The ‘Side-Hustle’ Pandemic — A crisis of Capitalism
It’s a pandemic on its own. It’s glorified, but there is nothing glorious about it. It is a direct result of a capitalistic system that has siphoned value from labor to capital for a very prolonged period.
A side hustle is a side job that one performs in addition to their primary job in order to supplement income. The material conditions of the worker pitted against the rising cost of living have created conditions of possibility for the side hustle pandemic.
How is this a Pandemic?
Firstly, let’s establish that millions of workers are doing this. It is not in the thousands anymore. Side hustling is being carried out en masse. The quantity of internet content dedicated to side hustling is mind-boggling.
Secondly, let’s establish why it is a bad thing. Side hustling en masse is effectively swaths of people carrying out two jobs to keep their heads above the water and working two jobs to make ends meet and working two jobs to have that slim chance of getting ahead and working two jobs to have that chance of ever getting that elusive social mobility. You see where this is going.
Under normal circumstances, the economic system is supposed to get you all of these desires you wish to attain without working two jobs. The side-hustle pandemic is proof that the system is not working well for many people.
The world progressed from a 10-hour workday to an 8-hour workday after the Industrial Revolution. This was done in the 19th century and early 20th Century. The standard 8-hour workday and 40–45-hour work-week have existed for close to a hundred years now. Prior to that, in the 18th Century, workers were working a standard 10-hour workday.
The move from a 10-hour workday to an 8-hour workday was necessitated by increases in productivity. Prior t the 10 hours, there was a 12-hour work week. It was brutal. People had to fight to get these better living conditions.
Now, “voluntarily”, people are choosing to go back to the brutal 10-hour and 12-hour workday. The word “voluntarily” is in quotes because it is voluntary on the surface, but it is essentially forced because of the underlying conditions of possibility that necessitate the need to hustle on the sides.
If the 8-hour work week came into effect more than a hundred years ago, why haven’t we gone to a 6-hour workweek by now, given the mouth-watering increases in productivity that have taken place over the last hundred years? It is a question very few people bother asking.
In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes was predicting that increases in productivity would lead to a 15-hour work week in a hundred years’ time, meaning by 2030 people would be working a 3-hour workday for 5 days a week. This is not any close to happening in 2030. Did the increases in productivity and labour-saving technologies happen? Yes, they did. One worker in 2022 could easily be more productive than 10 workers in 1930.
What Keynes missed was that labour-saving technologies would render labor more substitutable and thus drive down real wages.
We know for sure, based on the report from the Rand Corporation that in the USA, the top 1% who own the means of production have taken $50 trillion from the bottom 90% in the past 50 years. This is the real cause of the pandemic.
Wages have gone down in real terms. They are lagging way behind productivity gains. They are also lagging behind inflation. Lagging behind productivity gains means almost all productivity gains have been captured by business owners, government, hedge funds, and the rich. Lagging behind inflation means in real terms, the employee is getting worse off each year.
These are the material conditions giving rise to the side-hustling pandemic. These are the conditions that have taken the worker back to the 10-hour workday and for some back to the 12-hour workday. The worker has been taken back to the 17th and 18th Centuries, whilst the class that owns capital has been propelled forward into an era of Space Tourism.
The victims of this asymmetrical system that has benefited the top layer at the expense of the bottom layer are somewhat oblivious to the real cause of the problem. Unions were busted, and there are no more strong unions. Union-busters won. Workers cannot be united within a work-setup again. Individualism reigns supreme over collectivism. This environment then informs the ‘individual decision’ to take on a side hustle. The primary job is not secure enough to rely on for years to come and does not provide enough material benefit to rely on.
We have a problem here. Millions work 10+hours per day to be able to afford a house whilst a thousand people have billions to afford a house on Mars. The problem is the presumed allocative efficiency of the free market. Clearly, the so-called free market is failing at allocating resources. Either it has never really been a free market, or it has been captured.
People who do side hustle are always busy and always tired. They don’t get enough rest and they don’t get enough sleep. It’s back to pre-Industrial Revolution settings.
A problem with the Numbers
There is a problem with the numbers that we get from stats departments and reporters in the context of this matter. They tend to excessively use averages and tend to over-report on tail events.
The first problem of using averages suffers from The Flaw of Averages. Let’s say you have 10 workers at a company. 8 of them earn $10 per hour and 2 of the earn $1,000 per hour. If you calculate the average, you will get an average of $208 per hour. Clearly, this average is far above what most workers earn. It is affected by the two outliers who earn a lot. This is precisely what is happening in the payroll averages that are quoted in the media. Even though they are arithmetically correct, they tend to misrepresent reality. Truth is used to tell a lie. Very few people can read between the lines.
