Jun 29, 2021

Don’t Call It A Side Hustle

Andrew D. Ellis avatar
Andrew D. Ellis

“If you want to beat the S&P 500, start thinking of the index as a filter and not a benchmark. It’s the starting line; not the finish line.” Andrew D. Ellis, Founder, ThinkingLonger, LLC

There has been a lot of talk these days about having a side hustle — a business to which you can devote some time and energy to supplement your regular income and maybe, just maybe, grow to justify a full-time commitment.

In my opinion, there is no such thing as a side hustle. On any given day, each and every one of us is devoting our time and energy to working. Working for yourself and working for someone else at the same time is still working. So, the question of whether you’re working for someone else or for yourself is a distraction. You’re always working for yourself! Your business is the business of making money for you. The only question that matters is whether you are getting what you want out of all of the work that you are doing.

Let’s simplify the issue and assume that what you want out of working is money. I can understand that. So, you have to ask yourself: if I’m working for the money, then am I working at a job that maximizes the amount of money that I can make? Why take on a side hustle if you can increase the amount you make doing what you are already doing? I know that this question sounds so obvious, but, in fact, there are many people who simply will not ask themselves this question.

Let’s assume that you are good at selling women’s dresses and you make a salary of X dollars per year. You could think about a side hustle, or you could be asking yourself, is there a way to sell women’s dresses that generates a higher salary or greater compensation? Who (and more specifically, which employee of what organization) makes more selling dresses? To earn more, you might have to sell more expensive dresses, network more, change jobs, learn additional skills, relocate geographically, dress better, participate in social media etc. etc., etc. My point is simple: there is often a level of effort even within the scope of what you currently do that could increase your earnings. Taking on a side hustle distracts from this obvious opportunity. Be honest with yourself: for you, which approach is more worth the effort?

The unspoken promise of the side hustle is personal autonomy. Build your own revenue machine. Work for yourself. Be your own boss. Don’t be controlled by the “Man.” Control your own life. But is that a real alternative for most people? I’m not so sure.

Let’s go a step further. Let’s assume that there is nothing you can do to increase your earnings based on what you do. (You’re a great fruit-stacker, but there’s a limit to what a supermarket is going to pay you to stack fruit — although they will always need you.) Finally, let’s further assume that you have no unique skill to offer “on the side” for which someone would pay you. For example, you’re not a coach, or a therapist, or a creative. You’re just an ordinary person with no particular skills that make you independently employable on a full-time, part-time, or ad hoc basis.

Once upon a time in America, men and women (skilled and unskilled) could go to work in any number of industries, great some level of training, work for an employer, make a decent living, save some and retire modestly. This was also true in the G7 countries in the Post-WWII era. But, it is increasingly untrue and won’t be true at all in the 21st Century. The emerging economy does not offer work for all; at best, it offers work for some and more debt for many as we spend increasing amounts on education and re-training to maintain our place in an economy that demands “more” of employees (and not “less”).

For example, how many people are going to be put out of work by driverless vehicles: truck drivers, ambulance drivers, delivery people, taxi drivers, bus drivers, Uber drivers, Lyft drivers, etc., etc., etc. Digital databases, documentation, and record-keeping will dramatically reduce the need for researchers, mid-level administrators, paralegals, secretaries, and filing and billing clerks. Windmills and solar arrays, which are incredibly labor efficient, will reduce the need for coal miners. Remote work and online shopping will dramatically reduce the need for office space and the thousands of people involved in the maintenance and management of commercial real estate. The list is as endless as the point is obvious: there is a tsunami coming to the world of work, and it’s going to be unavoidable.

All of which brings me back to the question of side hustles — which is not being appropriately framed. If your current job/career/endeavor could disappear over the next ten to twenty years or condemns you to a life of endless financial struggle (e.g., our fruit stacker), then a side hustle is not a side hustle: it is a lifeline to economic survival, and that’s how you need to think about it.

The current discussion of side hustles implies that increasing one’s income to achieve greater personal and financial autonomy is worth considering. My point is somewhat different and frankly bleaker: for those who are either most or increasingly vulnerable to the changing economics of work (which is many of us) and are the least able to weather these changes (which is at least some of us), creating a side hustle is a necessity.

Caveat operatur. Let the worker beware.