The American View: Work to Live, Live to Work

Most Americans work multiple jobs as a hedge against an economy that seems coldly indifferent to workers. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger Keil Hubert reports from New York City on why companies shouldn’t harass their workers for holding after-hours side-jobs.

I took my wife to see New York City this week to celebrate our 25th anniversary. She’d never been, which means I get to re-experience the city through her first impressions. It helps that we have friends and former co-workers who live in Manhattan who can help us avoid the more touristy areas. All in all, it ought to be a delightful holiday: early Autumn weather, friendly guides, great museums and architecture, and the constant thrum of irrepressible New Yorker energy everywhere.

That last attribute is one of the strongest draws for me. As one of my friends explained, ‘When you step out onto the streets of New York, you’re always surrounded by thousands of strangers who are manic with ambition, energy, and direction. You can’t help but feel caught up in the enthusiasm. Everyone seems to busy and productive, all the time, and you want to be a part of that.’  I get that. I’ve experienced that every time I’ve been to the city. It’s an infectious yearning to be doing something, all the time that I just don’t get in my hometown.

That’s not to say that other US cities aren’t driven by an urgent need to work. Quite the contrary. Dallas may more laid back than NYC, but even us laconic Westerners have a strong drive to always be busy. Part of that is the American entrepreneurial spirit. Most of it is a survival mechanism for the modern economy. There are a few people who have so much money that they’ll never need worry about investing effort into anything. They’re the exception. Everyone else has to hedge their bets and keep all of their professional options open. It isn’t enough to hold down one job and call it good; any job can evaporate at any time leaving a person one severance check away from ruin. That’s why, as one of my soldiers once quipped, ‘You always have to have a side hustle.’

It doesn’t matter if you’re driving for a ride-share, delivering sandwiches, tutoring kids, writing articles, or stocking shelves. Every little bit helps. 

I agree. If you’re not rich, then you have to stay engaged. Always. That’s one of the main reasons why this trip to New York City is the first holiday that my wife and I have had in years. We’ve known a few people who took time off over the Christmas holidays or spent a few weeks traveling during the summer, but that’s not our style. We work. Obsessively. I invest 40-50 hours a week in a full-time Security Awareness role, then come home every night and put in another 20 hours over the week in my ‘side hustle.’ That includes writing these weekly columns, occasional newspaper articles, book projects, ghost writing training content and white papers for various security consulting clients, training young people in IT skills, and researching new advanced in IT. Everyone in my family puts in a minimum of double time, all the time: my wife works two jobs: one teaching, and another working retail. My boys attend university by day and then work nights. It’s a grind, but it’s necessary.

The downside of a constantly busy lifestyle is that it doesn’t leave much time for leisure. Two weeks out of the office and an equal amount of pay diverted to a holiday trip? Preposterous! You don’t dare … Yes, I’ve read the studies that show that the American way of life is inherently unhealthy. Stress, burnout, exhaustion, and long-term health impacts logically follow a constant go-get-em! approach to work life. The European idea of trying to balance work and family seems to be much healthier. Unfortunately, that’s not how we’re wired … and our fragile economy won’t support it.

Decades of economic shocks, declining purchasing power, out-of-control higher education and healthcare costs, and the steady erosion of the US middle class have combined to make the old American Dream™ (that is, work hard enough for long enough and you’ll become financially secure) has shrivelled up, died, and blown away like a politician’s promise. Economic paranoia and hopelessness have become everyone’s touchstones. You have a grim choice: work as hard as you can every chance that you get, or else lose out. Everyone’s one pink slip away from disaster, all the time.

It should come as absolutely no surprise then, that damned near everyone working in the IT sector has at least one second job. Back when I served on the broadcast crew for the 2000 Paralympic Games, our senior network engineers used half of their assigned sleep shifts to perform remote sysadmin work on servers back in the US. When I lead an Air Force IT unit, half of my NCOs did night and weekend work running network cable as independent contractors. In the reverse of that, several of my co-workers in the corporate sector held down part time jobs in the military reserves.

… and third jobs as reserve police officers, volunteer firefighters, part-time nurses, etc. If your skills and experience are in demand, you work wherever and whenever you can.  

We understand this. This is how we all live. It’s not a hobby; it’s a survival gambit. Everyone that can work more works at least two jobs. This is the new American normal. So why, then, are so many companies still treating outside employment as a negative thing?

This isn’t a dig on any particular employer. Every commercial company and government agency that I’ve worked at for the last twenty-five years has taken this same approach to outside work. When talking to my mates about their job headaches, they all report experiencing the same unnecessary hassle. Part of getting started with a new employer involves disclosing all of your outside interests … under the threat of termination if you aren’t completely honest, and the threat of being forced to choose between employers if a lawyer or HR person decides that you have a ‘conflict of interest.’

I get the concept of disclosing potential conflicts of professional loyalties. The last thing that an employer wants is for an employee to steal information from them to give a competitor entity an unfair or illegal advantage. I’m on board with professional transparency; it prevents potential financial and reputational damage down the line. That makes sense.

