I don’t know what a lot of my friends and acquaintances do for a living. I know what they do, just not for their job. I only know about their side hustle.
Conventional internet wisdom says the phrase ‘side hustle’ was coined by Pam Slim at Escape from Cubicle Nation but, if you read the post, it’s obvious that her friend’s teenage daughter was already using the term. Teenagers don’t get enough credit. This particular teenager was using it about the nail technician class she was taking so she could earn some extra cash in college, but most people I know use it to mean something a bit different. It’s not a job exactly, because a lot of us aren’t making money from it. It’s not a hobby though, because a lot of us are. My housemate describes it as “a hobby+” and my fiance calls it a “lottery ticket” (because there’s always the small chance it’ll take off and make you a millionaire or, more likely, an ex-millionaire).
I have no idea how many people actually have a side hustle the way my peers and I use the term. There isn’t that much research about it and most of the research that is there is very US-centric, because of course it is. It’s a lot of us, though. According to PR Newswire, 44% of workers between 25 and 34 have a side hustle – but they use the term to cover both side jobs, and ‘hobby+es’. In the list of their most popular side hustles, you can find all sorts of gigs, from ‘survey taker’ (I’m guessing that’s just a money spinner), to ‘blogger’ (in my experience, not a big earner), to ‘BBQ contest official’ (which I have to assume is just done for the love of the game).
It’s obvious from any basic google that plenty of people are using the phrase to mean an easy way of earning money* but none of their suggestions match up with what my friends are doing. For instance, Forbes loves to talk about side hustles, but I don’t think they really know what one is. Here’s what Neale Godfrey says about side hustles:
“Let’s be clear. Millennials did not invent part-time extra work; they just branded it with a pithy title. We Baby Boomers also “hustled” our way through life. I put myself through college holding down illustrious jobs like; delivering the Washington Post at 4:30 am every day, selling wigs, cleaning off tables in a cafeteria, polishing silver in Bloomingdales, etc. We may not have been clever enough to call these extra jobs “side hustles;” we just called them boring, hard, second and third jobs.”¹
That’s great, Neale, but that’s not what we’re doing. While Godfrey does briefly point out that some people might be side-hustling for fulfilment rather than money, she then goes on to suggest that AirBnB and Uber are great ways for baby boomers to get in on our hustling-based fun. Please, baby boomers, do something more interesting. You invented youth culture! You can do better.
The focus is different when actual twenty-somethings start talking about what we’re doing. Take Catherine Baab Muguira’s opening for Quora:
“On weekends, Colleen teaches fitness classes. Mary builds websites. Luke sells vintage video games. Tony designs and 3D-prints custom Star Wars miniatures.”²
OK, so teaching fitness classes sounds much worse than being an Uber driver (and my driving experience consists of 4 lessons in 2006). But this fits a lot more with what I see my peers doing, and we’re not doing it for the bags of cash (sometimes I wish we were).
Glamour states that “three-quarters of brits have a part-time hobby as well as a full time-job – and, on average, earn a collective £249million a month from their after-work interests.” The URL there reads “side-hustle-second-jobs-tips” and it does sound like they could be one and the same…until you do the basic maths and find out that we’re actually earning £5.18 a month each. There’s already a term for a second job. It’s ‘a second job’. Given that my writing statistically gets me one cut-price eBook a month, I don’t think it counts. But it is more than a hobby. We’re all working very hard at this shit.
A (highly scientific and not at all self-selecting) survey of my Facebook friends found that not one person cited money as the reason we’re doing…whatever it is we’re individually doing. What we’re missing from our jobs isn’t money – it’s creative fulfilment, meaningful challenges and a sense of achievement. Hannah writes and performs badass poetry “for the love of it and ’cause it’s cheaper than therapy.” My fiance Jonny works 10-20 hours a week writing a very successful and brilliant* podcast and none of the production team have earned anything from it (yet). My favourite songwriter Jess maintains a bunch of side-hustles “because [her] day job is boring!” (I don’t understand this – she works at a living museum. That’s awesome). She earned around £600 from all of her hustle-pies last year, and one of those was publishing a book that’s just been translated into Welsh. And if Welsh doesn’t mean money, I don’t know what does! Given how many people expect creative work to be done for free, we’d have to be intensely stupid to be doing it for a quick buck. At most, the dream is that someday it will become an averagely-paid day job.
So why are we working so hard at these semi-careers? Well, for me, it’s because when my parents went to my year 5 parents’ evening, they asked my teacher if she thought I could be a writer when I grew up and she said, “yes, absolutely, if she wants to be.” (Thanks, Mrs Lloyd!). And I did want to be. But when I left university, I had no idea how on earth anyone got paid for writing unless they (a) wrote a novel (which I had failed to do during my degree), or (b) were a journalist (which seemed to require many unpaid internships that I could not afford). So, needing to buy food and shelter, I got one of the ‘normal’ jobs. But I didn’t want to give up that future where my job was ‘writer’, so I thought, someday I’ll write the most important and enjoyable novel that’s ever been written and then they’ll have to pay me a buttload. And that was ridiculous.
But at the same time, most of my hobbies were teaching me how to write, how to perform and how to tell a joke. My boring day job began to involve more and more copywriting. Now, I’ve just finished the first draft of my first novel (it’s atrocious) and I’m getting pretty reasonable at writing performance comedy. At the same time, I’ve found out I actually quite like my boring day job.
I graduated from university with a few thousand pounds of debt on top of my student overdraft, no family home to move back to and an incessant need for food and warmth. Was I really going to ‘follow my dream’ like I’d always been told? Art is important, but you can’t eat it. (Trust me, it tastes terrible and they throw you out of the Tate way before you can fill up). So was I going to ‘start living in the real world’, get an unfulfilling job and give up on anything better? Heck no! I like my job maybe 6/10 (7 to 8 really, but only because I like my co-workers). That’s pretty good going, compared to my friends, but I don’t want to settle for a life that’s 6/10! I only get the one. I want to keep trying and hoping for something more, and even if I do only ever make £5.18 a month from it, I’m so much happier doing what I love in between the perfectly-fine-thing-that-pays-the-rent.
Side hustling is great, and it’s more than a second job. Of course, the fact that so much work is being done for free is a huge problem. Seriously, it’s terrible news. And we should definitely try to fix that. But in the meantime (and even beyond), this is a great workaround. Most of us are disengaged at work; side hustles engage us. Most of us want more flexibility and creativity at work; side hustles give us a taste of that. Most of us have worse financial prospects that our parents; side hustles are a perceived safety net (albeit one that is much more hole than string).
Most importantly, side hustles allow us to reconcile the fact that ‘real grown-ups’ always told us we could be ‘anything we wanted to be’ when we were little, with the fact that they’re telling us to ‘just get a real job’ now. Side hustles let us have both! Seriously, you should get one.
*Google now keeps suggesting I search for ‘best illegal side hustles’. Thanks, Google.
*According to many people much less biased than me
¹Side Hustle: A New Dance Or A Way Of Life For Millennials?, http://www.forbes.com/sites/nealegodfrey/2016/12/18/side-hustle-for-millennials/#49d3007c3dd3
²Millennials are obsessed with side hustles because they’re all we’ve got, http://qz.com/711773/millennials-are-obsessed-with-side-hustles-because-theyre-all-weve-got/