Multilevel marketing sellers leverage your friends for profit

In the wake of the recession, countless Americans — particularly student loan-laden, underemployed millennials — stitched together a livable wage from a patchwork quilt of income streams. From the rot of the Great Recession, the gig economy bloomed, and alongside it, a curious kind of slang creeped into our collective vernacular and lodged itself there firmly. “Side-hustle,” which first entered our language via African-American newspapers in the ’50s, became a slick, hashtaggable shorthand for “working my ass off, often in addition to a full-time job, just so I can make rent and maybe cover my car payment too.”

Because while gig economy platforms tout flexibility and the alluring bait of “be your own boss,” the reality is that millions of workers are gigging because of economic necessity, not out of a burning desire to be their own bosses. In 2016, a study conducted by global consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that 50 million Americans and Europeans are “independent out of necessity, and more than 20 million of them rely on independent work as their primary source of income.”

These days, who wouldn’t turn down an opportunity for a little extra income, especially when all it theoretically takes is hitting up your high school pals and former coworkers on Facebook? Enter multilevel marketing, or MLM — the commercial juggernaut that birthed the Hydra’s head of pushy sales pitches for patterned leggings, long-wear lipstick, weight-loss wraps, and eyelash extensions that dominate your social feeds. More than 20 million people in the United States are involved as independent sellers in an MLM or direct-sales company. (Quick semantics note: almost all direct selling organizations employ the hierarchical recruitment structure of MLMs, which means that almost all direct-selling organizations are also MLMs. For our purposes here, the terms are used interchangeably.) In 2017, there are more direct-sales organizations than ever before, and an estimated one in six U.S. households is involved in one, according to the Direct Selling Association.

That statistic is staggering, but perhaps not that surprising for anyone who’s had access to a social-media newsfeed in the last year or two. MLMs and their acolytes are ubiquitous, and they’re thriving — especially among women, who in 2016 comprised nearly 75 percent of all U.S. direct-sales consultants. Like the Mary Kay ladies of yore, these sellers use their existing relationships to sell product, and to recruit people to join their “downline.” Instead of selling foundation door to door or hosting awkward Tupperware parties in the suburbs, though, MLM reps are now demoing Younique foundation on Facebook Live and proffering leggings and tunic giveaways on Instagram. It’s classic MLM made over for millennials, a demographic that constitutes nearly a third of the people involved with direct sales.

Perhaps most notable? The language now used, both to recruit and to sell, is a little different. No longer is the promise simply extra income: In its place is a rhetoric that reads like a patois of pseudo-empowering marketplace feminism with a tinge of gig economy side hustle-speak. It’s not just about selling lipstick and leggings; it’s about ambition, chasing a dream, emancipating oneself from the chains of one’s cubicle. It’s aspirational.

On consultants’ Instagram feeds, in between the product promo, before-and-afters, flash sales, and giveaways, there will typically be a substantial dosage of #GirlBoss content: lots of “hustle” in gold script; lots of Pinterest-worthy inspirational quotes about taking risks and forging your own path and being the CEO of your life. Posts are often bolstered with many, many hashtags, including but not limited to: #slay, #grateful, #blessed, #MomBoss, #BusinessBae, #AmbitionOnFleek. Memes and blocks of emoji-laced “copypasta” text about supporting entrepreneurs and championing local businesses make the Facebook rounds, over and over again.

It’s a dead ringer for the kind of gig economy recruitment rhetoric that Jia Tolentino called out and deconstructed in the New Yorker earlier this year: “At the root of this is the American obsession with self-reliance, which makes it more acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to death is evidence of a flawed economic system,” she writes. “The contrast between the gig economy’s rhetoric (everyone is always connecting, having fun, and killing it!) and the conditions that allow it to exist (a lack of dependable employment that pays a living wage) makes this kink in our thinking especially clear.”

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