In Manhattan, I hopped on a train from Bowling Green to Union Square, transferring to the L train to Williamsburg on an errand. After making my transfer, I sat down and looked up. The entire train was covered in ads for Fiverr.com, “a marketplace for freelance services”.
Usually with an up close black & white portrait of a determined, 24–35 year-old artist type, the ads come with a bold statement in matching bold type and color, something like: “Do First, Ask Forgiveness Later” or “Actually, It Hasn’t All Been Done Before.” My personal favorite is: “You Eat A Coffee For Lunch. You Follow Through On Your Follow Through. Sleep Deprivation Is Your Drug Of Choice. You Might Be A Doer.” Followed by the campaign’s tagline, “In Doers We Trust”.
Since I am in New York City, I initially gave a careless shrug, allowing the ads to blend in with all the others that are made for me. However, because there were so many of them, I quickly saw a pattern. The ads were suggesting that it is okay to step on and over people to get what you want, that it is okay and, in fact, honorable to work yourself to death, and finally that questioning either of the other two things makes you into some kind of square. In the name of doing, the act of thinking is a time sink. Who actually believes this? A better question: who actually wants to eat a coffee for lunch?
With stories listing the “10 Self-Care Hacks for When You’re In A Midweek Drag” and over a million variations on “Why You Should Always Leave the Office At 5PM”, Fiverr ads at first seem to be contradicting the mainstream cultural obsession with work-life balance. But with closer scrutiny, the ads actually reinforce normal discourses around work in the new economy that obscures the realities of exploitation.
For instance, the company’s ads suggest that if you are taking your time, considering the outcomes, or perhaps planning a long vacation, you are not doing enough. Regrettably, in an economy where a four year degree no longer provides a competitive edge, the fear of not doing enough is the nightmare fuel of many a millennial with a budding side hustle. As Malcolm Harris, notes in Kids These Days, the millennial generation is arguably the hardest working generation America has seen in modern times. And yet, in Fiverr’s “In Doers We Trust” campaign and in other popular notions surrounding millennials and work, we are constantly being prodded to do more, usually with the adage, “do more with less”.
To their credit, the ads do have a heroic charm to them and I suggest this is because we now have a cultural habit of telling ourselves that our work is our identity. Since our main jobs no longer provides us with livable wages or self satisfaction, it is fitting that our side hustles, the work we really want to do for what we assume will be more money, is transformed into a heroic act that we do to maintain our sense of importance. Or in more emotive terms, the side hustle becomes what we all do (or yearn to do) to make ourselves feel more “alive”.
The heroic nature of the side hustle and its appeal hides the exploitation and unintended consequences associated with freelancing so that we keep working and do not for example, protest in the streets or withhold our support for policies that reinforce exploitative business practices; business practices which have created a social and economic climate where wages have remained stagnant over the last three decades. The heroic aesthetic in Fiverr’s ads also hide these realities so that we keep reading the “10 Self-Care Hacks for When You’re In A Midweek Drag” stories and buying the products the stories tell us we need to prevent burnout because real doers do not burnout.
Fiverr’s main gimmick is that for just five dollars someone will, as Jia Tolentino notes for The New Yorker, “record any song, make any happy-birthday video, or design any book cover”, supposedly emphasizing the new flexibility of millennial entrepreneurship or what we are now formally calling the “gig economy”, a term unsurprisingly lacking in political bite. It is not a coincidence that the scarcity of stable jobs with decent pay and benefits has led to a circumstance where individuals sell whatever skills they do have at a relatively cheap price. Not to mention, a circumstance where people with varying degrees of capital exploit this new phenomenon.
The central problem that I see with Fiverr’s ad campaign and how we’ve been structuring the conversation around millennials and work is that it maintains the lie that freelancing in this new economy affords people freedom. It does not. Instead, it affords capital, and the people who control it, a way to cut their production costs so low as to render the investment in long-term employees (i.e. people who can sometimes get sick, have a baby, or fall on the job) cost ineffective. The temporary nature of the freelancer allows owners to fit them into production wherever they are needed and remove them when they are no longer needed with no questions asked and before any benefit elections can be made.
Why then do Fiverr’s ads feel quintessentially American, despite the false pretenses of “freelancing”? In the past, the “American Dream” was essentially the reality of economic mobility. The story went something like this: a person could theoretically (I’m going to exclude an analysis of race and gender here) find a job after high school that was well paid and provided meaningful benefits, allowing them to raise a family and live better than their parents did. We all know this is no longer the case. Not only are we not living better than our parents, but we are actually worse off according to many metrics. The world Fiverr’s ads project tells a story of rough individualism. And in a sense attempts to reimagine the “American Dream” as a story of one freethinking artist against the world of mundane corporate machinery. We all like that story, but the gig economy and its new freelancing logic represents the best invention corporations have seen since the birth of the assembly line. Now that corporations know that we love to hate them, their best publicity comes from self-deprecating and obscuring the consequences of their own brands.
I am not a traditionalist. And I am also not someone who wishes to go back to a time when the working man was the breadwinner or any of that nonsense. However, I do not wish to see the “American Dream” become twisted into a kind of freelancers version of Mad Max, an endless race to the bottom.The simple fact is that the gig economy does not provide workers with anything resembling stability. Think of doers as the postmodern version of the guy who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, but who also apparently eats coffee for lunch. That is not anyone’s dream.
Finally, what would it signal for a new “American Dream” to exclude this sense of stability and the least bit of upward mobility? What would we be choosing to worship instead? Could it be that we now worship the Doer? In Doers we most certainly trust.