The toxic fantasy of the “side hustle”

The rebranding of second jobs as "side hustles" has enabled us to ignore the serious problems of a society where regular working hours are no longer enough

August 19, 2019
When did we start saying “side hustle” when we mean “second job”? Photo: Prospect composite
When did we start saying “side hustle” when we mean “second job”? Photo: Prospect composite

A strange trend over the past few years is the rise of the so-called “side hustle.” A “side hustle” is additional work, either another job, or maybe a small business based around your hobby, that you take on outside of your main source of income to earn some extra money.

While the term itself isn’t new, the use of it, especially by media outlets, as a catch-all phrase for all secondary work is. The BBC has recently been asking people ‘what’s your side hustle?; Guardian Labs has a page dedicated to them. The phrase was barely Googled just a few years ago, but has grown increasingly popular since 2017.

For some, a side hustle is a chance to earn some cash from doing what they love. But many of the recommendations you find in articles with names like “99 side hustle business ideas you can start today!” are insecure jobs. These aren’t passion projects, but a way to make some desperately needed money because your current job isn’t paying enough to make ends meet.

Apart from a minor rebrand and some added aspirational rhetoric, it’s hard to distinguish side hustles from a much less-recent trend: having to juggle a number of jobs to help pay the bills. “Side hustles” might claim to offer flexibility, but in reality, many offer insecurity, unpredictable pay, and few workers’ rights.

A report by The Henley Business School found that people mostly do side hustles for financial reasons, with half saying they need the second income.  This chimes with recent research by the TUC and the University of Hertfordshire, which shows that growing numbers of workers are turning to often insecure and badly paid platform work to top up lacklustre wages.

But even those side hustles that are actual passion projects raise their own issues. Another way of looking at it is commodifying your hobbies—looking at how you can turn the fun thing you do in your leisure time into a way of making money.

Regardless of which camp your side hustle falls into it, it’s likely to impact on your work-life balance. UK employees already put in the longest hours in the EU. It’s therefore unsurprising that, according to the Henley Business School’s report, 45 per cent of those with side hustles regularly work more than 40 hours each week, and a quarter work more than 50 hours. Almost a third of those doing a side hustle are using up their annual leave to work on it.

This overworking, to the extent of using up your annual leave to work more, is symptomatic of two problems. Firstly, work simply isn’t paying enough. Real weekly wages are still below where they were before the recession, and the majority of people in poverty live in working households.

Secondly, the line between work and leisure is becoming increasingly blurred. Technology means that many people are feeling like they can’t switch off even when they leave work. And, for some, there’s a constant need to try to be more productive.

The journalist Oliver Burkeman has called the “quest for increased personal productivity … a dominant motif of our age.” Why are you wasting time and money having fun, when you could be making money? Why do something because you enjoy it, when you could financially profit from it instead?

This ‘side hustle’ rebrand has a risk of normalising these issues rather than challenging them. It also has a clear focus on young people, with the Henley Business School calling it a “side-hustling revolution” that’s being “driven by the millennial generation and younger.”

But young people turning to second sources of income to make ends meet isn’t a revolutionary millennial trend, it’s a serious problem. Young workers have entered the workforce during the longest pay squeeze in over two centuries. For the first time, a generation of workers are earning less in real terms than the one that came before it did when they were their age. Work is often insecure, with young workers being more likely than any other age group to be on a zero-hours contract or in casual employment. Housing is insecure too. Millennials are half as likely as their parents were to own a house by the time they’re 30, and the rise of private renting means housing is more insecure and more expensive.

Regardless of the age of the worker, normalising second jobs and relabelling them as ‘side hustles’ feels patronising and cynical. An economy that’s forcing people into taking on more work, especially precarious jobs and low-paid self-employment, to make ends meet is clearly flawed. At a time when in-work poverty is at record highs, and when food banks are reporting their busiest ever summer, we should be addressing the fact that for too many people of all ages, work simply isn’t paying enough.

These problems have clear solutions. We need reliable jobs that pay enough to keep up with the cost of living and leave people with enough time to pursue their hobbies without being pressured into commodifying them. A good start would be raising the national minimum wage to £10 per hour, and ending pay discrimination that means younger workers don’t get the same minimum wage as everyone else. Banning zero-hours contracts and false self-employment would also make work more reliable for many. Working people also need new rights to bargain through unions for fair pay and conditions. This’ll help to ensure that workers are paid fairly, and that people have more control over their time.