Sprinting a Marathon: Hustle Culture in Student Life

By Maanasi Shyno

Art by Sophie Williams

When my old boss offered me a job this summer, I was relieved. I knew it would be exhausting working on a campaign full-time, but I decided I would push through it because it was better than “doing nothing.” Those 6 weeks, I worked on weekends and either slept through or took care of extracurriculars on my day off. I slipped into a strange eating and sleeping schedule to accommodate my shifts. Despite having a miserable sinus infection and being emotionally drained, I didn’t take a single day off. When I told my boss that I was running on low energy, he told me I was too young to burn out. My dad finally asked, “Why are you working so hard?” He was right... Why was I working so hard?

Our generation is strangely obsessed with hustle culture and packed schedules. Logically, people who lead healthier and more balanced lives should be seen as the most successful; after all, it signals better time management and efficiency. But in a capitalist society that measures a person’s value by their productivity and contributions, young people have begun to feel a pressure to work constantly. Specifically troubling is how hustle culture affects students. From as early as middle school, students glamorize toil and create a toxic environment with significant influence on our decisions. We’re told that life is a marathon in which we need to pace ourselves, while simultaneously being praised for working 24/7. At the expense of our health and wellbeing, this has produced an entire generation of sprinters who just can’t catch our breath.

A Deep Dive into Hustle Culture


Hustle culture is a societal obsession to work harder, faster, and more often.[1] Hustle culture inspires workaholism, the tendency to work compulsively either out of enjoyment or obligation. But where does hustle culture come from and why does it pervade society?

American Capitalist Drivers


In a capitalist society, money is god and acquiring it becomes the most important, central aspect of life. Capitalism is disguised as a meritocratic system in which those who work hard succeed—and this is one of the most convincing hoaxes to ever take over the planet. This myth is ingrained into society and is proving to be one of our generation’s largest hurdles to radical clarity. It’s the perfect pipe dream to target the less fortunate, giving people hope of achieving stability in an oppressive, hierarchical world.[2] Convenient, isn't it?

It’s no surprise that capitalism has played into hustle culture when considering American (read: rugged) individualism, the concept that every person is in control of their circumstances and therefore the quality of their life. Individualism encourages us to continuously work and maximize profit so we can ‘level up’ our lives. Rather than realizing the hypocrisy in bootstraps, our society is geared towards hustling to success, and monetary success is valued above all else. Consequently, we contribute to the commodification of our own labor, preferring workaholism over a healthy work-life balance. Worse, we are brainwashed into believing that this is worthwhile, playing out our roles as cogs in the capitalist machine with very few achieving proportional rewards. This is the terrifying genius of capitalism: it thrives off of exploitation, in which the exploited break their backs voluntarily.


If the rise of billionaires in the last two decades has taught us anything, it is that hard work does not directly translate into wealth or success. Marginalized members of society will always have to hustle harder to achieve a fraction of what the most privileged do in an hour. Additionally, the American myth of the “self-made millionaire” relies on the false notion that empires are “self-made.” Rather, success is driven by the hard work of employees much farther down on the chain of command who work themselves to the bone to receive only a fraction of the total profit. While many are starting to realize that this isn’t acceptable, it doesn’t change the fact that we live in a capitalistic society and are pressured to play the game or die. We either have to hustle or are doomed to remain in the same place, a fate considered worse than death in this “meritocracy.”

Black Cultural Origins


The concept of hustling only became associated with working hard in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time, hustle was often used to associate Blackness with laziness or ‘lacking hustle’, implying that Black struggle is a result of inherent qualities as opposed to systemic oppression. Societal pressures to challenge this as well as economic disadvantage eventually led to the birth of hustle culture within the Black community. At the heart of this was the misconception that hustling could help Black people overcome racist, economic barriers and possibly thrive. In the 1990s and 2000s, Black rappers began spotlighting hustling as a means of providing and achieving wealth, flooding hustle culture with the flattering light of pride, skill, and masculinity. Songs like “I’m A Hustla” by Cassidy made hustling a symbol of resilience and empowerment in the Black community, not just a means of survival.[3]


Like much of Black culture, hustling has since pervaded mainstream culture. Because of its roots in a racial dichotomy between ‘hardworking’ and ‘lazy’, hustling still divides society into those who grind and those who don’t. Still a symbol of resilience and empowerment, hustle culture labels those who don’t or can’t hustle as lazy and despondent when most people’s realities aren't so simple. Intermingling with the pressures of capitalism to buy into workaholism, hustle culture shames us into working harder than we should simply to avoid being judged. It also puts the most ambitious hustlers on a pedestal, creating a toxic dynamic.

