Freelancing. Grindin’. Hustling. Call it what you want but in recent years, millions of people have left the (mostly) safe bounds of traditional work life and ventured into the realm of independent contract work.
Beyond Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and now, Amazon Flex, sharing and task-oriented services across all industries are the new normal for people of all backgrounds. Some studies estimate upward of 25% of working age people across the United States and Western Europe partake in some form of on-demand or project-based work—and there are no signs of it slowing down. This swath of independent workers also includes “solopreneurs”: folks who own and run every facet of their businesses by themselves. Solopreneurs are often knowledge workers, their ranks buoyed by white-collar employees escaping the tyranny of blank cubicles, petty office politics, and soul-sucking commutes.
The term “gig economy” functions as a catch-all for this segment of society, an apt description for roles in which workers have peak flexibility, variable income, and the allure of endless opportunity for self-expression and growth. And whatever workers lose in certainty, they gain in freedom.The danger present is that if we embrace the hustle without a critical eye, we can feed ideas about ourselves that are untrue. Namely that we are the ultimate authority: the true “captain of our souls.”
What could go wrong?
It turns out, a lot. Warnings about the rise of the precariat, an expanding global economic class of people with tenuous work lives, little predictability, and irrational political behavior abound. Concern over worker rights and business ethics grows as thorny legal issues surface related to compensation, job classification, and liability for misfeasance and the like. And so far, very little attention has been paid to emotional or spiritual implications.
That so many people are in this position in the first place is a matter of complexity. McKinsey researchers grouped workers into four segments: Free Agents, Casual Earners, Reluctants, and Financially Strapped. The Free Agents and Casual Earners pursue independent contracting because they want to. Unsurprisingly, the segments deemed Reluctants and Financially Strapped pursue independent contracting because they have to. For people in the latter category, the motivations seem pretty straightforward—and the risks even moreso. But for those willingly choosing the Path of Potential Return(s), the motivations demand closer scrutiny.
One New Yorker writer, in her article The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death, describes a Lyft blog post that praises a pregnant driver who chooses to continue driving even while she is in labor. The driver’s due date is a week away, so she assumes the contractions are a false alarm. She decides to go the hospital just in case, but stays in “driver mode” and picks up another rider on the way, where (spoiler alert!) she winds up giving birth. The New Yorker writer is rightfully aghast at the situation, including the gall of Lyft to leverage the story for PR purposes:
“Mary’s entrepreneurial spirit—taking ride requests while she was in labor!—is an “exciting” example of how seamless and flexible app-based employment can be. Look at that hustle! You can make a quick buck with Lyft anytime, even when your cervix is dilating.”
The writer connects this example to a larger societal trend and holds that our aggressive allegiance to on-demand work is fueled by America’s obsession with self-reliance. Her ultimate conclusion, though, is that situations like the pregnant Lyft driver’s occur because we live in an unbalanced, predatory economy where worker rights are trampled and large companies run unchecked. The writer is correct in many of her assertions, but her point related to self-reliance deserves more attention. What she misses is that the human drive to control our own lives and circumstances is centered on something much deeper.
Economic necessity aside, humans have always carried a penchant for self-reliance. Unchecked, it contorts into self-rule by another name. The biblical Book of Judges is perhaps the best example of that, as personified by a verse we see repeated throughout: “In those days there was no king, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Most people in modern society reading that verse would find absolutely nothing problematic with it. It is the ultimate “live and let live” manifesto. In this context, the self is master, its needs pressing, its desires supreme. If we zoom out, however, we would see the entire Book of Judges is a graphic warning about what happens when there is no authority outside of the Self.
“I was consumed by the idea that I had something to prove—that the late nights, lost weekends, skipped meals, and unreturned calls from friends were the price of admission…. Some of the costs were obvious—poor health, frayed relationships. But the hidden cost was much more subtle, and toxic: the creeping belief that I was the sole architect of my accomplishments—that success was owed to me, that I alone had earned it.”