If things were so good, and most employees were earning anything close to the average wages that are reported, we would not be witnessing this pandemic of side-hustling.
The second problem of over-reporting the outliers is a dominant feature of the internet culture. I am sure you have come across a heading that says “employee quits his job to focus on the side hustle and now makes $XYZ more”. It is yet another case of a truth being used to tell a lie.
Whilst it is factually true that the employee quit his job and started earning more, the salient lie being driven home is that those who quit their jobs and focus on the side hustle do well. The reality is that the ones who are successful are a tiny drop in the ocean in the pool of those who attempt that. That high failure rate (not unwarranted fear) explains why many who do side hustles do not quit their day jobs. Maybe 1 in every 100 who quits their day job for a side job becomes successful. The failure rate and the overwhelming stories from those who fail go unreported whilst the one success is over-reported and thus over-represented.
Of those who undertake side hustles and do not quit their jobs, the pain and stresses they go through are unreported. How much effort they exert for that extra income is unreported as well. The tiny number of cases where the side job actually contributes meaningfully to the finances is also overrepresented. The majority of cases, where it is just endless hustling with no meaningful benefits, go unreported. It’s fundamental to human nature. Success has many fathers while failure is an orphan.
To peer through the veneer, one has to peer through the statistics and anecdotal stories. One has to separate dogma and propaganda from reality. One has to uncover the material conditions and the conditions of possibilities.
The possibilities set from side-hustling are determined by the overall conditions prevailing in an economy. The basic condition of the global economy is that it is monopolistic and oligopolistic. Big business controls everything. The big fish have been swallowing the small fish over time. Some small fish that start out today grow very quickly in a very short space of time to become very big and then swallow every other small fish. The globalized capitalistic system is set up for the winner-take-all and winner-take-most types of businesses. There is no meaningful prize for anyone outside the top three.
It then follows that most of the side hustling is basically eating from the crumbs left by big business. Some of the side hustles are actually creative innovations, but most are merely scavenging in the rubbish dump of the system for a little something.
The incomes from the side hustles are only good as supplementary income and way low to be the main income, yet the main income is also low enough to stand on its own in supporting the family. This is the crisis. If this is not a crisis of real wages, then what is it? The pandemic of side hustles is essentially a crisis of real wages. The system has failed to generate a living wage for most workers.
The problem with the numbers and the attendant explanations is that they do not paint the full picture regarding the living wage. They divert attention from observing this crisis for what it is. They spin the crisis of a living wage into a nice-sounding gospel of side hustling.
Hustling sometimes rewards well when there are only a few players doing it. Grabbing a niche ignored by big businesses such as tailored cakes is profitable when there are say only 10 side hustlers in a community of 10,000 people. When the number of side-hustlers rises to 100 serving the same population, the gains from side-hustling are diluted and shared across the bakers since increased supply does not necessarily increase the per capita cake consumption of the community.
Increasingly crowded side hustles are a pandemic within the overall pandemic of side hustling. The reality is not reported on. No journo out there is counting the number of women doing full-time jobs and selling cosmetics to supplement income and tracking this number of times. No is counting the number of teachers offering tutorials after work or the number of full-time employed accountants offering their labor for bookkeeping services to be done after-hours. It’s completely unreported.
The absence of reported statistics doesn’t invalidate the reality. The reality is that there is a pandemic out there of overcrowded side hustles.
How did we get here?
We are here because of an extremely ruthless and unregulated form of capitalism. The crisis of a living wage is at its core a crisis of capitalism. This is of course a crisis that is better than similar crises under command communism of the Soviet type where the economic system does not generate a living wage for many people except those at the top of the system.
During its golden era, free market capitalism embarked on a great leap forward. This great leap resulted in the mass production of goods and services that millions of households could afford.
- The era of One Job Supporting a Family
In this era, the system mainly required men to come to factories and offices to carry out productive work whilst women stayed at home to carry out reproductive work. Productive work at factories was well paid, in real terms. Reproductive work at home was unpaid and uncommercialized. This work involves bearing children, raising them, cooking, care work et cetera that ensures the human race can continue to survive and grow. Productive and reproductive work are both needed for our material forward leaps.
