Inside polyworking, the problematic term for juggling multiple jobs to keep afloat

By Francesca Johnson

Updated Jan 10, 2022 at 02:37 PM

Reading time: 5 minutes

‘Polyworking’ has recently become the new go-to word used to sum up what can also be defined as being an occupational octopus. While collecting job titles like infinity stones may sound nifty to some, having to take up multiple professions to survive is so not cool, dude. As many news outlets seek to downplay how destructive it is for people to have no other choice than to juggle numerous jobs, it’s time we take a stand. “Down with polyworking, lead the revolution” is the battle chant that I, and many others, cry in the face of capitalism. Here’s why the term and the concept it supports are so problematic.

What is polyworking?

Polyworking simply means to work multiple jobs at once. Akin to the rise and grind, get that bread hustle culture of having multiple streams of revenue, polyworking comes is another vision of horror our dear friend Karl Marx would have been mortified to witness.

In an article published in August 2021, Forbes attempted to weigh polyworking’s pros and cons. The publication stated that polywork is “less about working multiple jobs than it is about being your own boss and serving multiple clients.” BYOB but not the good kind, am I right? According to the publication, the nature of polywork is “​​to explore your interests or bolster one skill set with different jobs that satisfy different nuances of a trade.” It’s safe to say, Forbes makes it sound like a dream come true.

Well, if anyone can sell this fantasy of finally getting out from under the thumb of The Man, it’s writer, best-selling author and career coach, Ashley Stahl who wrote in the aforementioned piece that “polywork professionals feel insulated from devastating job losses because they always have backups.”

Heralded as the gen Z and millennial slogan “don’t stick to one job, be a jack of all trades,” as the New York Post proclaimed in an article on the same subject, polywork is often put forward as the answer to all your modern problems with work. The professional COVID-19 enlightened workforce, particularly those in the zillenial/millennial categories, have ditched the dream of a full-time job in favour of polywork. And really, it makes sense when you think about it. Given that the job landscape is growing more desolate by the day—the noose of debt collection for recent graduates in the US especially seems to be at its tightest, the wasteland of entry level jobs spreads as far as the eye can see, and even conspiracies circulating on TikTok suggest that a lot of job postings are fake—the idea of finding a dream job and doing it every single day for the rest of your professional life isn’t so realistic anymore.

However, buried under bucketloads of praise from professionals who already make a fair few figures in their white collar day-to-day jobs, there’s a glaringly obvious, neon-highlighter coloured problem in the fineprint that we’re about to examine.

Why do people think polyworking is good?

Unbeknownst to me, much of the internet seems to be in favour of this multiple employment lifestyle—except Twitter where the overwhelming floods of cynic tweets has become my safe haven.

Polywork has oodles of support online for its perceived ability of giving gen Zers and millennials alike the power to overturn the bleak world we’ve been born into—grind ‘til you die, I guess. With housing crises abound, rising living costs soaring by the day and unemployment rates reaching beyond the stars while billionaires battle to conquer them, living, laughing and loving your way into the sunset has never been made to be seen easier. “Now get to work, bitch!” Britney Spears taught us.

As Digiday puts it, “being tied down is so pre-pandemic.” The outlet pointed to one champion of polyworking, Richard Fearn, based in London. Fearn runs the nonprofit The Friday Club, manages investments and even has enough free time left to produce a musical. In a recent Polywork newsletter, he explained that his disparate careers are the result of multiple interests that he’s passionate about and that they’ve naturally become different streams of income for him. “Modern working attitudes and flexible technology allows my generation to juggle a multitude of things in a way we’ve never been able to before,” stated Fearn.

Polywork is presented as the way forward—by being your own boss, building your brand, making yourself an asset and taking charge you’ll apparently achieve complete freedom. Right, that fits in perfectly with my daily schedule to gaslight, gatekeep and girlboss my way up. The positives of polywork, however, operate on the assumption that work isn’t a means to survive but an opportunity to reach a higher purpose of self-fulfilment. According to Stahl, “The dangers of polywork lie when it’s no longer rooted in passion, and work feels like a struggle.” While this last statement has some truth in it, the pros that polywork’s “modern” approach to work represent aren’t actually numerous.

TikTok has taken a liking to the word, with the hashtag #polywork having amassed over 4.1 million views so far. Many of the videos under the hashtag are touting a platform of the same name that allows users to showcase all of their interests and occupational skills for recruiters and other members. The New York-based company Polywork has been labelled a competitor of Linkedin. The site prompts its user to list skills and interests versus job titles and it’s proving to be a hit—with some publications detailing that the startup shows great promise already, since it raised $3.5 million (£2.6 million) in seed funding.

So, why is polyworking problematic?


work is for jerks #fyp #foryoupage #xyzbca #funny #comedy #dumb TheOldGuard #HungerGames #FoodReview

♬ original sound - Casey Hamilton

While many publications seek to gloss over how harmful it is, here at Screen Shot, we keep it real. And if I’m being completely transparent here, I don’t think we need a quirky word for killing yourself for cash. Unfiltered opinion? Polywork needs a whole lotta work.

Like all pipe dreams pushed by internet entrepreneur moguls—those YouTube ads that aim to get users to sign up to a random class in order to gain access to the secrets to success come to mind—I am not buying it. Firmly spitting out the Kool Aid, I have no interest in masking multiple jobs as a desire rather than a necessity spurred on by capitalism.

As someone who has worked multiple jobs at a time before to keep my head above water and will soon have to do so again, I am of course not a big fan of the growing narrative that polyworking is a good thing.

Let me be clear on one thing: making it out of the depths of debt by running yourself into the ground isn’t glamorous at all. In fact, the trials and tribulations that come with clawing your way out of capitalism’s clutches are a lot harder than the kernels of truth that personal success stories may lead you to believe.

This shiny new term isn’t supposed to include students working two to three jobs on top of studies to avoid the doom of instant-noodle dinners, or parents who work shifts at many different venues just to make ends meet and put food on the table. These people should be included under this definition, shouldn’t they? If that’s not true, then surely they must be doing something wrong and just need to work harder, right? I’ll spare you the ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ commentary here.

Though polyworking is about having a sample from a variety of careers, its purpose is different and, depending on an individual’s situation, it can be a liferaft to avoid being wiped out by the rapids, rather than a cushy floaty to relax by a pool while you let your money work for you.

Long story short, polyworking is yet another way to make those that are exploited by capitalism feel that they are to blame… For being exploited by capitalism—the irony.

Can we even fix this problem?

Well, for starters, I suggest we scrap the term and call a spade a spade. Overworked, overdone and, taking a play out of Summer Walker’s book, Over it. Now, while the title of an R&B smash album (whose successor Still Over It is worth the listen) sums up my personal views around polyworking to a T, I can see how it may not be viewed as the perfect solution. Of course, I am well aware that we can’t dismantle capitalism with one fell swoop.

Polyworking isn’t going to disappear, even if the word does. The need to keep calm and carry on and scramble to stretch yourself thin is a problem that comes embedded in our society’s capitalist system. And unfortunately, it can’t be fixed by just you and I. A lot of the solutions to quick fixes of late-stage capitalism like polyworking are problems we can’t tackle without upending all the other systems of our current society. Like attacking pesky weeds, we need to get to the root cause of the problem and pull it out from the ground in order for new functioning flowers to grow.

However, I think our culture’s incessant need to come up with new categories and quirky terms for real, entrenched issues can be stopped if we really want it to. It’s time we unmask the villain, and unlike every episode of Scooby-Doo you were probably raised on, not to feign shock when it’s revealed we’ve been slashed once again by none other than the culprit of capitalism.

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