Against Hustle Culture

Art by Sarvika Mishra

“Work”, Khalil Gibran writes, “is love made visible”. 

This quote comes from the much-celebrated book The Prophet which centres around a fictional prophet, who, facing impending departure to his home country, shares advice on love, work, marriage, parenting and more. 

I was on my lunch break when I read the section on ‘Work’. Filled with inspirational quips about work, Gibran employs a range of metaphors to compare the act of work with a love of humanity, such as in the sentence: 

“To love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret”

On reading this line, I was filled with a burst of inspiration and admiration for my job. Could it be true? Is our job performance a reflection of our ability? To love and be loved? These are some pretty deep questions for a thirty-minute lunch break. 

Gibran’s verse employs moving comparisons to artisans, such as tailors and cobblers – people who support themselves and produce art simultaneously. This provokes the question: what about ordinary workers? Many jobs are tedious, physically challenging, time-consuming and even dangerous. Most of these are essential for running our society, and yet these workers receive little praise or attention for their work. 

What is ‘hustle culture’?

I’m sure we’ve all come across those ‘hustle culture’ videos. Commonly they feature a young-ish entrepreneur speaking directly to the camera. Charismatic and overflowing with ambitious advice, these accounts employ alarmist language (“80% of people are making this mistake”), promise rewards (“do this and see your job prospects increase”) and attribute failure to mistakes of the viewer (“three reasons you’re not succeeding”). Sometimes these posts are accompanied with inspirational quotes and people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as examples of people who have succeeded from using the strategy. 

Producing ‘hustle culture’ videos is an easy way for consulting businesses to capture new customers and sell their services. In the case of Youtube and TikTok, creators profit from the amount of views each video receives. This financial model incentivises them to keep churning out more videos of the same nature; clips that guilt viewers into taking action through the specific act of purchasing their product or service. More businesses are recognising the premise behind this system, and hence every day there are new ‘hustle’ accounts launching videos on ‘three financial mistakes you’re making’. 

All hustlers are equal, but some more than others.

Hustle culture is inherently privileged and undeniably classist.

It assumes that you either have a job you enjoy or the luxury to select a role based on enjoyment and not financial pressures. The next assumption is that if you don’t have career success or a lot of personal savings, it is your responsibility. It’s tempting to slip into the “everyone has a choice” diatribe, but many social and economic factors explain why someone isn’t succeeding by these accounts’ standards. Consider the financial situation of a refugee or a child born into intergenerational poverty with limited resources. It is unrealistic to expect people from disadvantaged backgrounds to be financially on par with people from established middle-class families. 

Hustle accounts not only obscure class inequality but also position work as something that should be inherently linked to a person’s identity. The Female Hustlers is a business-focused account that markets themselves with hashtags such as #confidentwomen, #womenwholead, #womeninspiringwomen and #empowerher as generic tags about entrepreneurship. Creators post ‘motivational’ quotes that link financial success to the physical and mental transformation of the individual, such as:

“Transform yourself. Distance yourself for a while, come back unrecognisable. Upgrade everything”. 

The quotes, which are largely attributed to “unknown” sources, illustrate what analyst Adorno called ‘pseudo-individualisation’. The use of second-person language, such as the word ‘you’ to address strangers, posits the message as personal and specific to the viewer. This means that the quotes and posts are written to make them feel relevant to anyone on Instagram. The Female Hustlers is just one example of this phenomenon. As a marketing graduate, I can confirm that almost all brands use this technique in their ads. 

Mass marketing and individuality 

Pseudo-individualisation is a defining feature and essential function of mass marketing under late-stage capitalism. This is because pseudo-individualisation makes a standard product feel personal and relevant, and therefore exciting and enticing for the consumer. There are thousands of hustle accounts, yet many enjoy high engagement levels despite posting very similar content with the same message: work hard, and success will come your way. If this message was written in formal third-person, such as “one who works hard will be rewarded with financial success”, it would be considered boring and repetitive. 

Second-person language reframes the message in a way that isolates and therefore engages viewers. This is why hustle or success-focused accounts appeal to so many people despite disparities like class, ethnicity and location. Hence, pseudo-individualism deals with class inequality’s messiness by obscuring that not everyone starts life with the same resources. It’s like hosting a race with Usain Bolt or Cathy Freeman and average people while expecting the latter to finish at the same time. 

Work, identity and alienation

For millennials and Gen Z, it feels like there’s this immense pressure to find a purposeful job and be financially successful. Schools, parents and the media have placed these constraints on what kind of job you should have, and it’s so dangerous and incredibly limiting. Like many people, I internalised the idea that I should have a “job that I love” or a “successful career” with limited external support to help me along the way. With more funding cuts to universities and the dramatic increase of student fees since the 1970s, it’s hard to attain the expectations set for us by earlier generations and bourgeois culture. 

