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Class of 2013: Welcome to the 'New Hustle'

05/06/2013 05:18 pm ET | Updated Jul 06, 2013

This is an undeniably difficult time to be graduating from college (or high school) and entering the workforce. Even with overall hiring holding steady this spring, the number of jobs available to new talent is even lower than forecast six months ago; the competition fierce, most starting wages still depressed. The class of 2013 -- part of the most-educated, yet most-indebted generation in history -- faces a long slog. If there is an upside, it is the emergence of a new way of making a living. I call it the "New Hustle."

The Great Recession of 2008 uncovered serious structural changes to our economy -- exposed plate shifts we managed to avoid or ignore for years. The big casualty was the American job -- the traditional contract of engagement between employee and employer.

If you survived the Great Recession with a job, you considered yourself lucky. But in your heart of hearts, you knew things had changed forever. The epiphany: We are sometimes employed by others but we always work for ourselves.

The post-recession years have not been easy. As vexing as the dearth of jobs has been the problem of under-employment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of persons employed part-time for economic reasons -- i.e., because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time position -- is about 8 million. Newsweek/Daily Beast surveyed American workers in 2009 and found that fully one-third of us were working either freelance or two jobs. And these were not the under-educated or the permanent poor -- these were middle- and upper-class workers, college-educated Americans earning more than $75,000 per year.

The outlook for millennials isn't improving much. In 2012, the Society of Human Resources Professionals (SHRM) surveyed new college graduates six months after graduation and found that 53 percent of them were unemployed -- more than one-third (36 percent) of those on the "employed" side of the data were working part-time jobs or temporary contracts.

"People's perception of the stability of corporate life is eroding, if not totally gone. People know it's not smart to solely rely on corporate employment," says Pamela Slim, author of Escape from Cubicle Nation.

The ever-present threat of job cuts and the reality of wage stagnation now mean that holding down one job may be risky business. For many, the new order of the day is to combine multiple jobs to make a livable salary. Millions of workers who hold a 40-hour per week full-time job have a side hustle going on. According to the US Bureau of Labor, in 2011 7 million Americans worked a second job (up from 6 million workers in 2009) -- many holding down multiple gigs. This is the new reality for millions of people who can't make it on one salary, or who don't want to trust their fate to one employer and want the security of multiple income streams.

Boise native Angie Baker is well acquainted with the new hustle. As she explained to MSNBC, in a typical week she puts in 40 hours as a personnel technician for the Idaho Department of Finance. Straight from there she heads to her second job as a night manager for a small independent living facility, where she and her husband live. On the weekends, she routinely works another 12 to 16 hours at a third job in the bakery at a local grocery store. Nearly 100-hour workweeks have paid off, helping Baker and her husband pay down credit card and student loan debt and save up a down payment for a home.

"This is the new normal," says Ellen Ernst Kossek, a university distinguished professor at Michigan State University's School of Human Resources and Labor Relations in Lansing and author of the bestselling CEO of Me.

Employment experts have identified a new category of workers, "moonpreneurs," because they have full-time jobs and start businesses on the side. A recent Elance survey found that 36 percent of responded were starting or operating a business while working traditional full- or part-time jobs; 35 percent of independent workers on Elance had begun freelancing to earn supplemental income.

"There is this brand new phenomenon," says Paul Kedrosky, a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, an organization that focuses on entrepreneurship. "People [are] being entrepreneurs almost in their spare time, which you could never do before, at least never do in a way that was profitable." Kedrosky calls these side-gig hustlers "fractional entrepreneurs," and notes that the federal job data doesn't catalog their job creation. "We capture people losing jobs in an orthodox way, but we don't capture them gaining jobs in an unorthodox way."

Freelancing -- once a euphemism for unemployment -- is now a completely normal way to make a living. According to the Freelance Union, today more than 42 million Americans are independently employed -- more than the total number of autoworkers, teachers, and doctors combined. We're not talking about unskilled temps -- today's contract workers are lawyers, accountants, journalists, daycare workers, graphic artists, videographers, software writers and so on. The Harvard Business Review has labeled these free agents "supertemps." Companies like Odesk, Behance and Elance.com are succeeding by giving people at all levels a platform to market their own skills on their own terms.

The New Hustle is not merely an economic phenomenon about substituting one way of making an income for another; it is more profound than that. The arrival of this Ad Hoc Economy was driven by a confluence of new technology, economic necessity and social change. The Great Recession exposed the fragility and instability of the traditional job market, while new app and mobile technologies have empowered individuals and untied them from physical workplaces (further breaking the psychological bond between worker and employer). There has been a cultural sea change also -- people came out of the downturn re-evaluating their materialism, questioning the value of being a wage slave. And along the way, geek culture kicked in and we began celebrating the heroic entrepreneur and the bad boy (or grrrl) hacker, broadly embracing of open source movements and the sharing economy. Perhaps the most significant change is society's evolving view of what it means to be a success (and a failure). Simply put, your mom says it's okay to be indie.

And, truth is, there has never been a better time to start your own hustle. Time was, in order to launch a business or even a sideline you needed to make big investments in machinery, equipment, real estate. Nowadays the only thing that you need is a computer or smartphone, a connection to the cloud and a decent idea. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that the new tools are "making it easier and cheaper than ever to publish your own book, start your own company and chase your own dream. Never have individuals been more empowered, and we're still just at the start of this trend."

Technologies that became the crowning (and you might say closing) achievements of the industrial age set the table for the new age of free agency. Telephony, computerization and software code language led us to smartphones, PCs, tablets, the Internet, the Cloud, ubiquitous wireless and thousands of practical business apps and new ways to be productive. Using new social media career tools, like the service I started, Mepedia, individuals can build a personal brand and navigate their own way, whether up the corporate ladder, in their own business, or some hybrid of the two.

Atomized and decentralized by the centripetal forces of mass connectivity and 24/7 globalization, the corporation -- as an organizing principle -- makes less and less sense. Today's corporation has become a constellation of loose relationships and inter-dependencies -- a shrinking proprietary core surrounded by "rented" resources and spheres of influence. Breakdown of the corporation is a force redefining our working lives that began with distributed computing, accelerated with the Internet, and went mainstream with the mobile communications revolution.

Neither side of the job contract thinks the current reality is still a good deal. In general, employers are questioning whether it makes sense to build or lease sprawling campuses (and annually sink $10,000 to $15,000 per head) to warehouse employees so that they can end up spending the day emailing, texting, conference calling and Skyping each other from neighboring cubicles. Employees don't think the time and expense of commuting long distances (or investing in dress clothes for the office) to work at a crappy job that might evaporate at any moment is a good deal either.

Graduates, the corporate job picture as we knew it is being obliterated -- the center cannot hold -- and the world of work we once relied upon is fracturing into myriad new combinations and permutations. Few people have a regular job anymore: we are sometimes employed by others but we always work for ourselves.

Like it or not, we're all in a new game. Anxious parents, watching Junior return home after college to regroup, may be wondering if he will ever be able to move out on his own. The truth is this generation, like all others before it, will find its own way. Like the detritus of a sea storm washing ashore, the cleverest among them are picking over the wreckage of the old economy and finding new and novel ways to make a buck. It won't be a conventional career the way we experienced it -- but perhaps that is not a bad thing.