The fluid generation

December 17, 2018


fluid generation

Fluid generation.

I was recently with my 22 year old son talking about “the future”.  His future, to be specific.  Not one of those “now son, it’s time you got serious and started to plan everything for the next fifty years” conversations, but more about how he imagines things might develop for him having recently embarked on the first stage of what I would describe as his first career.

His response was interesting, and not altogether surprising to me. I’ve had similar responses to this enquiry from several people of his generation over the last few years. In essence, he said he has no clear idea of how things will pan out for him beyond the next 4 years or so, and, (and this is the important bit to my mind), he’s not worried about it.  He’s focused on what he’s doing now and when the next stage of his career comes across the horizon he’ll make his choice about what to pursue given the opportunities that are presented.

Things are going to change so quickly in the meantime, both in the world of work and beyond, that there’s little point in trying to plan beyond holding some fairly loose ideas.

This is the fluid generation.

The term has been coined to refer to the rejection of gender as binary: male or female.  While most of us find the idea of gender fluidity at best confusing and at worst dangerously threatening, most of my son’s friends have absolutely no difficulty with it, and I admire them for it. Indeed, they find it curious that we struggle with such a notion.

The idea of fluidity for millennials, I suggest, is not confined to gender. I think young people are fluid, open, non-committal about just about everything of importance in their lives.

Granted, when I was in my twenties I couldn’t tell you what my long-term plan was so that’s nothing new.  What is different is that when I was in my twenties I had a sense that I was on some kind of linear path in life  – that each step would lead inevitably to the next. That model of thought was predominant for my, and probably previous, generations.  I also saw work in binary terms: employed or unemployed; waged or self-employed; working hours and non-working hours; weekday and weekend. Again, I’m not saying that these distinctions have completely disappeared, but I don’t think they are as defining for millennials as they were for me. A week that comprises some hours of work, some hours learning, some in the gym, some volunteering, plus the inevitable every moment in between online, so that ones social life is conducted more or less continuously throughout the day, regardless of the primary activity, is standard.

Moreover, in my day it was rare for anyone in their twenties or thirties to work on a freelance basis.  Nowadays many young people work that way, and as a freelancer working hours are very much more fluid than 9 to 5. My daughter is not yet 24 yet has worked on several projects as a freelancer, and that’s not counting internships. Self-employment is the norm for her and she’s doing this alongside her studies.

Why is it that those people just now becoming economically active see the world in much more fluid terms?

We can’t discount the pace of change in the world. Things have moved on significantly in the handful of years since the millennials left school. Technology is their touchstone, and they know better than anyone how quickly ideas, apps, games, etc., become old.  They are completely used to obsolescence in every aspect of their lives.

Perhaps political uncertainly also plays a part?  Unpredictability in world affairs, environmental collapse,  and in the breakdown of the left v right system may all be feeding a sense amongst young people that it is foolish to predict what their world will look like in the medium-term, let alone the long-term.

In other words, there’s no point in my children and their friends planning for the future because that future is so unpredictable.  Actually the future was always unpredictable, but my generation and those before me thought they could predict it. Instead millennials living much more in the moment, seeking satisfaction from what is available now, taking advantage of current opportunities, and wherever those opportunities lead, that will be their path. They are not confining their decisions to work opportunities, but to life opportunities, because work opportunities are no more valuable, have no more potential to lead to a “good” life, than any other opportunity.

Again, my generation also responded to opportunities.  People I work with in their forties and older talk me through their careers and many jobs taken are responses to opportunities rather than the result of planning.  Why did you go to work in Australia?  I was in Singapore and met an Australian, we got married and I went to live there for the next 20 years, might be a typical case, but that’s still a different situation to what I’m noticing today where people don’t even have a clear path from which to deviate.

I think that ten to fifteen years down the line we are going to see a significant cohort of people who have drifted, but that drifting will not be a bad thing, it will simply describe the way people move through life, settling down to something for a while and then upping and moving on to something else.

Actually they don’t care how hard you play

October 16, 2017

One of the (many) problems I have with the modern business world is all the cliches, platitudes and, frankly, meaningless banality that we are bombarded with, usually dreamt up by coaches like me.

One such that I was pondering recently is the label that some individuals and companies give themselves to indicate that they are serious.  They take their professional responsibilities seriously, and when they are not at work they let their hair down in an equally committed way.  They  boast that they are people who “work hard and play hard”. When companies describe themselves in this way they’re really telling us that they expect their employees to work hard, and that they are looking to recruit high energy, outgoing people. I don’t think they are particularly bothered about how hard their employees play.

Where in the work hard, play hard philosophy is the message that rest and relaxation are also important for a healthy, balanced life? Lunch is for wimps, and so, it seems, is sleep.


