A Creative’s Dilemma —

To Declare Multi-Hyphenate or Not?


Now that our side-hustle(s) have gone full-time, what meaning does “multi-hyphenate” have for creative careers? We look at how several titles could indicate both an interest in building a career in a lot of things or the need to cling to several lifelines at once.

Moving away from specialization

In her article for The Outline, Nikki Shaner-Bradford summarizes the transition away from assembly line-style specialization (“Fordism,” in honor of Henry Ford) as aligning with our transition towards an economy based around knowledge, information and the production of content.

As to whether being a multi-hyphenate is a good or bad thing, let’s look at some possibilities as to what the term implies:

  • Specificity: By including fields that capture the scope of your capability and expertise, being a multi-hyphenate provides another branding differentiator that can help prospective clients immediately understand the breadth of your skills. In an era that emphasizes the personal brand, embracing being a multi-hyphenate communicates exactly what you’re good at and who you are — a three-word resume for the 280-character world.

  • Survival: The flipside is that, depending on who sees the title, being a multi-hyphenate could be seen as both an outcome and symptom of the gig economy, one where people need multiple side hustles to make ends meet. In this case, the forward-facing image of an assured multi-hyphenate rests on an undeclared base of useful and interconnected talents, but which are all rigidly aligned towards getting paid work.

  • Ownership: Where you’re able to make a living from your talents and assuming your strike that much sought-after work-life rhythm, the best case scenario for a multi-hyphenate creative is being able to make enough money from something you love without burning out.

  • Insecurity: Because there are just so many “full stack creatives” (remember that word?) the catchall multi-hyphenate identity may be a means of compensating for the fact that when we all do largely the same type of work, we might not have a particularly unique selling point.

As Shaner-Bradford puts it: “The rise of the “multi-hyphenate” has ironically eliminated the need for any specificity at all, instead implying a complex creative identity grounded in a jack-of-all trades ideal that conflates production potential with individual worth.”

Employability and passion entangled

The reality of the multi-hyphenate is complicated because the prevalence of the term alone is the product of a culture that both encourages multi-hyphenates to do what they love and penalizes them for doing it by under-recognizing and under-valuing their work.

Furthermore, not all multi-hyphenates get to benefit from the term, as Shaner-Bradford points out: “the term inherently privileges certain skills over others, particularly those of knowledge workers who often hold secondary degrees, and idealizes a form of labor that becomes absorbed into personal identity, diminishing work-life balance and generating further barriers to worker solidarity.”

This is true when you take a look at the litany of plausible multi-hyphenate titles you could see nowadays where the aforementioned “three-word resume” tells a story but doesn’t give a complete picture of a person. Compare terms like photographer-neuroscientist-writer, DJ-model-yoga instructor, and filmmaker-blogger-podcaster — the combination of titles, the order and the fields they stem from all give a different impression depending on who reads it.

The Takeaway

Financial insecurity and uncertain futures mean that many creatives are constantly evaluating and preparing for near eternal employability. Granted, upgrading skill-sets and constant training are a reality in any profession, even a specialized one, but it’s a question of whether monetizing certain skill-sets is out of desire or survival.

It’s up to the the multi-hyphenates themselves (which include a lot of creatives) to define what the term means to them and the rest of society. One way to see how much the multi-hyphenate title is weighted toward your personal identity, your career or both is to ask yourself: would I still call myself this even if weren’t working on a project at the moment or didn’t have a client lined up?

For those who don’t want to  declare themselves multi-hyphenate, what’s the alternative? MAEKAN’s Charis Poon finds usefulness in describing the nature of your work in actions as opposed to titles, which allows you to factually and specifically communicate what you do (regardless if you’re being paid to do it or not) without limiting yourself to the connotations of a given role.