In practice, self-rule looks a lot like we’re just giving ourselves a lot of options. Our work lives and career choices are no exception. A cursory Google search will show you that outside of economic necessity, many of the choices to participate in on-demand and project-based work are rooted in the possibility of unlimited potential for success and the desire to live life on our own terms in ways that privilege our time and lifestyle preferences. Company ads and interviews with contractors echo similar sentiments: “work how you want, when you want.” Success is limited only by your inner drive.
The danger present is that if we embrace the hustle without a critical eye, we can feed ideas about ourselves that are untrue. Namely that we are the ultimate authority: the true “captain of our souls.”
But if our articulation of “hustle” leads to overwork and upside-down priorities, then we’re doing it wrong. And our reluctance—indeed our resistance—to rest is often rooted in a lofty sense of self: “If I do more, I will be free; if I don’t do enough, I will be ruined.” The problem in both of these scenarios is that our worlds are centered around ourselves as the arbiters of our fate, leaving little room for divine sustenance.
This bumps up against our propensity toward self-rule. Self-rule is about control and at its core, a desire for what we understand to be freedom. But what is freedom? Is it the power to choose between an endless array of options? Is it the power to manufacture and control what options we have in the first place? Humans are a naturally selfish bunch: we want what we want and often at the expense of someone else. As a result, the lens through which we view freedom can become distorted. There’s a precedent for that too. See: Genesis. There in the Garden of Eden, two people wondered: Is there more? Is God holding out on me? And well, we see how that turned out. Eden reminds us that perhaps our understanding of freedom is faulty; corrupted to the point we don’t realize how much we’ve constrained ourselves.
Our distortion of freedom impacts the way we approach our work. At the microlevel, in Be Your Own Boss territory, this plays out in a few different ways. For those of us feeling constrained by unsatisfactory work conditions and unfulfilled longings, we often think if we have more time, more space, more freedom, we would become better versions of ourselves. However the character issues we observe while working for someone else don’t magically disappear when we start working for ourselves; in fact they will likely be more pronounced. Can moving into independent contracting work force us to confront these things? Sure. In order to meet some level of success or viability, we need to be functional. But if we go into BYOB territory with the wrong motivations we will find ourselves conforming to the basest—not best—version of ourselves.
To be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with entrepreneurship, solopreneurship, or working flexible hours for a digital startup. The pros are very real: money to support a family, invest, or pay off debt; social connection; and more flexibility to organize time around important priorities like family and community.
And done well, branching out into the world of BYOB territory can lead us into deeper trust in God. It can cause us to depend on God more, rightly understanding that everything we have and are able to pursue in life, work, and leisure is purely a result of divine benevolence. There is no client, or gig, or contract that is by chance. Done rightly, independent work can also remind us that our most important identity is found in Christ. The implication of that is we don’t need to feel like a failure when we undoubtedly mess up. If we get a bad online review, we take the feedback seriously and improve from there. If we get negative feedback from a client, we listen and make amends. The client’s opinion is important, but it doesn’t reduce our personhood.
Conversely, when we Do All The Things right and everything is going our way, and all the contracts fall into place, and everyone sings our praises, we don’t live into an inflated sense of self. We can rest in the knowledge that the most important thing in life is our standing before God and the resulting joy in that communion; that our identity is found in who we belong to, and not what we do.
Work is good, and we are called to diligence. Even in the Garden of Eden we see the command to “be fruitful and multiply.” The Book of Ecclesiastes (or as some affectionately call it, The Christian Nihilist’s Guide to Life) has a lot to say about work too. It posits that not only is work a fact of life, but also that hard work is meaningful, desirable even, because it helps us appreciate the simplicity of other treasures like community and rest.
Hustle culture is a window into American moxy and resourcefulness but it’s also a reminder of the human urge to rule our own lives—the very thing we need rescuing from. Even so, jobs in the gig economy can be places we find God working, in us and through us. We just need to remember who’s really in charge.