Zhu: Why we romanticize the hustle, and why I hate it

Caroline Zhu, Opinion Editor

Ever since millennials and more recently Generation Z started growing into maturity, older generations have levelled claim after claim of laziness and entitlement at young adults, while many protest that this generation works just as hard as previous generations did, often for less payoff. Tuition rates continue to rise and inspirational stories about people who work while studying become increasingly common. The sheer volume of these articles marks a shift in society to admire what is often termed “the hustle,” or the will to do whatever necessary to achieve your goal. This shift, while initially an attempt to recognize those who work hard for little reward, has instead marked a swing towards faking a struggle to prove personal worth, which only leads to misconception and disrespect.

This shift can be attributed to a variety of sources: the downward trend in elite university acceptance rates, the attention that some hardworking students receive for their motivations or achievements and the advent of the hustle. When universities’ admissions ask for highly personal statements, many students who are already well off will dramatize or even fabricate a struggle they went through to make their applications seem more compelling. This behavior ignores the inherent privilege available to these students in that their achievements should speak for themselves relative to the resources they had available. 

To provide a simple example, students who had access to often expensive standardized testing preparatory material are proven to perform better than students who do not, giving them an edge in the admissions process. Faking or embellishing a tragic story to try and gain another leg up in the admissions process is disrespectful to students who actually faced significant personal struggles and were able to continue achieving at their level.

We already see the ramifications of this on slightly altered scales, where wealthy students and their parents are currently embroiled in investigations of bribing admissions officials to embellish the records of the students, when their wealth and privilege should have afforded them well beyond enough resources to achieve at extremely high levels.

Beyond university admissions, this becomes relevant when students are at universities like Case Western Reserve University. Private universities like CWRU come with a hefty, ever-growing price tag that students often have to work multiple jobs to support themselves at school. Still, not everyone needs to work to balance their finances, with help from family or other sources. This is standard; income distributions will always be unequal and it is unreasonable to assume otherwise. However, with the popularization of the trope of poor college students and the glorification of the struggle, somehow the idea of appearing broke has become appealing to students. As such, students who will boast low incomes and call themselves hustlers for working a few hours a week will also be the ones to disappear on $1,000 spring break trips.

Ultimately, this behavior is disrespectful to those who spend hours at work to go home and try to maintain their academics in a system that will only congratulate them for their work without trying to offer assistance. How many times have we seen mega-corporations cite these stories of success in spite of poverty as inspirational, when they have the resources to help these people, but instead choose to congratulate them for helping themselves?

This kind of congratulatory behavior from a position of privilege feels like a slap in the face to those who work themselves to the bone trying to stay afloat. By co-opting the struggle of being poor, privileged individuals and organizations tout poverty as some kind of ideal, which is both insulting and painfully transparent as a way to feel better about themselves without taking any action.

For individuals, this is a commodification of poverty—to only briefly dip into the kind of grueling work that so many across our nation must go through in order to make ends meet, only to step out once the water is too warm. 

When universities and society at large make the shift from celebrating those who thrive in the face of adversity to congratulating students for being forced to work long hours outside of academics without aid, it only creates an expectation for students to overwork themselves to chase after an unattainable goal.

There is absolutely no shame in being honest about your life and your means; to lie about it and to pretend to share a struggle with someone who is forced to hustle to get by is disrespectful, and ultimately easy to see through.

Caroline Zhu is a second-year computer science major with a deep and abiding love for Shakespeare. She is currently asleep and cannot take any messages.