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It’s official: Gen Z is the Hustle Generation

A collage of browser windows with a gen z person scrolling, drawing, and taking a photoGen Z doesn’t believe in the promise of the 9-5 corporate job — so they are creating new side hustles and forging their own career paths.

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Shola West always found it difficult to concentrate in a classroom. She didn’t realize she had dyslexia until years after leaving school and always felt she learned better from doing than sitting and listening. So after high-school graduation, she decided to forgo college and jump right into the workforce, joining an education-tech startup. While she liked the job, she quickly grew restless. “I feel like I’m someone who can’t just do one job,” West told me. 

To try to harness her boundless energy, she decided to turn what she knew — navigating the workplace — into a side hustle. West began hosting workshops and webinars for other 20-year-olds jumping into their first full-time jobs to motivate them and discuss business ideas. Four years later, she is still running at full speed. On top of her advertising day job and career-advice side hustle, she has also started working with big organizations to organize career events.  

West is one of many young workers who have turned spinning plates into a career. Social media is filled with examples: Young people are drop-shipping, Amazon reselling, investing in crypto, selling vintage clothing, and inventing their own content-creation jobs. In the midst of an uncertain economy and precarious job market, Gen Z is turning up the hustle.  

In the past few years, more people across age groups have taken on various side hustles. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the number of people working multiple full-time jobs has trended up in recent years and hit an all-time high in August 2022. But while everyone is starting to hustle more, the youngest members of the workforce are leading the way. According to a 2022 survey commissioned by Microsoft, 48% of Gen Z respondents were juggling multiple side hustles at once. Even more telling: A 2022 survey from the payroll company Paychex found that about half of Gen Z are employed at two or more places compared with a third of millennials and baby boomers. As Gen Zers move into the workforce in significant numbers, it’s clear they are shaking off the typical 9-to-5 career path and reinventing their own ways to earn an income. Meet: Generation Hustle.

Broken promises

While young people often work multiple jobs through college and early in their career, Gen Zers are extending the work hustle into their formal careers. Part of Gen Z’s propensity for “having side jobs and jobs on top of jobs” is due to economic concerns, Santor Nishizaki, the founder and CEO of the Mulholland Consulting Group, which helps organizations increase generational awareness, told me. Deloitte’s 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey found that a third of Gen Z respondents worry about the cost of living above all other concerns, 45% live paycheck-to-paycheck, and more than a quarter said they doubt they’ll retire comfortably. And a February global survey by Kantar, a data-analytics firm, found that 40% of responding Gen Z workers are combining at least two roles due to living expenses.

But present-day financial struggles are just the tip of the iceberg: Like the generations before them, Gen Z was sold the idea that if you found a good job and worked hard, you’d reap the rewards. But after watching that dream die for millennials, Gen Z isn’t buying into what they view as a broken social contract. “A lot of the time the progression is slow, and people are feeling really underpaid,” West said. “It’s just a lot of negative news at the moment when it comes to a nine-to-five.”

With the pandemic and its economic fallout only further eroding the belief that full-time employment is the best path to success and financial stability, Gen Z is not trusting anybody else to take care of their future. “Our culture has scripts about what makes work worthwhile, not just necessary,” Harvard historian and lecturer Erik Baker recently wrote. “And increasingly these scripts do not play out as written.”

Like the generations before them, Gen Z was sold the idea that if you found a good job and worked hard, you’d reap the rewards.

More than half of Gen Z and millennials could enter retirement with insufficient savings, according to estimates by Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff. And a Freddie Mac survey found that about 34% of responding Gen Zers said they didn’t think they’d ever be able to afford to buy a house. (And Gen Zers who are able to buy homes are doing so in increasingly unconventional ways.) The reality is that a typical nine-to-five job just doesn’t carry the same promise that it used to. “It’s lost that credibility of ‘If you do that, you’re going to work your way up and be able to buy a nice car, nice house, and retire,'” West said. “Now, it’s not guaranteed.”

Passion projects 

While many young people are juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet, side hustles are becoming increasingly appealing on a deeper level. By freeing themselves from a corporate grind, Gen Z has used independent work as a way to reclaim their time and explore their own interests. “I need to have another thing that’s going to add value, passion and purpose,” West told me. “I’ve realized as I’ve changed jobs multiple times, the passion and excitement I get from the side hustle element is the most important part.”

Even when she was younger, Ajla Brama, 25, had an entrepreneurial streak. When she was in middle school she would sell unwanted items from around the house on eBay and babysit in her neighborhood. As a teenager, she knew that she didn’t want to do corporate work when she grew up. And when she tried a corporate marketing job during college, she hated it. “It was not for me,” she said. 

