Monday, May 15, 2017

The Startup Industry’s Toxic “Side Hustle” Fixation

A handsome man gazes at the camera. “These days, everyone needs a side hustle,” he shrugs. We cut to scenes from his well-lit life, and it’s a mix of pleasant chauffeur jaunts, and hangout sessions with his daughter, dog, and pals. “Earning, chilling, earning, chilling,” the man sing-songs, a prosperous avatar for enviable work-life balance. His existence is so delightfully calibrated, I could play the scene for my therapist to best explain what I’m aiming for, except I won’t do that, because the man is an actor and he’s in an ad for Uber. The transit company has embraced the concept of “side hustle” to entice people to become contractor-taxis, spinning the idea of having a second job as a form of freedom, a salvation from drudgery. “Get your side hustle on,” Uber’s website beckons new drivers.

Uber is the most prominent business in startup culture to explicitly use the term as a way to sell piecemeal labor as a savvy lifestyle choice, but the phrase is frequently deployed within the startup industry to hype all sorts of gig-economy work. Websites like Side Hustle Academy and books like Side Hustle to Success and Side Hustle Blueprint promise readers they’ll explain how to build wealth as an extracurricular habit. A marketing consultant who refers to herself as a “digital nomad” published a self-help book called The Side Hustle Gal. It’s like those spambot comments at the bottom of blog posts — make extra money working from home — were interpreted credulously and turned into an economic game plan by a cadre of self-published wannabe Suze Ormans. But the way Uber and startup culture has co-opted and bowdlerized the phrase into an anodyne signifier of entrepreneurialism is gallingly hollow. The side hustle is a survival mechanism, not an aspirational career track.

Two definitions of the “side hustle” are hyped by startup culture. One is the Uber interpretation, and it’s simple: side hustle as second gig. The other, what I’d call the “life coach” definition, is a little more specific: the side hustle as second gig that is also a passion project. While these two definitions are distinct, they are not so distant from one another. Both imagine that the side hustler is on track to a better life through ceaseless piecemeal labor rather than 9-to-5 employment. Even in Uber’s estimation, the “side hustle” is a sanguine endeavor, something that makes life easier, a way to grease one’s most ambitious life track. It’s a captivating tale. The idea that success depends on after-hours striving speaks to an archetypically American combination of values — the national preoccupation with work ethic and individualism. It also misconstrues economic reality to make companies like Uber look like benevolent job creators rather than businesses tailored to maximize profit while shifting as much financial risk onto contractors as possible.

Companies like Uber want to spit-shine the concept of “side hustle” so it looks like a better alternative to steady, gainful employment. If people see gig-economy labor as a flexible stepping stone to a better life, they’re less likely to also see it as a force eroding a work culture with protections and benefits for employees in favor of a low-ball freelance marketplace. (Also, one that will eventually be automated, making their jobs obsolete.) Uber is selling a fantasy of economic advancement through the corrosion of employment benefits and stability, pitching increased subjugation to the corporation as some sort of salvo. That Uber is promoting itself as a solution for the financial flailing is particularly eye-popping when one considers the company’s ultimate goal to eliminate the job of driving in favor of large-scale automation. (...)

I recently wrote about how startup multilevel marketing companies, like LuLaRoe and It Works!, are growing in popularity on social media. Many of these businesses push the idea that people can get rich by selling wares as a type of side hustle, but the reality is that the majority of contractors shilling for these companies make little to no money. This does not mean they are indolent or obtuse. Many startup gigs that are breathlessly pitched as ways to transcend the grind are, in fact, often more wearying, riskier, and less financially rewarding than salaried employment.

CNBC recently reported a story about how a college student earned $10,000 using a “side hustle app” called JoyRun. That sounds impressive until the figures are broken down. She worked around 12–20 hours a week for a year. That’s a classic part-time job making around $10–15 an hour. So it’s slightly better than the average wage at McDonald’s. The student’s “success” on this app was apparently rare enough to warrant media attention; what a closer look at the numbers reveals is how easily low-rung employment can get ginned into a success story by slapping a hyperbolic “side hustle” narrative on it.

by Kate Knibbs, The Ringer |  Read more:
Image: Getty/The Ringer