How hustle culture breaks society

Hustle culture is killing people. We have always known it; it’s just never been called hustle culture before. The renewed focus is because it is killing people in the West, and that’s why it is attracting attention.

In Japan, the punishing hours are called karoshi (過労死). In South Korea, it is called gwarosa (과로사), and in China, it is called guolaosi (过劳死). All of these terms refer to death by overwork. While they seem like excessive terms, the reality is that managers are demanding staff to work longer hours or unpaid overtime for no apparent benefit. I’ve already spoken of the problems with 996 in China.

What is hustle culture?

“Hard work pays off.” “No pain, no gain.” “You can have fun when you’re successful.”

I’m sick of hearing these phrases, particularly given the current state of the global economy.

One definition of hustle culture is:

In today’s standard, hustle culture can be defined as the state of overworking to the point where it becomes a lifestyle. There’s not a day in your life where you’re not exerting yourself to your utmost capabilities — having no time for personal life. 

The Truth About the Hustle Culture, Arfina Arfa, Taylors University

Some people may remember these tweets from Elon Musk:

So if we are supposed to work 80 to 100 hours a week, why doesn’t it happen? Why are governments not pushing this across all levels of the economy? That’s because it’s dreadful for people and the economy.

What’s wrong with the hustle culture?

Firstly, just because you are doing more hours doesn’t mean you are more productive. I am convinced that Chinese businesses could operate on a traditional Western timetable and be just as effective without the need for unpaid overtime. In fact, I suspect it would actually result in increased employment. More staff would be needed to undertake the projects that upper management would demand of middle management. The abandonment of the “big week, small week” concept in China has not seen any drop in productivity or income for companies, so it clearly works.

I’ve also spent time with people that do nothing but work. Last month, my wife met with someone that wanted to start a training center in Shenzhen – in my opinion, a very flawed plan. She told me that he was earning 60k RMB per month, working 8am to 8pm every day of the week. I quickly worked out that he was doing private tutoring and similar classes – and nothing else. As reported in the New York Times in 2019:

For congregants of the Cathedral of Perpetual Hustle, spending time on anything that’s nonwork related has become a reason to feel guilty. Jonathan Crawford, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur, told me that he sacrificed his relationships and gained more than 40 pounds while working on Storenvy, his e-commerce start-up. If he socialized, it was at a networking event. If he read, it was a business book. He rarely did anything that didn’t have a “direct R.O.I.,” or return on investment, for his company.

Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work? Erin Griffith, The New York Times, January 26, 2019

A friend of mine here in Shenzhen has 4 jobs – I’m not sure if she still has four positions, and I certainly hope she doesn’t. She may have dropped it down to two jobs, but she looks glamourous while she does so.

I know plenty of people that are constantly hustling while others push back. A friend in Beijing would regularly post screenshots of her leaving the office in the early hours of the morning before a new photo of her attending a workout less than 6 hours later. I was highly concerned for her, but she now has a new job in Shanghai. She appears to be thriving in her new position.

Is hustle culture the result of something else?

Are we actually misreading hustle culture? Is it possible that the hustle culture generation is actually the burnout generation? The need to hustle is just the need to pay bills?

That is something I can get my head around. When I first came to China, I was offered private tutoring jobs, and at one point, my weekends were full of private tutoring gigs all over the city. After a while, I had to take a step back and reconsider – what was the point of it? Sure, I was netting some extra cash, but to what end? Wasn’t the point of taking a job at a public school to avoid working on the weekends?

In my opinion, the financial insecurity that has arisen from the last twenty years of economic mismanagement across the world has seen people struggle. People will take almost any job they can to survive – two, three, four jobs, whatever they can just to pay the bills.

The sample McDonalds budget released some years ago, including a second job, indicates the direction of society and capitalism in general. They assume you have to have a second job to survive and pay all your bills means that people get that second gig – they work longer hours on different things, and they continue to struggle.

Burnout has actually been defined by the WHO.

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

a) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

b) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and

c) reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases, WHO, 28 May 2019

I burnt out badly towards the end of 2020. In fact, I got caught by the hustle culture that China likes, thinking that the long hours I put in would keep people impressed. However, the work that I was doing was not going anywhere. I’ve already spoken about how that backfired for me. These days, I am out the door at 6pm.

Is there a solution?

There might be a solution, but it relies on a lot of things going right.

Firstly, companies need to give up some control, which is mainly the case with middle management. Middle managers need to understand that the numbers are not the only thing they need to worry about. Short-term outcomes are not the most important thing that determines their success – long-term outcomes also need to be accounted for. I don’t need to trawl through r/talesfromtechsupport, r/MaliciousCompliance, or r/ProRevenge to see plenty of middle managers not understand this issue.

Similarly, people need to be honest with each other about mental health. The stigma around mental health is horrific and will continue to be terrible for years to come. This is definitely the case in East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, where any weakness is frowned upon and hidden away.

Some countries are trying to reduce the long working hours, but companies will always get around it. What will make life better is having the corporate and social pressure to change. Companies that value a work/life balance, that listen to their employees, that give them the space to shine, provide them with the opportunity to look after themselves, and offer a good salary – those are the companies that will retain staff and be attractive to new hires. Companies that remain stuck in the past will have to change to adapt.

There will be many countries and companies that struggle to adapt to this paradigm. Many are struggling. The tech industry in China is already struggling with adjusting to new regulations. There are many questions as to whether all players will actually follow through.

Ultimately, the solution to hustle culture is the individual. Working smarter, not harder, is the best way to find the best outcomes – long hours do not guarantee quality.

What do you think? How has the hustle culture or burnout culture impacted your life? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!


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