A window washer washing suds from a window.
A recent survey revealed that 16 million Americans are holding down multiple gigs.
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Why Do So Many Americans Have More Than One Job?

Side hustles are more common than ever. That's not a good thing.

It looks like the Labor Department drastically underestimated how many Americans have more than one job in its January employment report.

Despite the government’s assertion that eight million of us are working multiple jobs, recent research from top economists Nicolas Bloom,  Jose Maria Barrero and Steven J. Davis revealed that that number is closer to an eyebrow-raising 16 million. That’s 10% of the United States workforce.

Their study, titled “Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes,” collected more than 100,000 responses from around the country. It offers some other wild revelations (e.g. the pandemic’s impact of work-from-home arrangements is equivalent to the 40 years of WFH growth that preceded it), but the multi-employment conclusion, in particular, is a reminder of how much the economy has changed.

With wage increases struggling to match the rate of inflation, an opportunistic labor market (in spite of all the recent tech layoffs) and more workers in hybrid or WFH situations than ever before, it makes sense that more Americans are adding hourly paychecks — if not additional salaries, with secondary insurance, and sometimes even 401K contributions.

This isn’t the new normal, considering 78% of American employees still have just one job, but it’s certainly on the upswing. So: how should we feel about it?

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It’s a polarizing trend, surprise, surprise; some two-jobbers feel militantly about their right to allocate their time as they see fit. If they can hold down responsibilities for multiple companies (and no one is the wiser…a bit easier now in the WFH world) why shouldn’t they? It isn’t illegal, rent is too damn high, a carton of eggs is up 60%, etc.

As one commenter wrote on Reddit: “It’s long been accepted for people to work for two to three low-paying jobs or gigs just to scrape by — but as soon as we talk about getting two real paychecks…having twice the opportunity to save for retirement — it becomes a big ethical issue!”

On the flip side, employees working multiple jobs is an issue to certain CEOs, who insist “this is not about side hustles or moonlighting.” As Davis Bell, an angel investor and executive at software company Canopy posted to LinkedIn a few months back: “Whenever I read stories in the media about people doing this I’m usually surprised that they don’t make a bigger deal of the core moral issues at play: ‘working’ two full-time jobs is stealing, and it also involves a great deal of lying and deception.”

You can see his point — like any sitcom episode where a protagonist tries to bring two dates to the school dance, hopping between Zoom meetings of different companies, missing deadlines and manipulating your online presence to make it seem like you’re working for just one company feels like a fool’s game, with an inevitable crash and burn.

But the fact that people are even attempting to pull it off doesn’t make them automatically deplorable. It’s a referendum on employment packages that are ultimately underwhelming when the economy takes a turn for the worse. Besides, most two-jobbers aren’t working as software engineers at competing firms, on the exact same days of the week, no matter how sexy/insane a concept that may be for people to comment on online.

The top secondary jobs are often “off-laptop.” Think: drivers, dog walkers, bartenders, babysitters, tutors, personal trainers, carpenters, quality assurance reviewers, customer service representatives. The sort of shift work that requires people to be in person, or on site, which can make use of someone’s free time in the evenings or on the weekends.

These gigs can be extremely rewarding, and not just thanks to the extra cash it puts in one’s pocket. They can lead to new skills, friendships, events and connections…which can hopefully lead to new full-time gigs.

It’s critical we remember, though, from those lowest on the labor chain, to the evidently-irritated CEOs at the top, that working 70 hours a week is not a privilege. It’s a public health issue. There’s a phrase in Japan: karoshi, which can be translated to “overwork death.” Spending every waking hour trying to make money leads to mental fatigue and malnourishment. Instead of shaming the people who feel like they have to consider that path, let’s think about creating an employment structure where one job is enough.

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