Rise and grind! (WeCrashed)
You will work 24 hours a day, or I’ll find someone else who will… (The Dropout)
You’re not ‘super pumped’! (Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber)
These are lines you notice early on in the three recent dramas documenting the rapid rise and an even swifter fall of popular tech startups—WeWork, Theranos, and Uber. The dialogues clearly establish how founder-CEOs Adam Neumann of WeWork, Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, and Travis Kalanick of Uber created a work environment where hustle culture—striving hard and doing whatever it takes to achieve your goals—was normal and celebrated. It’s a term that is bandied about the most by folks in the startup world, who promote self-improvement and workaholism, often at the cost of one’s physical and mental well-being.
While all these founders claimed to “change the world” and “help people”, they ended up harming people in some way. Eventually, Neumann and Kalanick were ousted from WeWork and Uber, respectively, while the companies took a serious hit in valuation. Health-tech firm Theranos shut down completely; Holmes was convicted of criminal fraud and she awaits sentencing in September.
Events like these have fuelled the anti-hustle movement, and the ongoing pandemic has added to the furore against hustle. “Hustle culture has not been able to accommodate the deaths caused by the pandemic and the individual circumstances and environments it has created,” says Anshuma Kshetrapal, a creative arts psychotherapist from Delhi.
According to multiple medical studies, over a million people worldwide are still reeling from prolonged symptoms of long covid. “You cannot expect the pre-pandemic level of productivity from a traumatised population,” she says.
Certainly, the pandemic brought the concept of mortality closer to people across generations. “It has got many people rejecting this constant glorification of toil. They want to prioritise their health,” says Sukhada (@appadappajappa on Twitter), a digital marketer from Nagpur.
Memes parodying hustle culture have caught on among the anti-hustle proponents in the workforce across sectors. These are widely known as the “sigma male grindset” memes, referring to alpha males with a mindset for grinding away at all hours. The memes usually feature images of wealthy, successful men or celebrities who’ve played such characters onscreen, next to a text box with some seemingly life-altering advice or satirical comment.
Standup comics, like Trevor Wallace and Anna Przy in the US, Rama Lauw in Spain, Vishnu Kaushal and Samay Raina in India, consistently take digs at hustlers and productivity/motivation influencers by making light of stereotypical hustle culture tenets like waking up at 5 am, having coffee and avocado toast, hitting the gym, and celebrating sleep deprivation, among others.
Raina says, “During the pandemic when so many were dealing with the loss of life or livelihood or both, I read some bizarre thing from a productivity influencer,” he says. “These motivational speakers made a rat race even out of the most difficult time we were in.”
Conversations around hustle culture and productivity also exclude neurodivergent people born with neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), autism, and SLD (Specific Learning Disability), says Kshetrapal. “Hustle culture is very ableist in the way it expects the same level of productivity and drive from everyone across the spectrum of abilities. If they fail to deliver, it shames them into thinking they are incompetent,” she adds.
Today, “hustle” has become a bad word that implies a “toxic and exploitative work environment”, adds Srijan R Shetty, co-founder of a blockchain-based creator monetisation platform. It has become so bad that Shetty has stopped using the term in serious contexts altogether. “I’m struggling to find another word that describes working hard just as well but doesn’t come with this negative connotation.”
Sukhada promotes ‘slow productivity’—a concept where an individual’s work volume is kept at a sustainable level—as an antidote. “The slow productivity movement will only get stronger,” she says.
The majority, especially folks in their late teens and early twenties, still buys into the hustle narrative. The counter-movement “is limited to opinions and rants on social media from a few,” says Farah (@farhanaahm), a tech-recruiting professional who called out a pro-hustle hot take on Twitter recently. “How this [resistance] is translating into forming [or altering] company culture is still a question,” she says. “Most leaders take neutral stances instead of openly admitting to the problematic areas in their work culture.”
There are exceptions, of course. In a recent Twitter beef, an entrepreneur blamed hustle culture on consumers who demand 10-minute delivery and service at 1 am, among other things, arguing that you cannot build a startup by adhering to a relaxed 9-to-5 schedule. He received roaring applause but also some thoughtful criticism.
Amod Malviya, the co-founder of a popular B2B commerce platform, posted a take on the entrepreneur’s tweet, saying that hustle is great when it is personal but can be exploitative when it is forced upon someone. “From what I’ve seen, those who praise it are praising the former. Those who criticise it have experienced the latter,” he wrote, provoking a much-needed conversation on where it all went wrong.
A version of this article first appeared in the Mint Newsletter.