Technological Complications


According to Lehigh University Associate Professor of Journalism and Communication Jeremy Littau, Ph.D, millennials' relationship with technology is unique as it provides a window into the working lives of others, perpetuating hustle culture. Because social media encourages us to document all aspects of our lives, it has made it easier to view the hustles of others, fueling our obsession with workaholism. We see and deify our peers who have gotten rich through their hustles as well as those simply working their asses off. Unavoidably, we also compare ourselves to them, wondering why we haven’t managed to be equally successful. The same capitalistic myth that anyone can succeed if they work hard gets to us because it seems easier than ever to have a business or get into influencing.[4]


This has furthered the social pressures of hustle culture to specifically target younger generations. The ease with which we compare ourselves to others taps into our fears of judgment and failure, creating anxiety in any form of idleness. And while there is a temptation to gaslight individuals who point this out, there are very real physical and emotional consequences. For the last few years, my little sister has been experiencing periods where she wasn’t able to breathe well, which really frightened her. It took a while to pinpoint, but eventually a doctor identified them as mild anxiety attacks and asked her to avoid stressful situations. But she wasn’t doing anything stressful. Her last attack had come shortly after seeing a picture of a friend who already had a particularly challenging workload piling on another extracurricular. A fifteen year old experiencing anxiety from a simple Instagram post should say everything that needs to be said about why hustle culture is so ingrained into our generation and how dangerous it can be.

The Dartmouth Hustle


A large portion of Generation Z are currently students, and it’s interesting how hustle culture manifests in schools. Although there is undoubtedly significant overlap, I can’t speak to the specifics of schools other than Dartmouth, where hustle culture is alive and well. In fact, we have our very own flavors of toil glamour.

Defying our Humanity


Before coming to Dartmouth, I did not drink coffee, so I never imagined I’d get a coffee addiction. But sure enough, a challenging anthropology class drove me right into the arms of 10:00 PM coffees, caffeinated chocolate, and espresso beans. Dartmouth students, like most college students, use caffeine to force our bodies to work with our unsustainable lifestyles. The allure is simple: the longer we’re awake, the more productive we can be in a day. Instead of attempting to focus more and change our habits to be more productive, we find it easier to just add more hours into our day by skipping out on sleep (since sleep is not part of the hustle). Social dynamics at Dartmouth encourage this behavior to go beyond assignments to social activities, like going out to play pong despite being tired or bearing the cold to get Late Night with friends despite having a fever. We push our bodies past their capabilities, replacing sleep with coffee, sugar, pills, and other vices. And because everyone else is doing it, it’s a practice that has not only become normalized but praised.

Overbooked as a Personality Trait


No shade to one of my favorite people at Dartmouth, but a particular friend of mine embodies the ‘overbooked’ personality trait. He’s always running between meetings, practically lives in Blobby, and has a calendar so full that the only time he could meet for MUN meetings was at midnight. While he occasionally complains about exhaustion, generally, he is in love with his lifestyle. But why? It allows him to be both academically and socially active, the paradoxical, crème de la crème lifestyle at Dartmouth. Everyone knows him and he seems to know everyone else. Despite ‘doing everything’, he manages to also be a good friend and hits all the parties.


Are he and other ‘overbooked’ students superhuman? Experts at time management? Have they found a way to add hours to their days? No. They simply live overbooked and get away with it. These students appear to be able to work long hours without sacrificing play, earning them a lot of clout and maximizing their ability to meet new people. But in reality, something is sacrificed, whether it be mental wellness, physical health, relationships, or other staples of life. The notoriety this practice brings inspires many Dartmouth students to strive to be overbooked so much so that it’s possible that every student could find themselves frantically scaling a spectrum between free and overbooked. It’s so ingrained into Dartmouth culture that it has become a personality trait, an ideal that people hustle to achieve. Where overbooking becomes especially toxic is its intersection with performative workaholism, in which we pretend to be obsessed with work, but also appear to have things completely under control. While we might joke around that we’re ‘dying’, nobody wants to admit when the work is actually getting the best of them. It’s almost like we are all participating in a competition to see who will crack under the pressure first, pushing us to hustle harder to “get away” with being the most overbooked.

Productivity Junkies


This past summer, I took my first off term. Between the rush of returning home due to the pandemic and taking four classes in the spring, I never quite got to finding something to do when I finally got a break. I figured everyone would be struggling to sort out any activity due to COVID-19, but all my peers seemed to have an internship locked down. Literally everywhere I looked from LinkedIn to GroupMe, everyone seemed to be doing something glamorous and worthwhile. In my mind, there was an expectation to “do something” with an off-term at Dartmouth and I believed I should be productive like my peers. As a result, my summer felt incredibly empty; any freetime made me anxious and discouraged rather than relaxed.


