Social media can be a fickle muse. In recent years, startup founders – particularly from the digital generation of millennials and Gen-Z – have used social media to create their personal brands and build robust online markets for their enterprises.

However, as Shantanu Deshpande, the chief executive officer of Bombay Shaving Company, discovered recently, a single remark can often draw an internet mob baying for blood.

On August 30, Deshpande wrote a post on professional networking site LinkedIn advising young people for the first four to five years of their careers to put in “18 hour days” at work and “worship your work” above all else. His post triggered widespread ire. He was forced to issue a clarification and declare that he was going to take a “LinkedIn sabbatical”.

Many may have taken umbrage at his comments but Deshpande’s perspective is by no means unique. Hot on the heels of his remarks, chief executive of Pristyn Care Harsimarbir Singh created his own LinkedIn post controversy when he listed a few “interview hacks” to test job applicants.

These hacks included scheduling early morning or late-night calls and asking candidates based elsewhere to “show up the next day”. Unsurprisingly, Singh received more brickbats than bouquets.

Ola founder and chief executive Bhavin Aggarwal has been the latest entrepreneur to face a flurry of unflattering headlines with Bloomberg on October 17 reporting that he once instructed an employee to “run three laps around the several-acre-large plant” as punishment for keeping an entry shuttered.

While toxic work culture has been a recurring theme in discussions about corporate human resource practices, the past few weeks have seen a different type of workforce-related topic being widely discussed in the media: “moonlighting” by information technology sector employees.

“Moonlighting” refers to the practice of employees taking up work assignments (typically on a freelance or gig basis) in addition to their primary job.

Though moonlighting is not a recent phenomenon, its prevalence increased significantly during the pandemic. The flexibility of the remote working arrangement and not having to lose time to traffic and travel, allowed workers to take up side gigs or projects, while also performing their tasks in their primary job.

The contradiction seems glaring. There are millennials and Gen-Z employees who seem perfectly willing to work two (or more) jobs simultaneously, and at the same time, there are CEOs drawing ire for asking workers to work longer hours. To get a better sense of this apparent paradox, it may help to dig a little deeper.

A number of major IT companies – TCS, Infosys, and IBM, for instance – have cautioned their employees against moonlighting. Wipro has even fired employees on this ground, after the company’s Executive Chairman Rishad Premji described moonlighting in the tech industry as “cheating”.

These incidents have generated widespread discussions on the legality and ethics of moonlighting. Legally, the ability of IT employees to work second jobs depends on the contractual terms of their engagement. Employment contracts typically contain exclusivity and non-compete clauses that bar employees from engaging in any work other than their primary employment. A breach could lead to their services being terminated.

But when it comes to the ethics of it, the situation gets a bit murky. Many in the IT industry consider moonlighting unethical, given the concerns about the confidentiality of proprietary information, conflicts of interest and a diminished focus on the primary task.

However, there are dissenting voices within the industry who look upon moonlighting more favourably. Swiggy has introduced a “moonlighting policy” to not only permit the practice but also prescribe guidelines it believes will help their employees’ personal and professional development.

Businessman TV Mohandas Pai has also weighed in on the debate, declaring that “moonlighting is not cheating” since employees are free to choose how they spend their time outside work.

It may be useful to take a step back and consider a different question: why are employees moonlighting?

For some, it could be pursuing their passions and exploring other interests. But for most, the reason is financial – either to supplement their current income or to upskill and secure more lucrative employment in the future. The decision to sacrifice one’s weekends and off-duty hours for another job is, more often than not, driven by the need to earn more money. It is money, after all, that makes the world go around.

We live in a world in thrall to consumerism. For decades, the wheels of production have been churning to cater to our needs and whims. We appear to have reached a point where no desire, no matter how ludicrous, is beyond the realm of possibility.

For instance, food delivery service Zomato recently launched the “Intercity Legends” service to bring regional delicacies from across India to Zomato users, irrespective of their location. If someone in Mumbai is craving biryani from Kolkata, there is no longer any need to fret. As long as one has the Zomato application and a healthy disregard for their carbon footprint, they can have as many potatoes and boiled eggs in their biryani.

Credit: Moondance via Pixabay.

Over the past few decades, the world has been transformed by technological and digital revolutions. This transformation has birthed many innovations and made cross-country biryani delivery a reality. But it has also entrenched the cycle of production and consumption that has subsumed us, that has compelled us to work longer and harder, to the point of taking multiple jobs, to be able to afford the material markers of success so valued by society.

An individual’s worth is measured by the ever-increasing number of things they own, which they earn by spending an ever-increasing number of hours at work. These standards, though demanding and stressful, have long been accepted as the norm as far as professional success is concerned. The pandemic, however, may have finally triggered a much-need shift in how work is perceived.

The “Great Resignation” and “Quiet Quitting” phenomena, which have been making headlines since the past few months, demonstrate a collective re-alignment of the priorities of millennials and Gen-Z workers in the post-pandemic world.

A survey conducted earlier this year, found that 61% of employees in India “are willing to accept a lower salary or forgo a pay rise and/or promotion for better work-life balance, overall well-being and happiness”. In truth, moonlighting is not a malady but merely a symptom. Debating the ethics or legality of moonlighting is futile if we continue to ignore the underlying forces that cause its existence.

These are the very forces that have for years fuelled exponential growth, but also escalated disenchantment and anxiety among employees in the corporate world. While it has led to some taking up multiple jobs to keep running the rat race, there are others who are seeking a different path.

The Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting and the growth of the gig or freelance economy all point to a post-pandemic workforce that is changing to regain balance in their lives and choose work that is rewarding – not just monetarily. Perhaps it is time for the world to eschew the hustle culture typified by ceaseless work and unbridled consumerism, and adopt a more sustainable way of working, guided by the evolving aspirations of the workers of the future.

Rohan Banerjee is a lawyer in Mumbai.