This is Part 5 of The Grind, a series from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador on people who are working multiple jobs to offset the rising cost of living.
Mika Purni rustles around a shopping bag, grabbing fistfuls of plastic-wrapped fabric tapestries.
“I’ll go to Value Village, I’ll get stuff for cheap, I’ll sell it cheap for other people,” she explains.
She glances around her two-bedroom apartment, the main floor of a house on a quiet street in St. John’s. Her sister looks on, amused, as Purni points to every piece of furniture in sight, rattling off the bargain prices she landed them for.
“The table was $40,” she said, gesturing around. “That lamp was free.”
Purni’s memory is a logbook of income streams and expenses. She remembers precisely how much she’s spent on everything around her — and every cent that goes out must come back in.
For Purni, and for about one million Canadians juggling more than one job, time truly is money. And time is her most important asset.
The 24-year-old handles money all week long as a banking intern. When she’s done that job, she heads to her retail gig at a mall. And after those shutters close, when most people are getting into bed, Purni logs onto DoorDash or Facebook Marketplace, either delivering food until the early morning or reselling thrift store items online.
“‘I need to sell this, I need to sell that,'” Purni said, describing the perpetual mantra running through her head.
“Constantly. All I do is think about money.”
Purni spends her days trying to get ahead: to pay off her vet bills, save for new eyeglasses, and maybe one day have enough startup cash to buy a swath of makeup supplies and launch her own business.
But she’s trying to do that in an economy more reliant than ever on gig work, and in an era in which Canadians’ purchasing power has fallen dramatically, especially compared to its trading partners.
A report by C.D. Howe, released last month, notes that capital per worker has fallen dramatically over the last decade, contributing to “an ominous pattern of stagnating productivity and living standards.”
“In 2023, Canadian workers will likely receive only 65 cents of new capital for every dollar received by their counterparts in the OECD as a whole, and 58 cents for every dollar received by their counterparts in the United States,” the report’s authors wrote.
In this economy, Purni’s side hustles help her get by, but they’re not making her rich. And the lifestyle takes a toll.
“Every day I have panic attacks. Every day,” she sighs, just moments before she’s overcome with tears.
“Best way to explain it — in my head it’s me screaming, not even thinking. Screaming.”
‘Hustle culture’ an old idea
This obsession with work — and its link to self-attainment or virtuousness — isn’t new.
Karen Foster, a sociologist with Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the main idea behind “hustle culture” goes back centuries. It’s a modern term for an ancient idea.
“Hustle culture is like one new version of something that’s been around for a really long time. And that is this notion that … hard work, in itself, is a virtue,” Foster said.
“You know, ‘work is good even if it’s a grind, even if it’s wearing you down — it’s important to be productive.'”
WATCH | ‘All I do is think about money,’ says 24-year-old bogged down by work:
But that moral philosophy has been modified in the digital age. E-commerce and app-based gigs mean workers like Purni can now hustle around the clock, leaving little time for anything else.
Purni used to have hobbies. She paints and does makeup. But she can’t immediately monetize either of those things, which leads to crushing guilt whenever she spends her free time on leisure.
So instead of enjoying life, she’ll get in her car and start taking orders.
“There is a nagging thought,” she said. “‘I work in a bank, why … am I doing deliveries at 1 a.m.?'”
‘We feel guilt if we’re not earning’
Brice Sopher has been an app-based worker for eight years, driving for Uber in Toronto and delivering food for Skip the Dishes.
He’s now the head of Gig Workers United, an organization pushing for changes to labour laws to protect workers like Purni.
In recent months, he’s seen a spike in people using these apps to combat inflation.
“A lot of people that I speak to, myself included … started this type of work because life as we know it has become increasingly unaffordable,” Sopher said.
“It’s very difficult now for someone to sustain themselves, I think in most parts of Canada, with just one source of income.”
The apps promise workers the ability to log on whenever they want — on their lunch hours, weekends, or after the kids fall asleep. But Sopher said it doesn’t quite play out the way they expect, leading to long, grueling hours on the road.
“You can log on and you can work whatever time you want to work, but that doesn’t guarantee that there will be orders for you to pick up. That also doesn’t guarantee that these apps will offer you a rate of pay that allows you to earn a living wage,” he said.
“Instead of the idea of flexibility, where the job … works around you, what tends to happen is your life tends to be worked around the job.”
Much like Purni, Sopher, at times, has felt pressured to work constantly.
“You would have any kind of down time, you would be thinking, you know what? Might as well go out and work. Might as well put myself to good use,” he said.
“I think, you know, in this culture [of] late-stage capitalism, we tend to feel guilt if we’re not earning, if we’re not productive. And these apps definitely play on that.”
Income supplement could offer relief
Sopher is fighting to be treated like an employee, with job protection and benefits. But there’s another possible solution.
A basic income supplement could ensure people like Purni always have the basics covered.
So when they work, they’re doing so to get ahead, and don’t have to worry about racking up debt when their cars break down or cats get sick like Purni’s did.
Foster said the solution is pretty simple: a basic income supplement could ensure people holding precarious jobs or engaging in gig work don’t need to hustle around the clock to afford the basics.
“The only way to solve the problems created by poverty is to eliminate poverty,” Foster said.
“There’s all kinds of … ways that you can alleviate some of the symptoms like food banks or what have you, but it really doesn’t get to the root cause, which is people not having enough money.”
That’s the problem for Purni. No matter how much time she spends working, she never earns quite enough to feel secure.
“You have one sudden emergency and then your money’s gone,” she said.
“You do good until you don’t. I was doing good until I didn’t.”
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