In reality, I was being productive: phone banking for the ACLU, crafting a 30 page paper on the Salvadoran Civil War, and resurrecting Spare Rib. But these things did not fill up all my day by any means, making my summer feel empty. But so what if I wasn’t busy? So what if I hadn’t actually been productive? The discomfort I have with being ‘unproductive’ stems deeper than having a slow off term as a chronic overachiever (which virtually everyone at Dartmouth is). We’re taught to associate economic productivity with our value, societally and intrinsically, which influences how we spend our time. On campus, I filled any free time I had with clubs, events, and jobs. I felt a certain pride when my peers told me I “was really involved” and I was addicted to that feeling. I told myself I stayed productive ‘for me’, but almost all the work I did was to the benefit of others or to shape how others viewed me. While that was not necessarily intentional, nor a bad thing, I would have probably benefited from some “less productive” activities like watching TV that would’ve been solely ‘for myself’ or ‘for fun’. The prevalence of superficial club membership, the high volume of activities that many Dartmouth students participate in, and the knee-jerk judgement that comes with humanities majors indicate that productivity is a generally shared addiction.

Ultimately, hustle culture’s manifestations at Dartmouth largely reflect the negative consequences and toxic environment it creates in student life everywhere.

The Verdict


What can we take away from the fact that toil glamour and hustle culture pervade student culture at Dartmouth and other schools? On one hand, it is arguable that hustle culture creates more good than a less work-driven culture might since there’s more volunteering and more innovation. Possibly. But at what expense? We should ask ourselves if hustle culture is a key reason that our generation suffers from higher levels of depression and stress than previous generations.


At the heart of this issue is our definition of productivity. Colloquially, we refer to productivity when discussing work that provides external validation like grades or money. We don’t see working on mental health, taking a break, or sleeping as productive because the product isn’t tangible, not because there is no product. The product is personally failing to acknowledge these activities as productive contributes to workaholism, inefficient work habits, and lower quality work.


An especially troubling risk, however, is early burnout. We already see burnout affecting Millennials, who had to hustle through two financial crises and now struggle with basic ‘adult’ tasks like doing taxes.[5] Many Gen Z students simply believe that they possess an exceptional fortitude without evidence, refusing to consider burnout as a possibility. The general disbelief and the shame associated with burnout makes it hit harder if and when it does happen. Additionally, so many young people running on low energy pose the threat of a simultaneous mass burnout a few years down the road. What will this mean for a generation notorious for its activism and global awareness, expected to solve the problems left by our predecessors? Will we keep our stamina as more of us take on leadership roles, or will we run out of steam?

Ultimately, it is in our hands to fight this culture and our reactions towards it. First, we need to recognize that our current social norms sap our life energy to the benefit of large corporations, which have helped mold society to operate this way. As young people, we glamorize toil and perpetuate hustle culture, but these are not natural, necessary, or neutral phenomenons. They exist because we let them, but they don't have to. Next, we need to commit to personal changes. We should start viewing mental health as a vital part of maintaining productivity and increasing the efficiency of our work. We need to stop glamorizing toil by altering our mindsets against unhealthy habits and stop giving automatic clout to people who perpetuate them. Of course, this is easier said than done, and tackling hustle culture will require a slow burn change. But it’s possible— and, more importantly, vital— to the health of our generation and those to come.



[1] Erin Griffith, “Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?,” The New York Times, Jan 26, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/26/business/against-hustle-culture-rise-and-grind-tgim.html.

[2] Annabelle Schmitt, “Hustle culture, capitalism, and when’s the last time you slept?,” Mixed Hues, June 17, 2019, https://www.mixed-hues.com/blog/hustle-culture-capitalism-and-whens-the-last-time-you-slept.

[3] Isabella Rosario, “When The 'Hustle' Isn't Enough,” National Public Radio, April 3, 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2020/04/03/826015780/when-the-hustle-isnt-enough.

[4] Jessica Hicks, “Why Are Millennials Buying Into Hustle Culture?,” Thrive Global, Feb 5, 2019, https://thriveglobal.com/stories/why-are-millennials-buying-into-hustle-culture/.

[5] Michael Spencer, “Why Millennials are Seeing Adulting Differently,” LinkedIn Utopia Press, Oct 4, 2019, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-millennials-seeing-adulting-differently-michael-spencer-/.