Maybe you’re buying energy drinks at the gas station or snagging a chicken Caesar wrap from the self-checkout kiosk at your nearest airport. You swipe your card and the glowing point-of-sale screen prompts you to select 20%, 25%, or maybe even 30% gratuity on your purchase. It’s probably not the kind of transaction you’re expecting to add a tip on—but you very well might be asked to.
These days American customers are being encouraged to tip in settings where, just a couple of years ago, doing so was unprecedented. According to recent survey data, the increasing pressure to leave a gratuity (and more of it) during a wider array of sales is actually leading people to pay service workers less, not more.
Data from a Bankrate survey of 2,437 Americans published June 8 shows the number of people who say they always tip servers dropped from 77% in 2019 to 65% this year. Of participants, 66% said they have a negative view of tipping, 32% thought pre-entered tip screens were annoying, and 30% of respondents felt that tipping culture “has gotten out of control.”
Since tipping took hold during Reconstruction in the post-Civil War years, it’s never been particularly popular. In the 1800s the practice was considered un-American, and Democratic politician William Scott claimed it would one day be “uprooted.” Obviously, that didn’t pan out. While tipping stuck around, this latest data shows sentiment around the practice seems to have hit an all-time low.
We’ve had some version of this conversation again and again (and again) over the years. In 2014 Vox published a story claiming that tipping perpetuates racism, classism, and poverty. About a year later Danny Meyer eliminated tipping at his restaurants (before reinstating tips during the pandemic). In 2017 Vice called tipping culture in North America “increasingly oppressive.” In 2019 The New York Times argued it was “immoral.” The problem is that despite all this discourse about replacing a broken system, tips are still the only way many food service workers make a living wage.
During the pandemic the vibe around gratuity finally shifted. The practice spread to every corner of the food industry as people happily showed their support for frontline workers. Of course, as restaurant employees who’ve long been paid as little as $2.13 an hour know, reliance on tips is nothing new. Still, the pandemic made customers more acutely aware of (and empathetic to) these realities, especially as staff shortages and Covid outbreaks rendered food service jobs more difficult and potentially dangerous. Throughout 2020 tips—and the requisite point-of-sale technology designed to capture them—boomed. It seemed like, maybe, negative attitudes towards tipping had mellowed.
Then, around last spring, business returned to some version of normal and so-called “tipping fatigue” set in. Some customers expressed the feeling that they were being asked to tip too much, too often. Others argued that when people don’t tip the recommended amount, they’re simply not paying the full cost of a meal. “Framing tipping as a burden or an extra demand on customers makes fatigue an inevitable reaction,” Adam Reiner wrote for Bon Appétit. “Instead, we should think of tipping as the price of service, and the decision not to leave one—or to leave less than standard—means underpaying for that service.”