Instead, Brama turned to what she was passionate about: natural skincare. After discovering how many products included potentially harmful ingredients, she decided to make her own products in her dorm room with pure, organic ingredients. After finishing school and quitting her marketing job, she dedicated all her time to the business, which she called Eros Essentials. After a year, Brama was making enough money that she decided to learn about investing. But instead of quietly growing her stash as someone from an older generation might, she turned her investing journey into a side hustle and began posting investing tips, money hacks, and stock advice on TikTok and Instagram. “I would make content as I went and things took off,” she said. As her social media accounts grew, brands started reaching out with extra gigs. Instead of wearing her down, though, Brama said her multiple hustles gave her freedom. 

You can do this on the moon if you have WiFi.

“It’s very fluid, it’s very freeing. You’re not tied to a place; you’re not tied to a cubicle. You can do this on the moon if you have WiFi,” she said.

Baker explained the thinking behind this entrepreneurial ethic in his piece for Harpers: “By creating work out of what we value the most, we can accomplish something that really matters. We can change the world, even achieve personhood.”

Nishizaki has also noticed this shift. Gen Z, he said, “really want to make a difference” if they can. He explained that it’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Many young people are just trying to take care of the most basic needs like food and housing. But once those needs are met, he said that “seeking a sense of belonging is important to this generation and having an impact and community.”

Be your own boss

Beyond the financial freedom and income that side hustles can provide, part of the allure for Gen Z is that they can control their own time. Young workers who strike out on their own are no longer at the mercy of big companies that can lay them off or change their roles at the snap of a finger. A survey by Fiverr found that 67% of responding Gen Zers currently freelance or are planning to go freelance, with one in five citing dissatisfaction with working a full-time job as the motivation. Another survey by online hosting startup WP Engine found that 62% of Gen Z respondents either have their own business or are open to starting one. And social media has made it easier than ever to start a side hustle that can quickly become profitable. A survey by Bank of America found that 72% of Gen Z respondents reported having a side hustle, with the majority earning between $500 and $1000 per month

Nishizaki said that these aspirational changes can be seen even in the youngest members of Gen Z. “When I was growing up, if you asked a kid what they wanted to be when they grew up it used to be a firefighter or an astronaut. Now, it’s an influencer,” he said. “So Gen Z has seen there’s other ways to make money, even as a kid, through platforms like YouTube.”

Social-media platforms have opened up new avenues for work, and Nishizaki doesn’t think career paths will be as linear as they’ve been for previous generations. “Access to social media and other types of resources like Coursera now allow people to really train themselves to get more skill sets to make themselves more marketable. So I think there’s going to be a lot of different jobs that they can do,” he said.

Brama also believes that Gen Z has more options on the table than previous generations, and as a result, are embracing them all. “We have so many different things that people can do, and it’s so much easier to start a business,” she said. “People will take one of their skills and then create job opportunities from those skills and make so much more money that way, instead of just doing one thing.”

For West, her aspirational career path echoes that reality. “I don’t believe that to be successful I have to then be a manager and then a director. I’d actually rather do a bit of this and a bit of that and find out what I’m good at and what I love — and that changes constantly — but I like that freedom and flexibility,” she said. “I’ve always been someone who likes to try new things and I don’t see one way of doing things as the ultimate definition of success.”

A boon for employers

Rather than rejecting their younger employees’ entrepreneurial spirit, some employers are embracing or even encouraging their Gen Z workers to follow their passions. Before the pandemic, workers were hesitant to discuss anything that could distract from their full-time job, but many businesses are now more understanding of their employees’ side hustles. West has the full backing of her employer for her side gigs. However, she knows friends that have to keep their side hustles secret for fear of their full-time jobs finding out and firing them.

“I think if companies are like that, they’re just gonna lose the younger generation, because all of my friends have a side hustle of some sort.”

Plus, side hustles can be a boon for employers by enabling workers to gain experience and develop skills that they can invest back into their day job. Nishizaki often speaks with organizations about increasing generational awareness and discovering strengths that can elevate individuals to reach their full potential and recommends that they find opportunities to let employees branch out within the company. “So if someone’s really passionate about photography, or writing, maybe they could do the company’s newsletter, or if they’re passionate about social media, maybe they could start the company’s TikTok and run it as a recruiting tool,” he said. “It’s a lot more expensive to lose someone rather than to just reinvest in them.”

As more Gen Zers enter the workforce, companies need to anticipate their hustle mindset. Young workers are more motivated than previous generations to find work that they are passionate about — they don’t want to work tirelessly up the career ladder only to find that there’s not much to see from the top. Gen Z are too ambitious and optimistic for that. As West told me, “We actually have more freedom to think about what we really want to do.”


Eve Upton-Clark is a features writer covering culture and society.

Read the original article on Business Insider