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Girlboss culture just won’t die

A new poll shows that a third of young people want to start their own business, suggesting that hustle culture and money-minded individualism is still alive and well

Apparently, girlboss culture is dead, brutally murdered by the pandemic. “Is This The End Of The Girl Boss?”, pondered Elle last year. Other titles were more authoritative: The Cut ran a piece headlined “The Demise of the Girlboss”, while The Atlantic announced that “The Girlboss Has Left the Building”.

On the surface, it may seem as though a life-upending virus did successfully bulldoze the myth of meritocracy and rubbish the Thatcherite idea that “there’s no such thing as society”. It’s true that we’ve seen the rapid rise of the anti-work movement and an increase in resignations since 2020. But it’s also true that, for some, the hostile economic conditions fostered by the pandemic have actually engendered hustle culture and individualism.

While Gen Z has a reputation for being work-shy and entitled, a new Yonder poll commissioned by SME network Mushroombiz found that 32 per cent of 18-24 year-olds in the UK actually plan to set up their own business in the future, a substantial increase from last year’s 23 per cent. This rising interest in entrepreneurship speaks to a wider trend towards individualism among young people: studies show that Gen Z value self-reliance and independence.

Given this urge to be self-sufficient paired with diminished prospects – graduates are facing the highest unemployment rates since the austerity era –  it’s no wonder young people are falling back on hustle culture and the idea that ‘hard work’ can steamroll over any other barriers to social mobility. Kimberley Howard, a culture and trends researcher, explains further: “Gen Z are just starting their careers so will be on lower wages. Many young people today are also choosing to study at university before beginning their career – therefore they’re in jobs older, but on less money. With this low income, of course it’s understandable the idea of starting your own business appeals to Gen Z.”

It might seem jarring to think that Gen Z are embracing hustling in the face of popular “girlboss, gaslight, gatekeep” memes and the acerbic criticism that Molly-Mae Hague faced for espousing the belief that “if you want something enough you can achieve it.” But at the same time, it’s unsurprising. Much lifestyle content on TikTok – where Gen Z makes up 60 per cent of all users – continues to promote girlboss culture repackaged as ‘wellness’. Just look at the popularity of corporate Tiktok star Emily Mariko, who appears to be the living embodiment of put-togetherness. Or take the ‘that girl’ trend, which sees creators film themselves waking up at 5am and sticking to strict, unforgiving routines in the name of ‘productivity’ and ‘self-optimisation’. Some Gen Zers might argue that ‘girlbossing’ is a cheugy, Millennial thing, but conversely, it seems as though girlboss culture is flourishing among some young people.

Gen Z have also grown up in a political climate that has nurtured hustle culture. Many young people today came of age in the shadow of the 2008 financial crash and have experienced dwindling job prospects firsthand, forcing them to get creative about how to earn money. They’re also entering adulthood with dramatically reduced expectations of how much the state should support them, knowing full well that they can’t expect any sort of safety net from the government. As author Olivia Yallop puts it in Break the Internet: “In the vacuum created by a lack of financial security emerged hustle culture: a competitive lifestyle philosophy that reframed the evidence of economic anxiety – working multiple jobs to make ends meet, converting pastimes into potential sources of revenue, cultivating a corporate-compliant ‘personal brand’ online – as the empowered acts of a self-starting #entrepreneur.”

Howard agrees that growing up in Tory Britain has likely impacted Gen Z’s attitude towards work. “The Tory agenda generally is one of self-reliance,” she explains. “This idea of placing responsibility on yourself first, rather than placing pressure on others to pay for you, is also a Gen Z mindset manifesting in this hustle culture. This may be borne out of learning not to rely on the state  – as nothing fruitful can be found here at present – or the fact this is the political angle they’ve grown with. Either way, they’re having to be resourceful to progress.”

Howard also suggests that hustle culture is Gen Z’s way of rebelling against the tough economic conditions handed down to them. “Gen X are another generation who grew up under Tory rule – they faced a stalling economy, a big economic crash in the early 80s, grew up during the Cold War and experienced the IRA bombings. Similarly anxious times to Gen Z,” she explains. “While Gen X took drugs and drank to escape their present, Gen Z are drinking less, and are creating business alternatives to progress society. Both are rebelling, but arguably Gen Z are providing the solutions.”

Rightly or wrongly, rebranding overwork as aspirational girlbossery is ultimately how Gen Z are trying to regain some autonomy within an economic hellscape over which they have no control. With this in mind, perhaps we should look at Gen Z girlbosses with sympathy rather than scorn: after all, their beliefs are a symptom – rather than a cause – of a broken system.