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Hobbies Have Been Killed by Money Making Side Hustles

Tommy Wylde has always enjoyed teaching other people about wildlife. When he wasn’t at his office job, Wylde would use his love and knowledge of nature to lead groups on bird-watching and wildlife-spotting expeditions. When he suddenly found himself with a bit more free time during the pandemic, he decided to put this passion to good use and generate a little cash while he was at it. Wylde used his previous experience building websites to launch a wildlife information website called Floofmania in November 2020.

He started writing and commissioning articles about various North American animals — detailing the difference between opossums and raccoons, telling people the best way to repel mountain lions from your property, and answering the question about what groundhogs eat.  Wylde’s burgeoning site started to find an audience. He quickly published close to 500 articles and the readership was growing, approaching 700 to 800 daily visitors by March 2021. The site also provided him with a bit of extra cash — around $400 to $500 a month in ad revenue. 

The success led Wylde to pour more of his time into producing articles for the site, but he also shifted his focus away from topics that fascinated him to topics that he thought would drive traffic. The work was exciting, but it soon became stressful. Wylde would spend a couple of hours each morning writing articles before starting his day job, and then continue working on the site into the evening after work. He invested everything he earned on it back into the website. But after two years, the number of people coming to his site began to tank. 

His daily visitors fell to around 200 in 2022, and Wylde suspects it’s because of an update to Google’s algorithm. “I’ve tried tons of different strategies to get the site back on track, and while it has improved, it’s nowhere near the growth that it saw in the start,” Wylde said. Today, the site earns about $50 a month and Wylde has cut almost all costs. 

“In a way, I regret putting so much time and effort and money into building my website, given how little traffic the site gets today,” he said. 

Beyond the loss of income the site provided, the changing fortunes of his side hustle also sapped the joy from what had once been a source of excitement for Wylde.

“When the graph started moving in the wrong direction, I found it hard to get back to just enjoying the wildlife part of it,” he told me.

A hobby, by definition, is an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure. But in recent years, expectations have shifted: The fun activities we used to do to fill our spare time should be productive, even profitable. With platforms like Etsy and Instagram, every hobby can become a side hustle. Do you have a penchant for vintage fashion? Why not sell your finds on eBay? Are you a keen photographer? Did you know you can make money from that? In the US, 49% of people under 35 claim to have a side hustle alongside their full-time job. That means that after a 40-hour workweek, rather than knitting a scarf or relaxing with a book for the fun of it, almost half of young people are turning those activities into income. 

But Wylde — and many others like him — experienced an all-too-common downside that can come with trying to turn a hobby or personal interest into a side hustle: Monetization can be hard work, and starting a business doesn’t always work out. A hobby is no longer a hobby when deadlines are imposed and it requires you to file your own taxes — that’s a job. In the post-nine-to-five economy, hobbies have been killed off and milked for cash — but in the rush to turn a passion into a profitable enterprise, the fire a person has for that activity can be snuffed out.

Financial precarity 

“Traditionally, the hobby category is defined by what it’s not,” Erik Baker, a historian, author, and Harvard lecturer, told me. “The category means something done for fun, that’s very much not work.”

Doing things just for the fun of it is proven to have a positive impact on both our psychological and physical well-being. Audrey Tang, a psychologist and an author, told me that “some of our key ‘feel good’ hormones and neurotransmitters can be stimulated through passion projects.” Research has found that hobbies can reduce stress, result in less severe disease outcomes, and even lead to a longer life.

But in a time of high inflation and pessimism about the economy, seeking a way to bring in a bit of extra cash makes sense for a lot of people. The shifting landscape of the job market has resulted in a significant number of young people finding themselves in the gig economy. With a reliance on juggling multiple jobs to make a living, more people are taking advantage of every opportunity to earn some money. But even those with full-time jobs are converting their hobbies to side hustles.

When the graph started moving in the wrong direction, I found it hard to get back to just enjoying the wildlife part of it

Nearly 40% of Americans have a side hustle, a May survey from Bankrate found, including 50% of millennials and 53% of Gen Zers. Baker sees this as an “insurance policy,” allowing workers “a certain kind of self-sufficiency” in case their full-time job doesn’t work out. And side hustles can be a boon: People with a side business brought in an average of $810 a month, the Bankate survey said, and 15% reported making more than $1,000 a month. The amount was highest among younger generations: Millennials reported making $1,022 on average from their secondary gigs, and Gen Zers brought in an average of $753 a month, compared to $670 and $646 a month for Gen Xers and boomers, respectively.

