The Side Income Trap, and the Rise of the ‘4-Income Household’

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The side hustle? It’s a trap! And if we’re not careful, we’re going to end up with a new economic category: the Four-Income Household. In fact, we might already be there.

A new Bankrate survey found that 45% of American workers say they have a side hustle. At the moment, 3 in 10 hustlers who have full-time work say they need their side job to pay for the basics. But as I read the numbers, it’s worse than that.

The other two-thirds say they use the extra cash for savings or discretionary spending. But a generation or two ago, those categories were covered by middle-class jobs. They need a side hustle to save money. That’s not a hustle. It means their primary employment wages are depressed.

Sure, there are cases where a side hustle is a passion project that’s blossomed — the Etsy storefront that turned a hobby into a vacation home or early retirement. But the gig economy has a dark, dark side.

The trap is this: Side hustle income is now being built into the cost of living. We’ve been here before.

Long before U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren became a nationally known political figure, she wrote a book called “The Two-Income Trap,” which every American should read. She notes this oft-overlooked consequence of social change from the 1950s and ’60s: Basically, a middle-class life that once required only one income now requires two.

There’s plenty of good and bad that flow from this change, but one thing that did not happen: The rise in household income that came from both partners working didn’t lift our standard of living. It mainly raised the price of things. When there’s that much more money chasing the same number of houses, the price of housing goes up.

I wrote about this a couple of years ago:

“The rise of the two-income family is one of the most dramatic social changes of the past century. From 1960-2010, the share of American households supported by dual earners rose from 25% to 60%, according to Pew. But there’s another massive social change underway that might be impacting our lives even more dramatically, and at a faster rate: We’re going to name it here for the first time: The Four-Income Family.”

Today, many families can’t afford housing near good schools unless both parents work. For them, it’s the cost of doing business, or of wanting to have a family.

I worry this is changing again. Side hustles are becoming, to use today’s overused word, normalized. Hey, who doesn’t like “hustle”? America is becoming the land of small entrepreneurs. Now, there are millions of them! It’s great. But is it, really? Imagine competing for the purchase of a house with a family that has four incomes to throw at the mortgage. You and your spouse only have two. That’s going to end badly for you.

Also, think about this: The Four-Income Household raises all sorts of other issues. Young families are already overwhelmed with child care costs. How will parents keep their kids safe while doing their side hustle? Is it OK for parents to take their kids along when they drive for Uber? (No, it’s not, but of course that doesn’t stop them from trying.) What about taxes? Self-employment taxes, which often apply to side hustle jobs, can be deadly for the uninitiated. What about other, hidden risks, like added liability for drivers or Airbnb “landlords”? Many sharing-economy workers are underinsured and assume far more risk than they realize.

America is right now racing recklessly towards an economic structure that requires adults to have a full-time job for health insurance, credit, and stability — and a part-time job to pay for the rest of their lives. Left unchecked, the shift to a Four-Income Household is not going to end well.

The Bankrate survey ads a bit more fuel to my anxiety fire. It found that 40% of millennial side hustlers say they earn at least half of their income from side jobs, compared with 22% of members of Generation X and 9% of baby boomers.

In other words, the Four-Income Household is a young person’s game. Of course it is. Who else can manage to work that many hours? If the word “unsustainable” isn’t leaping into your mind, you aren’t paying attention. Meanwhile, 50-somethings need housing, too. Should they really be driving for Uber at night to pay the rent?

More from Bob Sullivan:

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