As a freelancer for over six years, I’m intimately familiar with the side hustle and freelance culture. And so, as one of the many thousands who have chosen to foster supplemental gig work, I must say, I find the increasing discussion surrounding the phenomenon disappointingly shallow at best, and blatant gas-lighting at worst.

The Data

The side-hustle economy is booming. One in four people in the UK now has some sort of money-generating operation on top of a typical job. This is projected to rake in more than 70 billion pounds in economic wealth. Across the pond, 44 per cent of Americans say they have a side hustle. The gig economy was expected to generate approximately 455 billion USD before the end of 2022. Almost one in two people between the ages of 25 and 35 have a side hustle in the US. For approximately 10 to 20 hours a week, a person’s average earning is less than $600 dollars a month.

Though there is much speculation about how this has come to be, the consensus is that new technologies and software are to thank for the rise of the side hustle industry.

A Remote Life

Automation is credited with granting anyone the capacity to build a professional-looking website, create and deliver products, and connect buyers with sellers. It is possible for a small business to complete a transaction, create, and deliver a product without ever having to engage with a customer (something that those with experience in the hospitality or retail industry may greatly appreciate).

Digital platforms themselves are also credited with growing the freelancing movement.

Digital creators have found ways to monetize their private lives via platforms like Patreon and OnlyFans, or have put their commercially applicable talents to use on Fiverr. Individuals the world over with a valid driver’s license subject their personal vehicles to wear and tear for additional income from Uber and Lyft, often sacrificing their Fridays and Saturdays in the process of generating more income. All of these revenue streams can be activated via handy mobile apps or web browsers, making them extremely accessible and all so easy.

Indeed, my own career as a freelance videographer and writer would be far more difficult without the tools provided by companies like Squarespace, or the audiences provided through social media.

An Existential Nightmare

Despite some plausible indicators, automation and the emergence of social media platforms isn’t the basic reason why the side-hustle culture emerged. It isn’t why workers are opting for the risks of freelancing instead of a consistent wage, or why they’re starting to look at their crafts like products.

Quite simply, the real motivation is that the social contract which offered 40 hours of labour a week, in exchange for enough money to get by, has defaulted utterly.

In fact, for many, the nine-to-five has become an existential nightmare. For all it demands, it offers little in return. Workers put in a full work day, hours of additional commuting per week, time away from family, are at increased risk of exposure to Covid 19’s endless variants, are subject to numerous other compromises, and for what? To still be left with a decision about paying the rent or buying groceries?

Poor Millennials, who were promised a stable life after college, and Gen Z, who watched that promise fall apart under the curse of endless student loan debt, have ever-increasing reasons to look at their hobbies, their passions, and even their bodies as vital income sources. Inflation, and rank corporate opportunism, is hurting everyone. Globally, wages haven’t moved for so long that they may as well be living economic fossils. With almost one-third of British workers living from paycheck to paycheck, for many of us, disaster is never too far off.

In fact, it is not uncommon for the working class to have a second (or even third) part-time job to supplement their income. And while this has more recently begun to be recognized as a failure of the system, somehow side-hustle culture has escaped this indictment.

Indeed, an increased sense of life satisfaction is a common explanation for the side-hustle boom — and why wouldn’t it be? At least self-employment (despite all of the additional labour, uncertainty and sacrifice), comes with a sense of agency and control.

Others will cite that the side hustle and freelance culture represent an opportunity to ‘pursue one’s passions.’ But what does that even mean? Surely several hours a week spent researching social media trends, managing paperwork, and marketing a small business selling hand-made pottery isn’t what people mean when they say they’re passionate about ceramics?

To turn a hobby into a side hustle is to turn it into work. And if the money generated from that work is essential to survival — is it still a work of passion?

Reclaiming One’s Time

Therein lies my greatest concern in the way that side hustle and freelance culture paint over the realities of its origins via the heroification of entrepreneurship.

What happens to us as a society when everything becomes work? What is lost when every opportunity to monetize our art, our bodies, and our privacy is relentlessly utilised? And what will be the ultimate cost if fiscal anxiety is allowed to invade our every motivation?

As a fellow freelancer, I am certainly not judging anyone for their decision to entertain a side hustle. I’m also sure there are thousands whose decision to strike it out on their own wasn’t due to the black cloud of late-stage capitalism. There is satisfaction in building something like a business on one’s own, and that can be rewarding enough.

My hope is, rather, that by shifting the discussion around this phenomenon of self-employment, we may yet preserve the vital time we have where work is the furthest thing from our minds.

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