The Portfolio Career—The Future of Employment?

More Workers Are Building Lives and Careers with Multiple Part-Time Jobs

How many times do you think the average person changes jobs in his or her lifetime? Even though it’s clear that more and more people have simply rejected the idea of finding a good job and staying there until you retire, you may be startled to learn that the average worker switches jobs more than 10 times during his or her career, typically staying with one employer for less than five years. Over the last 10 years, though, a somewhat novel approach to employment has become increasingly popular with workers of all ages—the so-called “portfolio career.”

What Is a Portfolio Career?

The portfolio career involves building a “full-time” job out of a number of part-time jobs. With fewer and fewer companies offering health care or other benefits, there’s far less incentive for workers to either stay with a specific company or devote their entire working lives to a single employer. While it’s not unusual for workers who pursue portfolio careers to have a range of skills and interests, allowing them to work in different fields, it’s just as common for portfolio careerists to utilize the same skill set for a number of different employers.

The Advantages of a Portfolio Career

So what’s the appeal of a portfolio career? A common theme among proponents is that it gives a significantly greater level of control to the worker. Because part-time workers are generally not salaried, any extra time spent on the job involves additional pay. For that reason, employers are less-inclined to require that part-time workers put in overtime or stay late. That allows workers more freedom to schedule life events—doctor’s appointments, car repairs, etc.—without taking time off from work.

If your portfolio career involves freelance work, you also have the additional benefit of choosing the projects you take (within reason, as turning down too many projects can make you less attractive to potential employers).

Another big attraction of the portfolio career—it can allow you more variety in the workplace. A recent survey found that 55% of young workers with steady jobs were “not engaged” at work (“not engaged” is a euphemism for “bored”). Working for different employers in different industries or simply performing different functions for different employers can minimize the likelihood of that outcome.

Other benefits touted by portfolio careerists include:

* Not having to deal with office politics—When you’re a freelancer or a part-time employee, there’s less likelihood that you’ll get pulled into squabbles in the office

* A portfolio career can offer greater stability—It’s like having a diversified portfolio. Because you’re not dependent on a single employer, and because each employer accounts for only a portion of your total income, there’s less of a hit if one employer downsizes or reduces your workload for any reason.

* It can be easier to try something new—Because you don’t have to give up a full-time job to take something new, and because you’ll still have revenue from other sources, you can take risks you wouldn’t be able to take if you worked full-time for one company. For example, you might take that hobby or passion of yours and see if you can’t make money doing something that you love. As a portfolio careerist, you can start small and build the business at your own pace.

* You can have more time for family, friends and the things you love—As a part-time employee or a freelancer, you can carve out time every week for personal growth and fulfillment.

The Potential Drawbacks of a Portfolio Career

A portfolio career can be the ideal approach for many workers, particularly if you are a self-starter who wants a healthy life-work balance, but there are potential drawbacks as well:

* The “stigma” of being a part-time worker—Even though the landscape is changing, there can still be a stigma around the concept of being a “part-time” worker. A big part of that can stem from a loss of a sense of identity. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2014, more than half of all American workers derive some degree of identity from their jobs, including seven of every ten college graduates. There’s still a powerful sense that a job is more than just a way to make a living, it’s an easily observable sign of personal success or failure. It’s the first question most people ask when meeting someone for the first time (“so what do you do?”)—it can be challenging to describe a portfolio career without people assuming the portfolio approach is only temporary until you find full-time employment.

That stigma can also extend to many other areas of life. Some financial institutions are more circumspect about applicants who work a number of part-time jobs, worrying that they have problems keeping a steady job. The best answer to that—your success over a period of years.

* It can be feast or famine—Particularly if your portfolio career is built upon various forms of self-employment or freelance work, you may find yourself swamped one week and twiddling your thumbs the next week. That can mean a big paycheck one week and a skimpy one the next. In addition, you may face some challenges prioritizing among your different jobs. It’s a bit ironic, as one of the primary reasons for choosing a portfolio career is often to achieve a greater “work-life” balance. As a portfolio careerist, though, you have to be realistic about what you can and cannot do, specifically when it comes to deadlines. Make certain that the volume of work you take is reasonable and that you build in some downtime.

* You’ll need to take responsibility for those things that are typically company-supplied benefits, such as health insurance and retirement planning.

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