The Lie of the Hustle
One of the ways that gig companies have been able for years to define their workers as independent contractors is by exploiting the allure of individualism. The contractor has their freedom, the thinking goes, so why would they exchange that for a full-time job with benefits?
But another culprit emerges from popular culture: the trendy pidgin to describe contract work tends to glamorize such work. Our jobs, for example, are now “flexible,” because we are the ones contorting ourselves to work at all hours, or we were professionally “nimble” because we were trying to survive on freelance gigs. The lingo around living paycheck to paycheck routinely tried to make the dreary carousel of contemporary life sound more fun.
“These words have gained a strange kind of prestige from downwardly mobile, college-educated tech workers,” said John Patrick Leary, the author of Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism.
It was part of what Reddit’s founder, Alexis Ohanian, has called “hustle porn,” cheerleading multiple jobs and their backbreaking exertions, giving a cheerful spin to the full 30% of Americans who do something else for pay in addition to their full-time jobs, according to an NPR/Marist survey.
Hustling and nimbleness and the like implied, however, that there is a slinky joy in picking up gear at a studio and dropping it off across town or selling CBD oil part time. Once called drably “another job,” these more chic words gave instability—that fewer than half of American adults, just 47%, say that they have enough emergency funds to cover three months of expenses, according to a survey conducted in 2020 by the Pew Research Center—a shiny gloss.
The con of the side hustle happened when an NFL coach admiringly remarked that doing your job right means waking up at 3 a.m. with “a knot in your stomach, a rash on your skin, are losing sleep, and losing touch with your wife and kids.” It was in the exhortations of former SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan, who pushed “hustle culture” to one and all. “Hustle opens the doors of opportunity,” Whelan once said, encouraging her followers to work long days with the exhortation to “rise and grind.”
The urban legends of side hustling at its worst included one Lyft driver who continued to pick up riders after she went into labor, then Lyft-ed herself to the hospital to give birth, and T-shirts with the slogan “9 to 5 is for the weak.” It was in a set of risible “hustle culture” memes extolling the “grindset.” One maxim: “You can’t make excuses and money. Which is it going to be?”
This “grind” vocabulary for work can even be heard in a new rendition of that famous song by working-class patron saint Dolly Parton, where she twanged in praise of working on the side and in the off hours: “Workin’ five to nine . . . a whole new way to make a livin’ / Gonna change your life,” all in the service of an ad for Squarespace, a Web-hosting platform, “Be your own boss and climb your own ladder.” The idea haunting this jargon is that if you are coordinated enough, clever and cool enough, you can bootstrap your way out of two jobs and, ultimately, into achievement.
In truth, the side-hustle life wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and not just for the typical gig workers but for part-time workers in general. For instance, at the onset of the pandemic, Brenda Madison, in Laguna Beach, California, lost not one or two but three different gig jobs, and she put it like this: “We are all running in place as fast as we can to stay the same. Never did I think that a medical injury or unexpected repair could bankrupt us.”
Nicole Braun, a 55-year-old adjunct professor of sociology in Chicago with one grown son, also shared with me how for decades she had taught classes at multiple colleges to earn a living—as many as ten classes a semester (teaching in summers, too), but at the beginning of the pandemic, work dried up: student enrollment was down at the colleges where she primarily taught. She sent out “literally hundreds” of job applications but to no avail. She grew frantic and submitted her application in May 2021 for unemployment insurance. Then she waited for the checks to arrive—and waited some more. Like other contingent workers I talked to, Braun’s economic difficulties didn’t always meet the naked eye. It was as if she and others were, proverbially, hidden under the paper flaps of an Advent calendar, where each box covered the faces of who gets hurt, and how, in this country.
“We live in a culture that values individualism, and thus we are socialized to see through that lens; it causes much shame,” said Braun, who is a sociologist after all, of her unreliable work schedule. “There is a part of me that still feels I did something wrong.”
In addition to side hustling’s secret and melancholic instability, scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom observes, hustling can serve as a “kind of racial theater.” American culture “applauds the hustler” for “striking out on her own,” even though she may be doing so because she is excluded from traditional and secure employment due to bias. Digital platforms and companies “celebrate grit and urge us to ‘respect the hustle,’” she writes, but this glorification covered over the fact that it’s usually the already privileged whose side hustles add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Adapted from Bootstrapped by Alissa Quart(C) 2023. Published with permission of HarperCollins.
Alissa Quart is the author of four previous nonfiction books, including Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America and Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, and two books of poetry, most recently Thoughts and Prayers. She is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and has written for many publications, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Time. Her honors include an Emmy Award, an SPJ Award, and Nieman Fellowship. She lives with her family in Brooklyn.
Co-published with Fast Company.