Marx argued that when money becomes the basis and organisation of life, such as under capitalism, workers ‘sell their soul’ by doing work that is devoid of true purpose or meaning. This is known as ‘alienation’, which is the process by which “human capacities are abstracted and quantified through the assignment of a monetary value”. 

With big businesses holding power over workers, people have no choice but to take on roles that separate tasks from the actual product or service. This is especially the case in professional or white-collar jobs. Contrary to Marx’s analysis, the middle-class media continue to push this idea that work should be purposeful and enjoyable when that’s not the case for so many people. 

Pandemic pay and attitudes to work

COVID-19 has demonstrated the fallibility in the idea of job security with whole industries crumbling in the space of a few months. While many Australians are affected, it feels like young people and casual workers are some of the pandemic’s worst-hit. I know many young people who worked in retail, hospitality and tourism before COVID-19. A lot of them had their shifts cut or were let go. Even with Job Keeper, there remains a lot of insecurity for people in these industries. Some of my unemployed friends are now seriously unsure about their future and, naturally, remain cynical about the current job market. For those dependent on Centrelink payments, their unemployment status feels never-ending, and they struggle with the strain of financial insecurity. 

As a retail worker who was “lucky” to keep my job, I also faced new pressures, albeit of a different kind. Working in a role where you interact with members of the public can be stressful at the best of times and downright anxiety-provoking during a pandemic. At certain points in the year, I was paranoid about being infected by a customer and my family getting sick.  I became an unofficial COVID marshall, and the role completely reduced my motivation to go to work. This was because I endured verbal abuse from customers who did not want to sign in to enter the store. Customers who would otherwise be neutral or polite treated me with suspicion (“Why do I have to give my personal details?”) and derision (“Seriously? I have to sign in to enter a store? Ridiculous!”) and it felt awful. 

Retail employees, like many other customer-facing workers, are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Despite this, ‘hustle’ type accounts would have us believe we have to ‘push on’ and take responsibility for our own negative feelings. No worker deserves to experience abuse or anxiety, and the individualistic idea that we are accountable for our actions is not only misguided but also extremely dangerous. I personally resented having to go to work all day in a pandemic and then read news articles where people complained about working from home. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure it is hard and annoying working in your house, but it’s definitely better than having to be exposed to strangers all day with no extra compensation. 

During this isolating and frustrating time, I have never related less to pro-work, pro-hustle accounts. In fact, as a casual worker in a customer-facing role, I find those types of accounts self-serving and offensive to people who work hard at un-glamorous jobs and put their health at risk so that they can feed their families every night. 

Pro-work is anti-human

Pro-work culture assumes that everyone has a job they ‘love’ or access to a ‘loveable’ career. These accounts deliberately exclude people who work taxing and dangerous jobs, such as waste disposal or construction, despite these workers absolute necessity for a functioning society. Instagram entrepreneurs openly guilt and pressure people to work longer hours with no extra compensation except the allure of fictitious success. In their eyes, wealth is tied to individual hard work. This logic posits a lack of success is, therefore, the failure of the individual. Given past and present inequalities relating to class, ethnicity and location, a person’s financial situation and career are complex and do not reflect their work ethic or personal values. 

By putting pressure on people to ‘love’ their jobs, hustle culture directly fuels workers’ harmful exploitation. Mercenary entrepreneurs and ‘girl-boss’ accounts, among many others, therefore both profit from and fuel inequality between working and middle-class people. Moving forward, I hope to achieve a balanced view of work and happiness. I like the idea of being paid for something I enjoy, but I’m aware that it might not happen that way. More importantly, I don’t want my career to define me. I want to be able to define myself and for my identity to evolve throughout my life. 


Sources

Andreas Dimmelmeier, Andrea Purckhauer and Anil Shah, “Marxian Political Economy”, Exploring Economics, December Edition, (2016), pp.1-12. 

Thompson, Lanny Ace. “THE DEVELOPMENT OF MARX’S CONCEPT OF ALIENATION: AN INTRODUCTION.” Mid-American Review of Sociology 4, no. 1 (1979): 23-38. Accessed January 18, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23252608

Welty, Gordon. 1984. “Theodor Adorno and the Culture Industry”. Presented to the Annual Meeting of the Popular Culture Association, Toronto. Wright State University. http://www.wright.edu/~gordon.welty/Adorno_84.htm 

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