How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Side Hustle
When someone asks Katherine Peik that age-old question, “So, what do you do?” Peik doesn’t have a simple answer.
Peik has two actual jobs -- substitute teaching and waiting tables. To make extra money, she also sells handmade resin baubles on Etsy. It’s her “side hustle.” Peik doesn’t like to admit it, but she sometimes needs the income from that side hustle to buy groceries. At 30 years old, Peik expected at this point in her life to have a predictable stream of grocery money.
As people like Peik rely on side hustles to get by, long-term stable jobs with benefits like a pension and robust health care are becoming harder to come by. At the same time this kind of employment is disappearing, we’re being encouraged to embrace the hustle by everyone from gig companies like Lyft and Uber to pop culture figures like Jay-Z and media organizations like Forbes.
Since its start, Uber has run marketing campaigns that entice drivers with the prospect of becoming entrepreneurs. More recently, the company has adopted the term “side hustle,” which features prominently in the video ad below.
Fiverr, a company where people get paid for small tasks, has promoted an extreme vision of the side-hustle life. It has run ads glorifying those who “eat coffee for lunch” and who consider sleep deprivation their “drug of choice.” The online ad from Fiverr below shows a woman checking her phone for a gig while she is in bed having sex.
News outlets like Forbes post how-to and promotional articles about side hustles, with headlines like “15 Easy Side Hustles Millennials Can Start This Weekend” or “How Starting a Side Hustle Could Be Your Best Investment Yet.” On Etsy, there is an entire genre of gifts branded with the saying: “Good things come to those who hustle.”
In addition to gig and media companies, there is a whole cottage industry of entrepreneurship gurus who stoke the hustle culture. They self-publish books and take to YouTube, expounding about how anyone can make it if they have enough hustle. Below is one such guru who has a theory about the existence of a “hustle muscle.”
Having to hustle has not always been so celebrated. In the past it has been looked down on or even vilified. You can see some of the transition in how our culture views work in the etymological history and changing perception of the word “hustle” itself.
To get a better picture of how we view hustle, we spoke to several linguists and requested a survey from Wakefield Research. The market research firm questioned 2,000 people to get a sense of how they think about both “hustle” and “side hustles.” Excerpts from the study are posted throughout this article, but you can see the full results here. One of the most interesting findings is that a majority of Americans believe that it's hard to succeed in the US if you don't have a side hustle.
University of Florida linguist Diana Boxer said “hustle” has undergone a shift -- a "semantic amelioration" to use the fancy linguistic phrase. This is when a word goes from having a negative connotation to a more positive one.
The word “hustle” has come a long way. Here’s the pocket etymology. In the late 17th century, the verb crossed over from the Dutch word “husselen.” When it was first adopted into English, it was a verb that meant to shake or toss. Over time “hustle” evolved to mean hurrying, elbowing one’s way in, and later, to sell aggressively. By the early 20th century, “hustling” came to refer to illegal activities: drug dealing, prostitution and street scams.
Who is hustling or exhibiting hustle has an impact on how we feel about the word and the activity. This is a general linguistic principle.
“Words and terms and expressions tend to have negative or positive meaning, depending upon on the groups with which they are associated,” Boxer said.
“Side hustle” did not start popping up until the middle of the 20th century. According to University of Michigan linguist Sarah Thomason, the term was first used in the African-American community. It appeared in the 1950s to describe both legit and shady jobs. Here is a representative quote from 1958 that Thomason found in the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper:
“That well-known Chicago scoutmaster and church official whose friends are unaware of his lucrative side hustle. Once he’s away from his boy scouts and church cronies he dons a colorful costume, pulls out a crystal ball, and becomes a "prophet" who sells numbers and gives spiritual advice to all who pay his fat fee.”
Since the early '90s, hustling to survive has been a big theme in hip-hop culture. It appears in songs by Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G., Lil Wayne, 50 Cent and others. Rappers have reclaimed the hustle, and they are celebrating it, said Eric Davis, a sociologist at Bellevue College.
“The interesting thing is that on one level, it is this idea of doing something illegal,” Davis said. “But they're saying at the same time, you don't give me other options, and I have to take care of my kids and family and take care of myself. So I am going to get my hustle on.”
Davis said companies are now co-opting “side hustle” from the African-American community, and they’re using it to market to everyone.
“This corporation is using that slang, hip-hop culture in a way to say here's something that the young people and people coming up in this generation can relate to,” Davis said.
Katherine Peik can relate. But the substitute-teaching, table-waiting, Etsy-selling 30-year-old has a different term for side hustling: “The grind.”
Peik said she’d like to stop hustling and settle down into a long-term, stable teaching job. But she has $75,000 in college debt, and right now she’s busy juggling side hustles to try to pay it all off.