First published July 2008
As new career structures go, portfolio careers are only slowly starting to get the airtime they deserve. Marci Alboher calls them slash careers, Michelle Goodman refers to them as patchwork paychecks – dressed up however you like, many of us are already living this way whether we realise it or not. Best of all, it’s a phenomenon that transcends the much-hyped generational gap and could see us all the way through the retirement. What’s not to love?
The term was first coined to describe the experiences of so-called third-age workers (i.e. broadly, those in their fifties to mid-seventies), many of whom were being forced out of more hierarchical career structures by ageism. There are lots of definitions of what it means to have a portfolio career today, but Monster.co.uk gives it an especially thorough rundown:
A portfolio career is the pursuit of more than one income source simultaneously, usually by applying the various skills you’ve developed throughout your career to different types of work…
Another portfolio career characteristic is that you’ll work at different rates. Some jobs will pay well and others won’t, but the lower-paying positions might be fun or offer intangible benefits, such as an opportunity to give back to your community.
You will also likely deal with a fluctuating income stream, which you can smooth by securing ongoing part-time contracts. Alone, these contracts might not be enough, but when added to other contracts and jobs, they should give you enough to live on.
So where does being self-employed come into it? And are all freelancers portfolio workers?
This is not just a CV-friendly way of describing those stretches when you’ve held down more than one part-time job, I’m afraid – student/waiter/bartender doesn’t really cut it. Even when employed, i.e. holding down a paid part-time position, portfolio workers are usually self-employed too. This may be by virtue of the kinds of roles they take on and/or for tax purposes. Ultimately, they have a greater degree of autonomy and control over their work and have made a conscious decision to make a career out of pursuing multiple income streams. So portfolio workers tend to be freelancers too, although depending on the degree of variety among their work providers, it can be said that freelancers are not necessarily portfolio workers.
The obligatory either/or perspective
From a wider industry perspective, there seem to be two clear camps when it comes to viewing a portfolio career: those who see it as a panacea for all our modern work woes, and those who see it as yet another way to get away with paying less than the minimum wage. Stephen Overell from Personnel Today summed this up nicely when he said:
Normally, there are two camps. The first – shared by loaded downshifters and a certain type of gormless, grinning management expert – is that portfolio working is all about choice. They will tell you its about opting out of the soul-deadening rat race, doing your own thing, freedom, becoming ‘me plc’, and so on. The other camp – inhabited by melancholy economists and anxious liberals – is that portfolio work is better explained by lack-of-choice. Satisfactory employment options dip in certain sectors of the economy, and the lonely, itinerant ranks of portfolio workers witness a corresponding rise.
In fact, in some quarters it’s even considered bad for your mortal soul. In a 2004 interview with the Times, the Archbishop of Canterbury linked portfolio working with an inability to hold down relationships and a lack of integrity, saying that it destroyed the quality of human interactions. Dramatic claims indeed, so don’t say you weren’t warned.
It’s probably fair to say the reality is a little less black and white. Clearly, a portfolio career is not for everyone but for those who are prepared to make a go of it, it can mean a rewarding and satisfying career path whatever your age.
Thanks to sensesmaybenumbed on Flickr for the photo of the business card wall.