A Nation of Hustlers

Here are some notes from Tressie McMillan Cottom’s, “The Hustle Economy”.

“[The] economic opportunity in the future of work looks like hustling.”

People are increasingly becoming “platform entrepreneurs” - using social media to generate income for themselves. This not only includes the familiar “independent contractor”-style gig economy workers but also influencers who hawk wares on behalf of brands who want access to their audience. All of which constitutes hustling to supplement other jobs that don’t provide enough income security.

The author discusses a racial capitalism component to all this in which non-white workers, especially black women, are forced to hustle outside of the formal economy and then preyed upon by tech companies that power the platforms that they rely upon and which “celebrate grit and urge us to ‘respect the hustle’” but in reality are being exploitative.

I share the author’s cynicism when it comes to many of these tech platforms. They present themselves as enabling and actualizing freelancers but are, in fact, making labor ever more precarious.

Whether working for Uber, Task Rabbit, or Mechanical Turk, freelancers report feeling incredibly manipulated by the system, mysterious uncaring algorithms that they don’t understand, which seem exquisitely designed to extract as much work from them for as little pay as possible. User interface design is compared to gambling and addiction engines. FinTech offers little better than payday style predatory loans. Yet all masquerade as empowering workers by giving them freedom of choice and flexible hours. As the author puts it, a “whole array of ‘subprime’ business services, which justify high relative costs by offering themselves to entrepreneurs shut out of traditional services”.

There are multiple ironies in the datapoint presented by an America Express report that, “Black women are starting businesses at the fastest clip of any racial group” when (1) they aren’t a racial group but a subset of a racial group, and (2) they have more job insecurity than their peers despite having more education than their white counterparts.

The author concludes that as the economy “shifts to more non-job labor, digital technologies will continue to reshape work by finding new ways to facilitate efficient, racialized extraction”. That this is a process “that may look inclusive, but the terms will be predatory.”

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