AUbrey, a 26-year-old from Florida, doesn’t recommend working in a hotel in the midst of a pandemic. Floors were constantly understaffed and inventory seemed to disappear overnight. In fact, Aubrey was really relieved when she was finally fired. And like so many new members of the American workforce with no profession, Aubrey took to the internet and researched any sort of minimal effort side hustle that seemed feasible.
Aubrey has found hope with what she describes as “low content books”. With just a layman’s mastery of graphic design, Aubrey was able to flood the Amazon market with a sea of school notebooks, graph paper brochures and crossword puzzle collections. There is no real writing involved in the low content books program, which is exactly the point. All Aubrey has to do is come up with a mouth-watering cover and believe the shadowy algorithm is taking care of business. “My most successful product is a ‘vegetable’ lined blank notebook where I simply scatter pictures of onions, pumpkins and leeks across the cover,” she tells me. “It did pretty well and accounts for about $200 of my sales.”
Aubrey doesn’t break the bank, but she’s emblematic of a growing contingency in the global economy that’s lured by the hope of concocting streams of “passive income” online. More than 47 million people quit their jobs last year, leaving many to trade their long-term career ambitions for low-stakes schemes to earn money from home.
Interest in the r/passive_income subreddit, where users swap tips for earning extra money, has skyrocketed throughout the pandemic, while Google search queries for “passive income” have more than doubled since March 2020. And more and more people are now earning money in unconventional ways – the number of self-employed people who reported “unincorporated” work (i.e. that they were not linked to a specific company) fell from 8.8 million in March 2020 to 9.3 million in March 2022, according to the Ministry of Labor.
There is a real shift in the nation’s work ethos, and it seems to grow more fervent with each passing day. “As a result of the pandemic, most people have realized that a seemingly secure job or industry can change overnight, and we really can’t predict those circumstances,” says Duke’s Fuqua professor Dorie Clark. School of Business and author of Entrepreneurial Tu. “The best security comes from having multiple streams of income and diversification. When we can’t know the future, you have to place multiple bets.
No one should take a get-rich-quick scheme at face value, but it’s not hard to see why Americans were more motivated than ever to take control of their own financial destinies. We all spent 2020 both bored and terrified as the economy crashed and the contagion spread. Many of us have found ourselves without a paycheck and, more importantly, reconsidering our fundamental understandings of work. Trauma and clarity are innately linked, and after a year stuck at home, disgruntled employees wondered aloud if they were really happy to return to a clocking life.
It’s not just Aubrey in particular savor her low-content book trickery, but at the very least, that doesn’t make her hate her life. “The pandemic was almost a blessing in disguise because I was ready to work at this hotel for the rest of my life,” she says.
It’s tempting to believe that your savings account could swell through the spinning gears of idle clicks. Yes it’s possible; the pandemic has turned some career nine-fives into barons overnight. Just ask Kat Norton, a 28-year-old woman in Long Island, who was sentenced to her home in 2020 after her consulting job restricted travel in line with closures. Norton suddenly had a lot of free time, so she started uploading quirky Excel tutorials to TikTok. These videos went viral, and within months Norton quit her job to create a platform called “Miss Excel” – where she creates tutorials for the entire Microsoft Office suite. Norton tells me she works about 20 hours a week and her business is now worth over a million dollars. Everything fell into place.
“The pandemic has been a massive disruptor to the model,” she says. “A lot of times your day job feels a lot less glamorous when we’re working from home. Traveling was the fun part of my job. When I walked out of securitizations from my childhood bedroom, I was like, “Dang.”
Norton took full advantage of his newfound freedom. She and her boyfriend roamed the country as digital nomads, renting a house for a trip to Hawaii or California every few months, living the good life. (Norton has since purchased a permanent home in Colorado.) It’s an incredible achievement and also a total outlier from the average, but it hasn’t stopped a wave of charlatans ready to sell their kept secrets of salvation. passive income, as if someone can immediately start reaping easy income if they just know what buttons to press.
It is a story as old as time. In 2019, Alana Semuels covered a story for The Atlantic about a New York couple who purchased a $3,999 training course from the e-commerce partnership of Matt Behdjou and Mike Gazzola, two of the most famous gurus in the world of passive income at the time. The course promised to teach them how to resell items imported from China at a huge profit through Amazon. But the products were difficult to distribute widely, and the couple soon found themselves $40,000 underwater. Fantasies of financial freedom through ambient earnings turned out to be ridiculously counterfeit, all engineered by a pair of scam artists who left their clients to hold the bag. (Behdjou and Gazzola were eventually sued by Amazon.)
“It might seem obvious to an outsider that most people won’t get rich selling things on Amazon,” Semuels wrote. “But that’s the problem with gold rushes: some people find gold, and sometimes it’s hard to tell what separates people who make it from people who don’t.”
Indeed, it is easy to fall into this trap as you delve into the world of passive income. YouTube is full of young influencers promoting their financial wisdom – usually associated with dubiously upbeat thumbnails. “9 passive income ideas, how I earn $27,000 a week,” reads, uploaded by a prominent advisor named Ali Abdaal. One of the ideas he evokes? Sale of online courses. Abdaal uses one of his recent webinars as an example: it’s titled “Starting a Successful Side Business.” Indeed, Abdaal tells his viewers that an effective way to raise ether money is to teach others to do the same; an ouroboros that proves how fragile the precepts of passive income can be.
But many people who entered this ecosystem during the pandemic envision a much more realistic future. Brett Parsons, a 41-year-old Bay Area father, simply wanted an outlet that fused his pecuniary and emotional interests. He is a lifelong tabletop game enthusiast and enjoys painting miniature plastic soldiers that add to Warhammer. armies. As the world came to a standstill and her full-time career was in stasis, Parsons began selling her models on eBay. Covid has proven that there doesn’t have to be a discernible difference between what he does for work and what he does for fun.
“I realized I could use the extra income to pay the rent, and supporting it by selling an army would be great. I sold my first army for $400 or $500,” Parsons explains. “It’s almost like if I was paid to go to therapy… It takes the stress off me and makes me money at the same time.”