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Isolation Hustles – How lockdown has affected student mini-businesses

The coronavirus crisis has stopped the global economy in its tracks. Each week, yet more gloomy headlines appear: this week, a BBC headline proclaimed that the UK was on track for the deepest downturn in living memory. For students, the pandemic could have particularly painful consequences. Research by the Institute of Student Employers suggests that 27% of recruiters will be recruiting fewer graduates as a consequence of the crisis. At the same time, student fees will remain fixed, even if courses have to move entirely online in autumn. In this climate, the age-old student side-hustle is cast in a new light.  Whether it be tutoring, running a re-sale store or selling art online, could these opportunities to earn a few extra pennies become a vital lifeline for the student community in hard times?

At first glance, the lockdown has done little to affect many of the most common student side-hustles. The ‘side-hustle’, as defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary, is “a piece of work or a job that you get paid for doing in addition to doing your main job”,  but can often carry entrepreneurial overtones. For students, this often translates to taking on tutoring jobs, taing commissions on art, or selling on online platforms. Thanks to modern technology, tutoring is going ahead via Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams: meanwhile Depop, Ebay, and Etsy have been online marketplaces, and for the most part quarantine-proof since their inception. 

Not only are these industries surviving the pandemic, there is evidence to suggest they are thriving. The Financial Times reported that online tutoring was experiencing a worldwide boom in demand due to coronavirus restrictions. Meanwhile, the trade journal Business of Fashion has reported a boom in the re-sale sector. Unscientific though my personal testimony is, I have noticed an upswing in interest in my own casual Depop store, which has seen a sudden surge in activity.

That isn’t to say that the pandemic hasn’t brought challenges for the side-hustle. Oxford friends who regularly tutor online have given me a mixed-bag of opinions: one says the government’s decision to cancel exams has decreased demand for his tutoring services. However, another states: “some parents appreciate knowing that it’s a service which guarantees their kids will be learning rather than leaving it to working on Teams”. Just as this pandemic is especially accelerating the demise of companies that were already struggling before, an isolation ‘boost’ to online services cannot take away the problems that previously existed on those platforms. Depop UK’s marketing strapline is ‘Make Your Empire Now’, but it’s clear that true business empires are not going to be achievable for many, if not most, of the platform’s 18 million users. Meanwhile, online commissions platforms such as Fiverr have been accused of exploitation. Up until 2013, the platform had a controversial $5 base price- although this was then lifted, and sellers can now set their own base price for their services.

Indeed, conversations with student artists, who often sell their existing artworks, or accept commissions, have revealed a similarly bittersweet picture for the pandemic ‘side-hustle.’  The situation has had its challenges for both Georgia Crowther and Deshna Shah, fine art finalists at Lady Margaret Hall and Magdalen College, respectively, although both have responded to the lockdown with impressive new initiatives. Deshna has started a new business, This Era Art, which is designed to represent and raise awareness of underrepresented artists, such as female, LGBTQ+ and BAME artists, especially when trying to break into the industry. The website offers people the opportunity to learn about emerging artists, as well as to view and purchase their art online. Whilst the lockdown has been challenging, the website has allowed her and other artists to sell their work online despite the pandemic.  It has also been important for Deshna on an emotional level: “I decided to start my business and support other artists because I myself am struggling to create art. At home I care for my elderly grandfather who is visually impaired so creating this platform for others in between caring for him allows me to feel positive”. Georgia Crowther has also made some adaptations to her work style due to the lockdown.  In the past year she has done a number of exciting collaborations with street artist REQ, including a work inside SeaLife Brighton, and a mural on the side of a house. This kind of work has stopped because of social distancing, but Georgia tells me “As a multidisciplinary and social artist, adaptation is intrinsic. I always respond to my current environment. While business isn’t in the same form, what I have been granted with fortunate security by staying with my family is time to step back, cultivate ideas and reflect on my digital documentation of my work.”

Georgia’s mention of being fortunate is important, since in many ways it can feel like the ‘side-hustle’ is the preserve of the privileged. Side-hustles, especially re-sale, often involve more risk and less financial renumeration than jobs such as bar work or retail, which have been wiped out by coronavirus restrictions. Not everyone has the spare cash to buy stock and re-sell even in the best of times, let alone in a global pandemic. There’s a case, too, that the popularity of side-hustles amongst younger generations – millennials are sometimes nicknamed ‘The Side-Hustle Generation’- plays into a damaging obsession with constant productivity. I ask Georgia and Deshna what they think about this. They both agree- “I think the most important thing in any situation is someone’s emotional and physical health. During the crisis, these are under heightened pressure, therefore to just eat well and sleep well is productive at the moment. Productivity has no fixed definition,” explains Georgia.

Georgia and Deshna’s passion for their art really shines through in the interviews they gave me, and it’s a testament to the fact that a side-hustle can mean many different things to many different people. For some, their side-hustle is their real passion, whilst their day job is something they do for the money.  For others, it’s the reverse. What a lot of side-hustles have in common is that they can be continued online, and so have adapted well to the current situation. But whether they will be a lifeline for a lot of students depends on each of our circumstances. And as Deshna puts it: “There is a lot of pressure to come out of this crazy situation as a highly productive, positive and goal-achieving person. In reality, we are all just trying to get by. Enjoy the things that make you happy – for me that is art, my family and my health.”

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