In the litany of one-liners spoken at college commencements, here is one told to me years ago that I haven’t been able to verify but am also unable to forget: “This generation will go to their grave with their options open.” It was purportedly said at a Yale graduation—a group that would likely have had many options.
The notion of “leaving one’s options open” has morphed into a noteworthy trend called the “side hustle.” The side hustle is loosely translated as activities undertaken outside of a person’s main job to earn additional income or satisfy a passion. Side hustles can lead to a new career path or simply test a fantasy-like, “I want to be the leader of a band.” The accountant by day becomes a photographer by night. A teacher hires himself out as an elite caterer on weekends. Some typical side hustles include driving for Uber, tutoring, dog sitting, freelance writing, and buying and reselling stuff.
Side hustles are more prevalent than one might think. The Harris poll estimates 1 in 3 people have side hustles, and over 61 million people plan to start a side hustle in 2021. Even the famous with seemingly no need for extra income do the hustle. Hall of Fame football player Michael Strahan went from sports to entertainment, to news (which is arguably entertainment), to fashion. The rapper Drake started a liquor company for no obvious reason other than he can. Still, for most millennials—and they dominate this category—side hustling is about supplementing their income and exercising freedom and creativity.
As a massive phenomenon, are side hustles more beneficial or costly to our social fabric? Have we been doing the side hustle all along—maybe to a lesser degree—without naming it?
It is not difficult to identify the positives of the side-hustle. The decision to undertake a mini-venture encourages innovation and fosters continuous learning and an expanded social network. The side hustler has a broader perspective about people, business, and life itself. No parent required—well kind of. The move also serves as a hedge in case the day job goes south. Even if the hustle doesn’t pay the same, it opens new paths and can reduce anxiety.
Still, there is a downside if you believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. He asserts that committing time and practice are essential for mastery. Since a day still has only 24 hours, including sleep, there are only so many ways we can divvy up our time.
There is also the risk of burnout. If we are constantly working, when do we refuel our tank? A recent survey by Spring Health cites 76 percent of U.S. workers are experiencing burnout. Other surveys show similar findings. Running hard in multiple lanes bears associated health and emotional costs. There really is no free lunch.
This trend raises other questions too. How will the workforce look when we go from a rickety ladder to a gig economy to a side hustle? How do educational institutions prepare students for this complicated dance? How do parents prepare their children for what feels like a shapeless journey?
Dinner conversations are often a good time to broach these topics. When I asked my son why he felt the need to simultaneously be a teacher, gardener-for-hire, and a crypto-maven, he cited an IRS study about the value of having seven streams of income. More to the point, though, he enjoyed all three and didn’t want to choose if he didn’t have to.
In that same conversation, my husband and I realized we had our own small side-hustles. My husband, a scientist, is also a singer part-time cantor. I write for fun and sometimes pennies, but I pay my way with a business consulting practice. The new, new thing is a variation of the old—with a twist and born of necessity.
What’s different is that social media shines a light, and technology enables a broader range to our side hustles.
What’s also different is the voice we each hear. If we grew up to Benjamin Franklin’s words, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” our children have grown up to words like Stephen C. Hogan’s, “You can’t have a million-dollar dream with a minimum-wage work ethic.”
Different times call for different voices and different marches. The side hustle is here for the duration.