Can Just-for-Fun Hobbies Survive the Era of “the Hustle”?

The beginning of an embroidered design lies inside a wooden hoop. A quilt lies in the background.

Don’t take up embroidery just so you can sell your designs on Etsy.

“Rise and grind” is the slogan of the millennial generation. Our days are cycles of constant productivity, ultimately ending in burnout, while the “downtime” our forebearers once filled with gardening is now reserved for networking and searching for alternative revenue streams. This is because, we live, as playwright Molly Conway wrote in a recent Manrepeller article, “in the era of the hustle.”

Hustles are categorically different from humdrum, “working for the weekend” jobs. Hustles lie at the intersection of passion and money-making; they’re something you can do on the side of your full-time boring job or something you can pursue 24/7. In the Hustle Era, it’s impossible to just enjoy something like a hobby without a thought toward how it could eventually become the career you love—because merely working a “boring job” is tantamount to a failure of the imagination and leisure time is wasted time. “If we’re good at it, we should sell it,” writes Conway. “If we’re good at it and we love it, we should definitely sell it.”

Conway attributes the ascent of the hustle to a few different factors: busyness as a defense mechanism against economic precarity, the cult of productivity that’s taken over everything from self-care to actual careers, the proliferation of trite advice like “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” When you’re encouraged, as a child, to turn your passion into your day job, Conway writes, ­­any passion becomes a potential stream of revenue, rather than something to be enjoyed and cultivated for its own sake.

All of these go a long way to explaining why so few of my friends have any hobbies that don’t, on some level, provide a capitalistic return of investment. But to my mind, there’s one major reason as to why hobbies for hobbies’ sake have gone the way of mayonnaise, napkins, and home ownership.

To have a hobby, one must at least have time, and likely also money. To become good at a hobby, one must almost certainly have both. But of course, time and money happen to be in short supply for a generation of work martyrs burdened by student debt. Turning hobbies into hustles just makes sense when you’re raised to believe that that after-school activities are a means to the end of college, that you should excise anything you’re mediocre at from your life, and that ultimately, creativity can and should be monetized. Why invest the precious waking minutes between the commute at the end of your nine-hour workday and bedtime in something that you will most likely be bad at, until the unforeseen moment where you’re good at it? And how to make the time until you’re good at, say, woodworking or knitting or writing, “worth” it? Attempting to make money off of the activity is the most obvious justification, since finding personal gratification in the slow, burdensome, sometimes-expensive process of perfecting a hobby or practicing something you’re not good at isn’t exactly intuitive.

Considering all this, it tracks that the most popular leisure time activities for millennials and Gen Zers are easy-entry, immediate-reward pastimes like reading, playing online games, watching TV, or hanging out with friends. It also explains the rise of experience-based activities like escape rooms and the (disgusting) portmanteau of “bleisure” travel, wherein those who are lucky enough to get to travel renounce the business or pleasure dichotomy and answer emails with a Daquiri in hand. None of those are hobbies, in the traditional sense, and while they all bring their own wonderful flavor to the stew of life, there is undoubtedly something lost when so few of us have the time or resources to devote to craft for its own sake rather than for professional or monetary gain.

Fortunately, there are still a few overworked youths out there who are creating their own sort of hobby lobby. Look at something like stress baking. As Amanda Mull wrote for the Atlantic, “As jobs for young people become more gig-centric and internet-based, those who do them can easily feel alienated … and the satisfaction of creating something wholly for yourself and those you love can provide an important mental balance.” Very few of those who stress bake will end up professional patissiers, but that’s OK. The point should be pleasure, not profit.


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