Taking on “side hustles”—second jobs to make money alongside one’s main job—was a growing trend before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the labor market. Since then, data shows that the unstable economy has led more workers to hold multiple jobs to increase financial security.
In an interview with SHRM Online, associate professors in management Brianna Caza at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Heather C. Vough at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., discussed their research, which has found that taking a “portfolio approach” to a career is beneficial to workers’ well-being and allows for economic resilience.
SHRM Online: What is the typical multiple-job-holding scenario?
Caza: There is such a range of scenarios that fall under the broad heading of multiple-job holding that it would be impossible to give a “typical.” Based on talking with multiple-job holders for about a decade now, we think there is a continuum of “typical,” with the bookends being moonlighters who work multiple jobs to make ends meet and plural careerists who work multiple jobs out of a genuine desire to pursue more than one occupation, like someone who is a lawyer and yoga instructor. While some see one job as primary and other jobs as secondary or tertiary, these roles rotate for many plural careerists, and some do not see their jobs as higher or lower in terms of a hierarchy at all.
SHRM Online: How has the pandemic affected multiple-job holding?
Caza: This is a hard question to answer because, in the best of times, it is difficult to get concrete data on the prevalence of multiple-job holding, since people often hold a second job for only part of the year, have marginal earnings when in the startup phase of a new job, or may not report the income from what they may consider to be secondary jobs.
During the pandemic, the ability to obtain clear data has been further complicated by the fact that unemployment benefits were so much more generous than usual due to the coronavirus relief legislation, and there were so many mass layoffs that the data could be skewed in either direction. That being said, I suspect that the overall picture may actually be quite bimodal. There is some data that suggests that perhaps people with passion projects or emerging hobbies may have found some opportunity during stay-at-home/work-from-home orders to invest in and perhaps even launch their fledgling side gigs. Additionally, some people may have made work pivots to adjust to the new stay-at-home orders in ways that have become a viable side gig—for example, teachers who begin tutoring on the side for those doing online learning or fitness professionals launching apps or online programming. Finally, I think the “crisis of meaning” caused by the pandemic has made some reflect more deeply on their occupations and their sense of alignment, which may lead some to try experimenting with alternative jobs.
On the other hand, those who had secondary employment primarily as a way of earning extra income may have found that their more contingent employment was first on the chopping block when the economy took a hit. So my best guess is that those who are multiple-job holding out of necessity found that their secondary sources of income dried up, whereas those who were dabbling in multiple-job holding because they had an intrinsic passion toward exploring multiple jobs—the plural careerists—found they had the time and motivation to invest more in their secondary jobs during this time.
SHRM Online: What are the benefits of having more than one job?
Vough: The most straightforward benefit of holding multiple jobs is financial. Individuals with multiple jobs have multiple sources of income, which not only means that they can make more money than they may have in one job, but it also means that they have backup sources of income should they lose a job or hours in one job. The less obvious benefits of holding multiple jobs concern authenticity and passion. The individuals who we spoke with noted that they felt they were able to be more themselves at work when doing multiple things because who they were was complex and multifaceted. As such, by working multiple jobs, individuals felt that they were authentically living and expressing themselves. They also report doing things that they truly loved and got a greater sense of fulfillment out of work because they were able to do a variety of different things.
SHRM Online: What are some common problems with managing multiple work identities?
Vough: Time management is, not surprisingly, one important concern. Individuals found themselves constantly prioritizing and re-prioritizing their different activities. While onerous in the moment, however, this prioritization process was ultimately beneficial because it helped them appreciate what was truly important. One person we interviewed said, “I now feel I have a better perspective of my career path than ever before. Previously, I often felt like I was jockeying several horses at once and trying to see if one would take the lead. Now I feel like I have a team that pulls together instead of racing one another.”
There were also struggles describing their jobs to colleagues. There was no easy answer to the “what do you do?” question. While they struggled with this at first, over time they developed simple ways to describe their work that encompassed multiple jobs. For example, an individual who worked in IT, did public relations and produced scripts for the entertainment business characterized his work as being a writer because that was “the hub of everything.”
SHRM Online: What are some common assumptions about multiple-job holders that should be re-evaluated?
Vough: Multiple-job holders care about how others perceive them. They mentioned in-laws, friends or other family members who did not understand or appreciate their multiple-job holding. Specifically, multiple-job holders felt that others perceived them to be unfocused and unable to settle down or commit, or [that they were] not able to do anything well if they did multiple things. However, there are reasons to question these perceptions. There could be financial advantages of taking on multiple jobs. Just as a financial advisor would advise you to take on multiple different investments, it may make sense, especially in an uncertain economy, to take on multiple sources of income. Further, being a generalist—having knowledge in multiple areas—may be more of an asset than a drawback.
Finally, many of the individuals who engaged in multiple-job holding claimed to do it because it made them happy and fulfilled. In my estimation, that is reason enough to support someone and not make judgments about their decisions.
SHRM Online: Do you think the post-pandemic period will see a normalization of this type of work arrangement?
Caza: It isn’t clear if there will be greater opportunities for multiple-job holders or, perhaps, reduced opportunities if the economy takes more of a hit. While I think remote work will become more normalized, which is one way multiple-job holders may interact with their clients, I am not sure if holding multiple jobs ever will be considered normal, as the one-job narrative is so baked into our society’s narrative.
Vough: I agree. I don’t think that holding multiple jobs will be considered mainstream or typical anytime soon, but I do think there will be a steady increase of individuals in the years to come who will be doing it. I suspect that once we get past the pandemic and move back into a situation where people have regular, reliable child care again, we might see an influx of people taking on multiple jobs. Many individuals will likely continue to work virtually, or at least more virtually than they did previously, which might free up time for other pursuits. For example, instead of commuting, one might work on their Etsy shop in the early mornings and late afternoons. There are just so many opportunities that the Internet provides for multiple streams of income, it is hard to see how the number of individuals engaged in multiple-job holding could do anything other than rise.