During an interview with Lehman Brothers in the 1980s, author Michael Lewis made the mistake of being honest. When the interviewer asked why Lewis wanted to be an investment banker, he answered, “I want to make money.” Lewis later learned from a friend that admitting to loving money was taboo; the correct answers were “the challenge; the people; the thrill of the deal”—even if this was all, as Lewis later wrote in Liar’s Poker, “complete and utter bullshit.”
The front of having some kind of external motivation to work is hardly new. But a pretend love of work has in particular defined the “gig economy,” in which local services rely on single contractors. Though the “uberification” of local services has made supplemental income more readily available, it also comes with an expectation that your “side hustle” serves as a source of personal fulfillment, both to appease workers and consumers. Catherine Baab-Muguira argued in Quartz that, for millennials, side hustles are “a hedge against feeling stuck and dull and cheated by life”–they provide psychological value and are about more than simply making money. Part-time work can certainly offer fulfillment, and millennials may have more options for how to make extra money, which gives us the chance to seek extra work better suited to us. But it would be a mistake to conflate companies’ abilities to market themselves as exciting or cool with the desires of those seeking side hustles.
When I moved to Washington, DC this year, I knew right away that I would need to find a side hustle to supplement my salary. It was of little surprise to me in my search for work that companies were competing for millennial workers by advertising some sense of glamour—suggesting you can be your own boss, or that your work will suit a well-curated social media profile (that can conveniently continue to promote the company in question).
I experienced this firsthand when I became a dog-walker through Rover and Wag!, two apps that connect dog owners with walkers at the press of a button (the Uber of dog-walking). When I learned about these apps, as a lover of dogs and a lover of extra cash, I quickly applied to both. A quiz, a background check, and some servicing fees later, I opened my inbox to congratulatory emails from both companies.
While both places encourage you to promote their services in various ways, Wag! does this to a higher degree than Rover, giving walkers free swag, personalized promotional codes to gain new customers, and making them film cheesy videos about why you should trust them to take care of your pet. Unlike Rover, Wag! also requires new walkers to attend an hour-and-a-half-long orientation session.
At the orientation session I attended, though many of my fellow new walkers were obviously dog people, just as many obviously weren’t. A handful of the women present had Longchamp bags slung over their shoulders and looked like touching a dog was the last thing they wanted to do. But when Stephanie, the perky, blonde Wag! representative who endlessly promoted the company in-between liability disclaimers, had us go around the room and say why we had applied to become walkers, everyone, including the Longchamp girls, made the case that they were there simply because they wanted to play with dogs. No one mentioned the obvious elephant in the room—wanting to make a little extra money, which I’m sure was everyone’s primary motivation.
I’ve noticed a similar trend among ride-share drivers (at least those who only drive part-time), who may be more candid with a passenger in a car that they are driving in order to supplement their incomes, but will still typically offer other sentiments as well (e.g., wanting to meet people or enjoying setting their own hours). What’s often left unsaid: the unreliability of the pay, and the inauthenticity of many companies’ branding in seeking new hires. We know, for example, that Uber relies on social science to manipulate its employees (paywall) to make them work longer.
Still, I don’t doubt it when people express positive sentiments about freelance work—after all, with apps making the many ways to earn money increasingly available, there is an element of luxury associated with part-time jobs that may not have existed before. I pursued dog-walking out of a plethora of other app-based opportunities because I have experience with dogs, love most of them, and miss my own. And I can’t pretend not to enjoy the work, which I’ve dutifully documented on Instagram and Snapchat, further glamorizing my own side hustle and perhaps affirming the suggestion that side hustles can distract from the mundane nature of the day-to-day—or proving that these companies have been effective in roping me into their messaging. After all, I wouldn’t walk dogs or seek any kind of side hustle if it didn’t pay double my hourly wage (which it does; I’m not sure if I’m underpaid in my day job or overpaid in my side hustle). And I’m positive, despite Wag!’s efforts to capture them, that the Longchamp girls feel even less attached than I do to the job.
I’m grateful to get to do part-time work that I like. But equating a side hustle with a hobby harkens back to Lewis’ interviewer’s sell more than it does to Lewis’ candid response. Though Baab-Muguira argues “extra cash is far from the whole story,” it undeniably is the whole story. Having better options for how to make that cash is a nice plus, not a driving force behind working in the first place. The side hustle of today isn’t more fulfilling; it simply has a few better perks.