts are dubious; some say it was videogaming that sapped young men’s motivation. But in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson points to another reversal: a withdrawal of labor hours by the wealthiest among us. “From 1980 to 2005, the richest 10 percent of married men increased their work hours by more than any other group of married men: about five hours a week, or 250 hours a year,” he says. This “workism” became their new religion, contradicting the convention that those with the least money work the longest hours.

Now workism has gotten old; even the rich are losing their faith. Since 2019 (this stat comes from the Washington U. paper), the highest-educated, highest-earning, and longest-working men have reduced their working hours sharply. “The reduction in hours worked may well continue,” the authors write. “And this would not be a perverse outcome.” People in the U.S. have logged more hours than their counterparts in other countries for decades. “If anything, there is room for hours worked per worker to further decline.”

Can we, at last, make life a little simpler, a little easier and freer? Focus less on consuming and producing and throw more energy at what interests us, in the deepest sense of the word?

“Good work,” the authors conclude. “That is all that is required in a Thoreauvian life.”


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.