“This is typically associated with times of economic crisis,” Baker told me. “During the Great Depression, there was a great emphasis on people augmenting their income with odd jobs.” 

And there’s definitely a sense of economic uncertainty in today’s side-hustle boom: One-in-three US adults with a side hustle say they need the money for regular living expenses, while 27% use it for discretionary spending. “A lot of these features of the economy that are often praised as evidence of dynamism and innovativeness, a lot of workers experience that as precarity,” Baker said.

But while side hustles have long been a feature of an uncertain economy, Baker added that the real shift is “the way that it’s considered quite normal, including for people who are doing pretty well, economically” to have a side hustle. In other words, he said, “what has changed is that it’s no longer considered a last resort.”

Breakdown of traditional work

Grace Jicha Torres, 24, loved taking photographs since she was a kid messing around with an old point-and-shoot camera in her backyard. She got her first DSLR camera in 2012 and started taking people’s senior portraits and “sweet 16” photos for a little extra money when she was in high school. While studying journalism and graphic design in college, she began photographing people’s weddings for a living. Six months after she graduated, it was her full-time job. 

“In the beginning, it was just like a love for aesthetics, a love for pretty things,” Torres told me. “Something to do that felt productive that wasn’t sitting on the couch watching TV.”

When she started charging for her photography, Torres never thought it would end up as her full-time job. “It’s not like I was reaching to necessarily become a full-time photographer,” she said. “I always saw it as a side thing, but I did see that there was an option to make money off of it and I was like, OK, why not?” 

Social media and the internet made starting a business significantly easier, pushing more people to ask the same question: Why not? “The idea that the internet was a tool that would enable people to do work that they cared about was a very pervasive feature of the culture of Silicon Valley,” Baker explained. “You have these platforms that enable you with just a couple of clicks to set up a business for yourself and sell the stuff that you’ve been making.”

If you’re already on all the time, then why not try to get some money from that hobby

The idea gained momentum during the pandemic. According to a 2022 research paper by the Bank of England, new business registrations in the UK surged by 8% one year into the pandemic, compared 2018 to 2019. In the US, new business applications spiked 60% in 2020 and have remained high ever since. 

Baker believes that the replacement of hobbies with hustles stems from the way work changed when the pandemic sent everyone home. “If you’re supposed to be on 24/7, then the boundary between work and life becomes more porous, and the idea that there’s this category called hobbies that’s insulated from working life no longer really makes sense.” 

Smartphones and Slack meant employees were, in theory, always available, and remote work eroded those boundaries even further. “If you’re already on all the time, then why not try to get some money from that hobby,” Baker said.

‘If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life’

So is something lost by turning every hobby into a side hustle? 

“It’s still something that I really, truly enjoy despite monetizing it,” Torres said. “It comes with different pressures, but I feel like a lot of that comes from the business aspect of it. The photography itself I still love just as much as I always have.”

As with any job, there are stressors. For Torres, those are taxes and bookkeeping. But she still makes sure to find time to shoot just for fun, bringing a small film camera that she keeps solely for personal use with her when she travels. 

“When people say, ‘If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life,’ it’s not exactly true, and I think everybody knows that now,” Torres said. “But it doesn’t always feel like work if you intentionally create space and create boundaries so that your work can still feel like a passion and fulfilling.” But, she added, “One con is that you just don’t have hobbies anymore because you’ve monetized them.”

And once you throw money in the mix, it can be hard to go back. By turning a hobby into a hustle, Tang, the psychologist, said that you risk all the pleasure and wellness benefits the hobby once provided. And studies show that without hobbies, people are more likely to feel burned out and more stressed. Hobbies are crucial in shaping well-rounded and interesting human beings, but those once restorative activities are now falling victim to the vice grip of productivity.

People are starting to feel the effects of the constant grind culture. “A characteristic complaint of today, if you can generalize like that, is that people are tired,” Baker said. When the alternative is economic precarity and a revolving door of unstable jobs, it’s easy to see why many would gladly take the cash — but the push to scrape out a few extra dollars comes with its own set of risks.

For Wylde, he’s been trying to find a better balance between fostering his love of nature and keeping the site going. He still enjoys writing and researching the articles, so he doesn’t see the time and money invested into the site as a complete waste, but he’s more focused on writing about what he loves rather than chasing web traffic. He’s keeping his hobby alive and feeling hopeful for the future.

Eve Upton-Clark is a features writer covering culture and society.

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