There is something about the consumer madness of the holiday season that makes me think of my friend Rebecca’s mother. When I was in middle school, she had a side hustle selling acrylic-rhinestone bug brooches. The jewelry was hard to move on its merits — even for the 1980s it was staggeringly ugly. But what she lacked in salable product, she made up for in sheer selling stamina. Every sleepover, school fair or birthday party, out would come the tray of bejeweled grasshoppers and stag beetles, glinting with Reagan-era menace.
Presumably someone was making money from this venture — some proto-Trump barking orders from his tax haven — but it certainly didn’t seem to be Rebecca’s mother, whose sales pitches took on an ever more shrill note of desperation.
Soon she had given up even the basic social pretense that we might actually want the brooches. The laws of supply and demand morphed seamlessly into the laws of guilt and obligation, and then into the laws of outright malice, mirroring the trajectory of capitalism itself.
At that time, when naked hawking to your friends was still considered an etiquette blunder, the sales pitches by Rebecca’s mother felt embarrassing — as gaudy and threatening to the social ecosystem as a purple rhinestone daddy longlegs. But 30 years later, at the height of the gig economy, when the foundation of working life has apparently become selling your friends things they don’t want, I look back to that raw need in Rebecca’s mother’s eyes with something terrifyingly approaching recognition.
As a writer, I am part of the 35 percent of the American work force that now works freelance in some capacity, either as a main source of income or as some kind of side hustle. This number is growing constantly — 94 percent of the new jobs created in the last decade or so were freelance or contract-based.
When we think “gig economy,” we tend to picture an Uber driver or a TaskRabbit tasker rather than a lawyer or a doctor, but in reality, this scrappy economic model — grubbing around for work, all big dreams and bad health insurance — will soon catch up with the bulk of America’s middle class.
Major companies now outsource many of even their most skilled jobs, ditching their in-house lawyers and I.T. support teams in favor of on-demand contractors, paid by the hour. More than 18 million Americans are now involved in some kind of direct sales or multilevel marketing scheme, shelling out hundreds of dollars on vitamins or juicers or leggings, then frantically attempting to recoup the money by flogging them to friends and neighbors. Economists predict that by 2027, gig workers of varying descriptions will make up more than half of the work force. An estimated 47 percent of millennials already work in this way.
It certainly feels familiar. Almost everyone I know now has some kind of hustle, whether job, hobby, or side or vanity project. Share my blog post, buy my book, click on my link, follow me on Instagram, visit my Etsy shop, donate to my Kickstarter, crowdfund my heart surgery. It’s as though we are all working in Walmart on an endless Black Friday of the soul.
Being sold to can be socially awkward, for sure, but when it comes to corrosive self-doubt, being the seller is a thousand times worse. The constant curation of a salable self demanded by the new economy can be a special hellspring of anxiety
Like many modern wokers, I find that only a small percentage of my job is now actually doing my job. The rest is performing a million acts of unpaid micro-labor that can easily add up to a full-time job in itself. Tweeting and sharing and schmoozing and blogging. Liking and commenting on others’ tweets and shares and schmoozes and blogs. Ambivalently “maintaining a presence on social media,” attempting to sell a semi-fictional, much more appealing version of myself in the vain hope that this might somehow help me sell some actual stuff at some unspecified future time.
The trick of doing this well, of course, is to act as if you aren’t doing it at all — as if this is simply how you like to unwind in the evening, by sharing your views on pasta sauce with your 567,000 followers. Seeing the slick charm of successful online “influencers” spurs me to download e-courses on how to “crack Instagram” or “develop my personal brand story.” But as soon as I hand over my credit card details, I am flooded with vague self-disgust. I instantly abandon the courses and revert to my usual business model — badgering and guilting my friends across a range of online platforms, employing the personal brand story of “pleeeeeeeeeeaassssee.”
As my friend Helena (Buy her young adult novel! Available on Amazon!) puts it, buying, promoting or sharing your friend’s “thing” is now a tax payable for modern friendship. But this expectation becomes its own monster. I find myself auditing my friends’ loyalty based on their efforts. Who bought it? Who shared it on Facebook? Was it a share from the heart, or a “duty share” — with that telltale, torturous phrasing that squeaks past the minimum social requirement but deftly dissociates the sharer from the product: “My friend wrote a book — I haven’t read it, but maybe you should.”
In this cutthroat human marketplace, we are worth only as much as the sum of our metrics, so checking those metrics can become obsessive. What’s my Amazon ranking? How many likes? How many retweets? How many followers? (The word “followers” is in itself a clear indicator of something psychologically unhealthy going on — the standard term for the people we now spend the bulk of our time with sounds less like a functioning human relationship than the P.R. materials of the Branch Davidians.)
Of course a fair chunk of this mass selling frenzy is motivated by money. With a collapsing middle class, as well as close to zero job security and none of the benefits associated with it, self-marketing has become, for many, a necessity in order to eat.
But what’s more peculiar is just how imperfectly all this correlates with financial need or even greed. The sad truth is that many of us would probably make more money stacking shelves or working at the drive-through than selling our “thing.” The real prize is deeper, more existential. What this is really about, for many of us, is a roaring black hole of psychological need.
After a couple of decades of constant advice to “follow our passions” and “live our dreams,” for a certain type of relatively privileged modern freelancer, nothing less than total self-actualization at work now seems enough. But this leaves us with an angsty mismatch between personal expectation and economic reality. So we shackle our self-worth to the success of these projects — the book or blog post or range of crocheted stuffed penguins becomes a proxy for our very soul. In the new economy you can be your own boss and your own ugly bug brooch.
Kudos to whichever neoliberal masterminds came up with this system. They sell this infinitely seductive torture to us as “flexible working” or “being the C.E.O. of You!” and we jump at it, salivating, because on its best days, the freelance life really can be all of that.
But as long as we are happy to be paid for our labor in psychological rather than financial rewards, those at the top are delighted to comply. While we grub and scrabble and claw at one another chasing these tiny pellets of self-esteem, the bug-brooch barons still pocket the actual cash.
This is the future, and research suggests that it’s a rat race that is already taking a severe toll on our psyches. A 2017 study suggests that this trend toward increasingly market-driven human interaction is making us paranoid, jittery, self-critical and judgmental.
Analyzing data from the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale from 1989 to 2016, the study’s authors found a surprisingly large increase over this period in three distinct types of perfectionism: “Self-orientated,” whereby we hold ourselves to increasingly unrealistic standards and judge ourselves harshly when we fail to meet them; “socially prescribed,” in which we are convinced that other people judge us harshly; and “other-orientated,” in which we get our revenge by judging them just as harshly. These elements of perfectionism positively correlate with mental health problems, including anxiety, depression and even suicide, which are also on the rise.
The authors describe this new-normal mind-set as a “sense of self overwhelmed by pathological worry and a fear of negative social evaluation.” Hmm. Maybe I should make that my personal brand story.
Ruth Whippman is the author of “America the Anxious: Why Our Search for Happiness Is Driving Us Crazy and How to Find It for Real.”