I also get the concept of de-conflicting employees’ paid time. That makes sense, too. An employer doesn’t want to pay a fellow a wage for an hour spent ‘on the clock’ when that fellow is actually doing paid work for someone else. That’s waste (at best) and potentially criminal fraud (at worst).

The thing is, these sorts of potential conflicts can be addressed adequately with simple disclosure, well-crafted policy, and consistent management enforcement of performance. Make it clear up-front that workers need to keep their activities physically, logically, and temporally separate so as to avoid the appearance of impropriety and they will. Yes, there are always a few bad apples who cheat their employers and teammates; jerks are universal. They’re also easy to catch. The thing is, the jerks represent a minority of workers; most people believe in giving a fair day’s work for a fair wage. They’re not inclined to cheat anyone; they just want to provide for their family as best they can.

Maslow’s ‘Pyramid of Human Needs’ is a real thing. A worker who can’t reliable feed her children doesn’t give a damn about your quarterly revenue targets. 

That’s why I find it so damned strange that some companies – who shall remain nameless – forbid their employees from doing any outside work at all, even when outside of regular duty hours. It makes no sense. The overwhelming majority of people who work multiple jobs aren’t putting in those exhausting extra hours out of some sense of spite against their primary employer; they’re struggling to get by. That ‘by your own bootstraps’ approach is the heart of the American worker spirit: work hard and get ahead. If you’re not getting ahead, work more and work harder. Why harass your employees when they’re already struggling to get by? What can an employer possibly gain from such a tactic?

I have friends suffering from this sort of harassment right now and it makes me sick. I’ve endured it myself under previous bosses, and I remember how exhausting is can be. The pressure to hide your necessary side-job(s) makes your life hellish. Always having to hide your side-hustle from your boss for fear of being reprimanded or fired can be immensely stressful. That stress inevitably bleeds over into all aspects of your life. The employee suffers, the employee’s family suffers, the employee’s work suffers, and for what? For an arbitrary exclusive claim on the employee’s paid productive time? Hell, if an employer insists on having exclusive rights to a person’s work output, then all they have to do is (a) pay the worker an adequate wage, (b) fund an adequate pension plan, and (c) protect the employee against the threat of random job loss.

That three-step plan is definitely not too much to ask. I realize that we’ve largely abandoned those values as a country; we gave all three standard business practices up back in the 1980s when the practice of heartlessly exploiting workers really came into vogue. The inevitable result of that abandonment of our employer-worker covenant has been a new demand placed on workers in all corners of professional life: everyone has to have that side hustle, all the time. It only takes one random layoff or abandoned pension plan for a worker to realize that the people running the game don’t give a damn about them.

That’s the new normal for American workers: You can’t trust your employer to keep you on the payroll. You can be kicked to the kerb at any time, without a reason. You have no guarantee of future wages, benefits, or stability. Therefore, you have to keep all of your options open, all the time. You have to maintain multiple sources of income. You have to diversify your skills in order to stay competitive. You have to keep your head on a swivel looking for threats, like a soldier in the deep jungle, always alert for signs that your grossly over-compensated employer has whimsically decided to send your job overseas in order to save a few hundred quid on ‘labour.’

Sunset over ManhattanI get that London, New York, and San Francisco are the most expensive cities in the world when it comes to labour costs. If economic pressure requires you to move downmarket, though, keep those jobs in-country. There’s no reason to abandon your loyal workers in the US or the UK for India or China. Workers will move where the work is.

No wonder then that American workers tend to never take holidays. Leaving your job undefended seems as crazy as asking the aforementioned soldier-behind-enemy-lines to halt his patrol, call for a ‘time out,’ and enjoy a leisurely picnic. If you’re not learning, earning, or networking, you become the allegorical shark who stops swimming. Losing your momentum feels like career suicide because it often is. If you’re not actively defending your position, there’s good chance you’ll lose it.

That’s another reason why this anniversary trip to New York feels to odd to me. I haven’t done anything like this in years. I’m only able to take this week off at all because I lucked into a great gig with a strong leadership team that respects workers’ requests to take time off. That’s a first for me. I also lucked into a strong team that both can and will cover my share of the load while I’m out. That’s also new. I appreciate how rare this combination of positive factors is, and I’m taking full advantage of it while I still can. This delightful workplace alchemy might not come again.

When I get back, though, I plan to get right back to my usual grind: office work, articles, books, teaching, research, and the like. I don’t see the American economy ever improving in my lifetime such that I can do anything different, and that’s a damned shame.

I love visiting New York. I love the rush that comes from the crackling energy of all those strangers passing on the street. On the other hand, I can only take the New York Vibe for so long before it starts becoming wearying. Eventually, inevitably, everyone runs out of endurance. The incessant go!-go!-go! thrum of peer pressure morphs from encouragement to admonishment until it becomes demoralizing.

Maybe it would be different if we only worked because we wanted to, and not because we can’t afford not to. Maybe. I doubt that most of us in the twenty-first century USA will ever learn what real economic security feels like. That being the situation, our myriad employers need to lighten the hell up and quit giving us grief over our secondary and tertiary pursuits. So long as we’re not making any trouble for the company, let us get on with things. We’ve got families to feed, mortgages to pay, and a pension-less old age to prepare for.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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