In a world where Elon Musk works 100 hours a week, an Uber driver works 40 hours a week alongside a 40-hour full time job. Yet, one is a multi-billionaire, while the other is part of the working class, barely making ends meet. If they both work nearly the same number of hours, why are their circumstances so vastly different?
Boasting about his long working hours and “hustling” lifestyle, Musk tweeted that “nobody ever changed the world in 40 hours a week.” He also insisted that “doing what you love won’t feel like work”, that everyone should be “working up to 100+ hours a week to make change in the world.”
It’s easy to see how at first glance his statements sound commendable. Phrases like “changing the world” and “love won’t feel like work” evoke a cause-driven attitude, making one feel as though they’re living in a cliché Hollywood film that glamorizes the entrepreneurial hustle. Simply ‘liking’ one’s job is no longer enough, one has to obsess over it, promote it on social media, and showcase their workaholic lifestyle to other employees and employers on platforms such as LinkedIn.
A young generation is now being raised into the consuming reality of workaholism. According to Bloomberg, 36 percent of Generation Z freelancers joined the project-finding platform Upwork during the pandemic, and Digiday reported that up to 72 percent of Generation Z users wanted to pursue a side-hustle. The number of Egyptian freelancers has also been increasing, with local platforms such as Al7areefa, Virtual Worker Now, and Employ already entering the market to compete with global platforms.
The insistence that a meaningful life can only come about from working the same hours as a multi-billionaire is not only harmful, but lacks compassion for those who have no other choice but to struggle creating a basic standard of living.
Hustling is not always glamorous, especially not in Egypt where poverty is forcing youth into precarious, and sometimes unhealthy, forms of informal employment. As more young workers try to balance between different jobs and freelancing, reforms are needed to ensure that they are not just reaching their full potential, but are also given alternatives to how they approach their work time and schedules.
There is an unsettling motive behind the way the “hustle” lifestyle is readily advertised considering the context of rising prices, expensive cost of living and inequalities that have pulled other groups in society deeper into poverty, all while overlooking the wider structural and global problems that forced them to work extra hours. Participating in this “hustle” culture and going through the torture of trying to afford a living way above one’s salary is treated as though it is not only necessary, but celebratory..
What needs to be advertised instead is not the “hustle” lifestyle, but how the world can alleviate time poverty among the impoverished. Time poverty is known as working long hours without choice because an individual’s household is poor or would be at risk of falling into poverty if the individual reduced their working hours. This includes time spent in the labor market, domestic work, or performing other activities such as fetching water and food. Research has found that time poverty also carries strong gender dimensions, as women are expected to work extra long hours of domestic work for their families.
To mitigate time poverty, more needs to be done with regards to providing vouchers for services to reduce the burden of unpaid labor and unconditional cash transfers (UCTs). In turn, this will improve well-being, reduce stress, and lessen relationship conflicts. For instance, the story of Egypt’s Takaful and Karama programme can be replicated at a much larger scale, where households receive a monthly transfer of 325 Egyptian Pounds (EGP). The model of the Universal Basic Income (UBI), a regular cash payment every individual receives, can also be implemented in certain cities or communities.
The idea of flexible working hours can also be explored for working class families, and has proven to be a great way of helping employees find a better work-life balance, resulting in improved work performace, with the example of Belgium. Belgium is now the latest country to allow its employees a four-day workweek, as well as the right to disconnect and ignore messages from work outside of business hours. Several other countries have enacted a four-day workweek program, including: Iceland, Japan, Scotland, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates.
It is understandable that this may not work for all industries, but experimentation could provide some answers as to why this could be a better alternative. For instance, when Henry Ford reduced the working week in his car factories from six days to five with no cut in pay in 1926, the decision followed several years of experiments which proved production would not suffer.
“We can get at least as great production in five days as we can in six, and we shall probably get a greater, for the pressure will bring better methods,” he said.
Undervaluing one’s self and the labor of the working poor is not doing the economy any favors. Similarly, not shifting our work schedules to mirror our changing realities during a pandemic and a global economic crisis sets a troubling precedent.
It is high time that policies and employers acknowledge the increasing pressures that are forcing more households to work for extra hours, and to reanalyze working conditions for a better environment that puts workers’ health and financial security first.
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