The Covid-19 pandemic crushed vast swaths of the economy, slashing consumer demand, closing businesses, and vaporizing millions of jobs. But it’s been good to the nascent sliver of the digital economy that helps people channel their existing skills into sellable services and products.
Such products range from ebooks and meal plan templates to online classes, podcasts, membership clubs, newsletters, and porn. They proliferate on platforms including Patreon, Twitch, Substack, Etsy, Teachable, Knowable, Podia, Thinkific, Supercast, Lulu, Smashwords, Outschool, OnlyFans, and Gumroad.
These platforms generally take a cut of each sale made, ranging from 5% to 50%, or charge a recurring fee to sellers for accessing their market. Tech investors have dubbed this the “passion economy,” a place where anyone can profit doing what she loves. But because that term risks both exaggerating the payoffs of this work and obscuring its ties to the gig economy, the last great labor “disruption,” we might better call it the “hustle economy:” an online labor market in which platform-dependent workers create and monetize their own digital products. Like Uber drivers or Instacart shoppers, workers in the hustle economy need a platform to succeed. But their work is individualized, self-directed, and on their own schedule — one “creator” can’t substitute for another.
The hustle economy is also not new. Since the late 1990s, tech futurists like the former Wired editor Kevin Kelly have predicted that social networking and online payment platforms would open up a range of new, and newly fulfilling, career choices. Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 1998, the organizational theorist Thomas W. Malone claimed “electronic networks” would dissolve the corporation as the main unit of the economy, and replace it with “flexible, temporary networks of individuals” who self-select their work. The next decade saw dozens of platforms launch with some version of that goal, from Upwork to Etsy and Kickstarter.
Tech investors have dubbed this the “passion economy,” a place where anyone can profit doing what she loves.
In 2017, the economic advisory firm Sonecon estimated that nearly 17 million Americans made some money off digital platforms. And since then, argues Li Jin, a former analyst at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, a wave of new startups has launched to capitalize on this “model of internet-powered entrepreneurship.”
To Jin, hustle economy platforms represent an opportunity to commoditize a once-worthless or near-worthless resource — think bottled water. Every person on earth has some deep knowledge or experience or skill in something, she argues. If platforms can funnel that into a product that consumers want, then the value of the hustle economy balloons into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
“Anyone with noncommoditized skills can do this,” Jin told OneZero.
For workers, the premise of hustle economy work is equally seductive. Just like gig work, you can choose your own hours. But with the hustle economy, you can really be your own boss, and spend time only on projects you like and feel proud of. While both the gig economy and conventional employment “stripped workers of their autonomy and agency,” Jin said, hustle economy platforms “empower” them. The movement’s rhetoric often, and ironically, echoes Karl Marx: Only liberated workers with control of production can soak up the full spiritual and financial benefits of their labor.
Better yet, in the midst of a protracted economic crisis, hustle economy work offers a safety net — a second income independent of a corporate employer, or even the physical environment. If Patreon and its ilk once promised flexibility or the chance to “do what you love,” they now also promise workers like Amit Levit a paycheck the next crisis can’t interrupt.
Levit, an instructor at Boston’s 305 Fitness, a cardio-dance studio, launched a Patreon in March on the advice of her employer, who couldn’t pay salaries during the shutdown. Though she loves the studio, Levit now plans to keep teaching on Patreon: “I am looking to move toward having two strings of income,” she said, “rather than just the one I had before.”
The movement’s rhetoric often, and ironically, echoes Karl Marx: Only liberated workers with control of production can soak up the full spiritual and financial benefits of their labor.
“People see how fragile their connection to the economy is. Their job could go at any second,” said Len Markidan, the chief marketing officer at Podia, a hustle economy platform that helps its workers set up classes, newsletters, storefronts, and other products. One of its marquee names, the physical therapist Emma Shapiro, has built an empire teaching other health care workers how to create hustles of their own.
In the past three months, Markidan added, “the baseline for this industry accelerated by 10 years.” His company hit benchmarks it didn’t expect to meet until 2026 or 2027. Economists say they’re not surprised by those figures: Workers often flock to “alternative” work during economic downturns.
But if the pandemic also acclimates consumers to new digital products — and new relationships with the workers who make them — then the shift could prove more permanent, said Susan Houseman, a labor economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
“This time could be different,” Houseman said. “It’s a temporary crisis, at least until we have herd immunity or a vaccine or some kind of treatment… but the way people do business is going to change. We’re already seeing that.”