A friend and I are sitting around a table playing a board game as we’ve done many times in the past, a few hours stolen to drink, chat and bond. Except something feels off. The lulls in conversation grow longer and longer, and not because either one of us is particularly engrossed in the game. In fact, the way he keeps checking his phone indicates a level of restless distraction, almost as if he needs to be somewhere else. Then drops a comment about how amazing it is that I still have time for hobbies like this. The words land like a backhanded compliment and leave me feeling not quite ashamed, but wondering whether I ought to spend my time doing something more productive. I chalk it up to my reading too deeply into it…except we would never play together again.
Some time later, I try to make plans with a different friend, but he launches into an explanation about how he doesn’t have an hour to spare this month or next, but might be able to squeeze me into his packed schedule two months from now. Fine, maybe a different friend is up for dinner this week. But no, April looks bad for her. How about May?
After several rounds of this, I realized I had entered the Age of the Hustle.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s tempting to conflate it with The Cult of Busy, a trend that garnered media attention and has been name-checked as far back as 2010 when journalists observed that being busy had become a status symbol. People seemed caught up in a humblebrag arms race with the goal being to flaunt just how in demand one’s time was, effectively rendering leisure time the mark of the unsuccessful. This Cult of Busy coincided with America’s recovery from the Great Recession, a time from from the late 2000s to the early 2010s, when a large part of the work force suddenly found itself unemployed and adrift. Many felt idle and thereby useless, so it’s logical that there developed a need to continuously assert your worth by demonstrating how vital you were.
This new Age of the Hustle, however, is more than a mere extension of the Cult of Busy. For one thing, this Hustle movement is driven largely, though not exclusively, by millennials. Yes, those same millennials that “Time” magazine dubbed The Me, Me, Me Generation, and who have been the butt of countless jokes about their laziness and sense of entitlement. We forget that this is the very same generation that grew up during the Great Recession, and although armed with Masters degrees and PhDs, found itself competing for the same jobs as its elders. So, millennials did what their parents and grandparents could not: swallowed their pride and took part time retail, clerical or labor heavy jobs to survive. They hustled.
Part of this hustle involved taking whatever task one found a modicum of joy in and then trying to monetize it. After all, in a time of economic anxiety, people justified spending time on a hobby–like discussing movies or repurposing old furniture–by turning it into work and profiting off it somehow.
Of course, the Age of the Hustle is not just about the money. For many, the hustle is also about self-actualization, about the realization of one’s potential and talents, and nowhere was this made clearer to me than online. A friend had become an internet streamer, one of the many aspiring personalities who had absconded traditional TV for on-demand interactive entertainment. Although I’m a few years too old to have an appreciation for these unvarnished celebrities of the internet age, I made it a point to sit in the room and support my friend, the same way you’d go to a coffee house to hear your buddies’ band.
There, on a virtual stage, my friend held lengthy, prepared but unscripted discussions intended, not just to provide entertainment, but to give the audience the illusion of intimacy. In essence it was a bi-weekly simulation of community. Then came the creeping realization that almost every single person in the audience, and every guest my friend interviewed was also a streamer. A performer whose audience was made up of almost exclusively other performers, all caught in an eerie ouroboros of content creator to consumer and back to content creator. Every one of them working the hustle on nights and weekends after regular day jobs in a desperate attempt to be the one to break free from the doldrums of work and become a fulltime, financially successful streamer.
But this hustle has a human cost. One of the guests my friend interviewed lamented how distant she had grown from her family and friends who didn’t understand the time sacrifice required to convert your interest into a second career. To my dismay, my friend expressed her agreement–people in your life are either accommodating of your hustle or they are promptly shown the door. Interestingly, even as the specter of exhaustion crept in the wings, they both insisted that pursuing their passion never “felt like work.” Consider me skeptical.
Hustle has a human cost.
To a degree, I understand their point-of-view. We all seek some meaning in our lives, and it’s tough to feel particularly proud or valuable when most of your time is spent inside a drab cubicle, behind the counter, or as part of the gig economy. “What do you do?” is almost always the first question we ask people, and we’re socialized to make snap judgments about the character and worth of a person based on the response. There is no feeling quite like the mix of shame and worthlessness you feel upon meeting someone at a party and being instantly and brusquely dismissed because of how you answered that question – an experience I’ve had first hand.
If, in Western culture, a person’s worth is rooted in his or her work, then perhaps Derek Thompson’s piece in the Atlantic is on to something when he calls “workism”–the belief that work is the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose–the new faith. He points out that alongside traditional religions, like Islam or Christianity, we now have a boom in atheism that has led right back to a “rediscovery” of faith and alternate forms of worship; some people have begun to worship money, others parenthood, and others still political or national identities. And the most powerful of these new religions may just be the worship of work or industriousness.
In this Age of Hustle, tech companies make up the new American Pantheon and Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates are seen as demigods. In this context, the hustle itself is a deity that promises community and transcendence. People are expected to devote almost all their free time to chasing their passions and turning them into profit, and every day that you don’t make it is an indictment of your indolence—essentially a reflection of your character and worth in this world.
In the end the most valuable, most finite resource we have is time.
In the end the most valuable, most finite resource we have is time. A century ago people dreamt of a future where technology would set them free, giving them more leisure time than they’d know what to do with, yet today people are evaluating every moment of their lives against the hustle. The thing is, sometimes there is no meaning to be found. Sometimes putting together a PowerPoint presentation or selling a mattress is as ephemeral and pointless as it seems. The greatest gift of modernity is the illusion of choice, and faith, by definition, is the choice to believe in something even in the absence of proof. But understanding what faith is and understanding what faith does are two different things, and we forget that for many, faith provides a sense of purpose, teasing meaning out of the chaos of existence. There is a very human need to find purpose and meaning beyond serving to enrich another man.
There’s no proof that your Etsy shop or your YouTube channel will ever be more than product to be consumed. There’s no evidence that because you love something, it will set you free and release you from the bondage of tedium and ignominy. There’s no guarantee that the friends and family you ignored or the time you burned away, all in the name of the hustle, will have been worth the sacrifice. I suppose that sometimes, as a poet once said, you just got to have faith.
By Endre Enyedy