2. The era of Two Jobs Supporting a Family
As we progressed with an extreme form of capitalism that siphoned value from wages to capital, we came to a point in time where one job was not enough to support a family. This is true for most families. It is true for the greatest number of people.
In two-parent homes, both the mother and the father need to go to work in order to make ends meet. The work at home is either shared between the two, or conducted by the mother after work, thus essentially working two jobs. Where replacement labor could be found, it would be siphoned into the home as paid domestic work. This labor typically comes from the peripheries to the core and can be observed as immigrants coming from poor countries, and villagers emigrating to the city. Take note that these immigrants and villagers have to leave their own families to go and perform work for other families (e.g., not raising your own child since you go to raise other people’s children, leaving your own child with grannies and the extended family).
The system is not sustainable. What happens when there are no pockets of people down the ladder to bring into productive work. The system runs to its own limits. If every young man and woman has left the village for the city, and as many immigrants as possible have crossed the border till a crisis emerged forcing a backlash against immigration. Costs start to rise up, further squeezing the worker. Childcare and domestic work is financially killing most workers in the developed world.
In a single-parent home, there is typically only one breadwinner. Since a single salary barely supports the family, a second income is needed. This points us in one direction — side-hustling. Most single moms have a side hustle. Some have two or three. The reality that women are generally paid less than men in the main job doesn’t make things better. It makes women want to hustle more. Take note that women generally have two jobs already before the side hustling (the productive job at work and the care plus reproductive job at home). Adding a side hustle makes them effectively work three jobs which leaves them in a perpetual state of anger.
3. Three and Four Jobs Supporting a Family
The pandemic of side hustling has led us here. In a two-parent home, if both parents have a full-time job and one of the parents is doing a side job, it means there are three jobs needed to support that family. If both parents have side jobs, then it means four jobs are needed to support that family.
In the most extreme cases, there are people with two or more side jobs. This means five or six jobs are needed to support a family and save for something. Isn’t this a pandemic? Isn’t this a crisis? If it’s not a crisis, then what is it.
4. Many-many-many side hustles
How did we move from one job being able to pay the mortgage, send 3 or 4 kids to school, buy groceries, and save for retirement to needing 6 jobs to attain the same stuff?
Clearly, something is off. Something is wrong.
Whilst there are some families who are doing well with one job, most are not doing well with two jobs. It is a statistical reality that is hidden behind the reports.
How many side hustles can people take before the system is deemed to have failed? Those who preach that there is no crisis, this is simply people being driven to earn more and be better versions of themselves conveniently ignore that the millions participating in the side hustling pandemic do not prefer work to leisure all the time but are forced by the material conditions of their work to find more work outside work.
The gospel of side hustling often attaches a freedom doctrine to the entire thing. Themes such as “be your own boss”, “don’t rely on one income”, “have multiple streams of income”, and “get that financial freedom” are religiously thrown around. Of course, it’s all propaganda.
How is working two jobs for the same outcome that could be achieved by one a financial freedom? How is working a 12-hour workday better than an 8-hour workday? How is being tired all the time from working your ass all the time a good thing? You are not your own boss. You are your own slave. You have been given the chains and chained yourself given that most of the real money goes to big businesses anyway.
If the system continues to squeeze the wage-earner, how are you going to make ends meet. Today you do so by having a job and a side hustle. Today you are effectively putting in a 10-hour to 12-hour workday. Tomorrow you will need to put in a 14-hour or a 16-hour workday to balance the finances. You see where we are going. You see the lack of foresight in celebrating the culture of side-hustling.
Of course, at the individual level, hustling makes sense but at the collective level, the system level, it does not make sense. At the individual level, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. You have to feed the family. At the system level, it doesn’t make sense for millions of people to work all these extra jobs, they should simply be paid enough for performing their normal jobs.
So, what’s going to happen now?
Nothing much. More trillions are going to siphoned from labor to capital, from the 90% to the 10%. And nothing much is going to change. Labor-saving technologies will continue to drive productivity gains which will be captured by class of mostly big business owners.
Workers will continue to be driven from the core to the periphery. Side hustling will become a permanent feature of the economic setup. Two or more side jobs might be needed. Maybe three jobs for some. And so it goes, until labor has been totally debauched and conquered.
We could probably get to a point where side-hustling is not confused with entrepreneurship. The two might decouple and take completely different meanings. Labor has historically been organised under trade unions. The next form of organisation might be outside the commonality of work. It could be the union of hustlers and the unemployed.
Only time will tell.