During the coronavirus pandemic, we’re told to spend every minute focused on gig work or self-improvement. Think about whom that really benefits
‘It seems like every second that I don’t put toward building a side business, making money from a hobby, or improving myself is in some way a second wasted.’ Photograph: PeopleImages/Getty Images
The Guardian- Kiran Misra
One consequence of Covid-19 is that we are now all being urged to hustle harder than ever. Isaac Newton discovered gravity and invented calculus while in quarantine, we are told. Shakespeare allegedly wrote King Lear on lockdown.
I’ve received emails urging me to use the presumed downtime I now have to learn a new language, or to take a business course to more effectively monetize my photography skills. It seems like every second that I don’t put toward building a side business, making money from a hobby, or improving myself is in some way a second wasted.
The pressure is convincing. I have at various points vowed to code a new website, study for every standardized admissions test I could potentially need to take in my life, train to bike nearly 500 miles across my home state, and reach the coveted inbox zero, in addition to doing my actual job.
But then I stop myself and I wonder: who is “hustle culture” actually benefiting, and is this really the best way to be spending my free hours in isolation?
The language of the hustle was embedded in the pre-corona world. Back when we could travel, hotels encouraged us to be more productive on vacation. The shared workspace company WeWork instructed us: “Don’t stop when you’re tired.” According to one ad that ran in London, sleep was for the weak. It’s no wonder these pressures are being felt more keenly now amid mass economic dislocation.
I don’t necessarily blame the people peddling hustle culture, however – the fitness influencers trying to make a sale, or the economic advisers who suggest we cash in on any skill sets we have lying around to deal with the current financial insecurity.
Glorifying the hustle is part and parcel of late capitalism, where dependable employment with benefits and a living wage feel increasingly out of reach. Many in my generation are far less likely to experience the kind of financial stability our parents did, despite working longer hours.
The concept of the hustle helps reconcile these contradictions, and can be weaponized to justify income inequality in nearly any context, promoting an illusion that if you hustle hard enough, the playing field can be equal for you, too. So while the gig economy undermines worker protections and reinforces the expectation that every free second is monetizable, we scramble to assemble a collection of small side gigs to fill in the gaps. The emotional impact is profound. We live in a political and social climate where our sense of self-worth is often reduced to our productivity.
I know all this, yet I’m no stranger to the side hustle. I have a full-time job working for the United Nations World Food Programme, but I also run a photography business, work as a freelance journalist, edit books, teach English, freelance as a translator, earn money as a bhangra dancer, and do policy research to supplement my income when I’m not on the clock.
Here’s what I have to remind myself. Being more productive is actually made harder by the disruption in daily routines, or by having no way to escape from roommates or family. Many people have have spotty internet or cell service. And the constant barrage of confusing and overwhelming bad news can make us sick and exhausted, exacerbating underlying mental health conditions for those who have them. For women, new and unexpected childcare pressures and the new reality of having to prepare more meals at home make it harder to get work done.
Acknowledging that we are all living in an impossible era with little, if any, extra free time is an important first step in breaking free of hustle culture, especially if you can laugh at the absurdity of it all.
The next step is understanding that narratives around the wonders of constantly working primarily benefit a small group of bosses and investors who pocket the profits their workers create, rather than individual workers, no matter how productive we are. The way so many institutions and employers have treated their staff in recent weeks only adds to this impression, as companies from Instacart to Trader Joe’s have failed to provide employees with hazard pay or adequate protective equipment for work in high-risk conditions.
There is more to our time on this planet than just getting things done
After doing all of that? Try getting involved in a network that addresses the problems with the systems of work and value we live under, like one of the thousands of mutual aid projects that have been organized from coast to coast.
Even though hobbies may seem frivolous or non-essential at a time like this, taking space to do things that aren’t necessarily productive, or part of a pages-long to-do list, reminds us that there is more to our time on this planet than just getting things done.
In the last few weeks, my favorite moments have included making a batch of homemade butter for the first time and getting my violin out after years in storage.
I was reminded that in addition to a productive employee, I am also someone who loves to cook and who has a passion for music. I remembered that I am more than the economic value I generate, the perfect antidote to a lifetime of indoctrination otherwise.