Source: US National Archive and Records Administration

Recent research tells us that greater happiness can be achieved if people slept more.  The problem we face at the moment is not that we don’t “play” hard enough, it’s that we don’t sleep hard enough. Happiness is the point here because what people are quickly realising is that happiness is really what they seek above anything.

The research, commissioned by Sainsbury’s, came out a while ago and it received fairly widespread coverage so I won’t go over the details.  For those that are interested in reading more on it you can download their Living Well Index report here.

Another recent study appears to suggest that the risk of Alzheimer’s can be reduced if people slept more owing to a discovery that a lack of sleep increases the presence of a brain protein that is linked to the illness. More on that here.

To mark World Mental Health Day on October 11th the headteacher of a west London secondary school gave out alarm clocks to pupils, with a note to parents inviting them to take away connected devices at night in an effort to encourage the youngsters to go to sleep.  The excuse is often made by youngsters that they need their phone for the alarm function in the morning.  No doubt teenagers are resourceful enough to get around this idea, but the message is important, if symbolic.

Another problem with the work hard culture is that it discriminates in favour of those who have fewer commitments outside work, like family, and we all know what that boils down to; women, in particular, are held back in this way.

Instead of crowing about being a place where people work hard and play hard, I’d like to see more employers encouraging staff to work hard but not long hours, to ensure they eat a healthy diet, exercise, spend time with friends and family and critically, to get a good night’s sleep. They can start by ensuring that their senior managers set the right example by leaving at a reasonable time, encouraging their team members to do the same, and by making it clear that staying late is not impressive.

That way they will end up with a far more productive workforce than they would if they encouraged people to burn themselves out.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s 2am and I need to watch a bit of telly.



Are Portfolio Careers Now the Safest Form of Employment?

January 3, 2017

I recently facilitated a panel discussion about work in the twenty-first century, with particular focus on portfolio careers.  Something one of panelists said stopped me in my tracks, ever so momentarily.  It stopped me because while I spend a fair amount of my time thinking about the world of work and how it is changing, and while a lot of that thinking is about portfolio careers, freelancing and the diverse ways by which people make a living and relate to the “employer” (however that relationship is defined), the point that was made challenged the received wisdom that I have simply accepted throughout my years as a career coach.


A portfolio career is about spreading the risk, not having all your eggs in one basket

The panellist, a person whose portfolio of activities comprises eight separate income streams, said that in his view a portfolio career is more secure than traditional employment.

And there am I trying to tell people that while it may not be secure, for many people the portfolio career is the best work pattern for reasons of lifestyle choice or pragmatic need.  I never really thought of portfolio careers as a smart move for the risk averse. When I work with people for whom a portfolio career seems sensible, it’s often because permanent (full or part time) employment prospect for people with their capabilities are rare. I don’t think I’ve ever suggested to someone that a portfolio career is the way to go for someone seeking financial security.

The reason is fairly obvious. When faced with starting out on your own or finding a job with a regular, known, salary from day one, the salary appears to be a safer proposition.

In the longer term, however, employment is precarious, and living in a world where redundancy can come with short notice, leaving a person without any income, is a reality of the twenty-first century.

So when my panellist pointed out that he no longer has any worry about finding himself without any income, because out of eight activities, even if some of them declined or went through a bad period, he’d still be earning from the others and would have time to fix or replace the failing ones, it made total sense.  Being self-employed is safer than employment.

Why does this notion turn our received wisdom on its head?  I suspect it’s about how society has viewed self-employment pretty much since the beginning of industrialisation. Working for a well-established, successful company was seen as secure employment.  Why has it been harder to get a mortgage or insurance as a self-employed person than as an employee? Because the actuaries have worked on the basis that a self-generated income is riskier than a pay cheque every month from a corporate entity.

That’s all changed now.  Employment is not a guarantee of security.  It’s just a guarantee of predictability for the duration of the employment. You know how much you’re going to earn, but you don’t know how long you’re going to earn it for.  On the other hand, self-employment means that you know you will always be working (as long as you choose to) you just don’t know exactly how much you will be earning.

Building a portfolio that manages the overall income stream is where the art of the portfolio careerist comes in.  My panellist could quite possibly develop one or more of his current activities into a successful business, taking up all of his time if he wanted it to, but he has decided that to put all his eggs in one basket in this way would diminish the security that his portfolio provides.

In other words, this portfolio career is specifically designed to offer a level of job security that he couldn’t achieve if he were employed by a large company.


A new thing every year

January 18, 2016

At the risk of sounding like one of those (un)charismatic life coach guru types, this week’s piece is a call to action, ra-ra-ra, go for it, just do it, bouncy encouragement thing.

A few years ago I made a decision to take on a new challenge of some type every year.  In all honesty it wasn’t planned that way.  It was retrospective in that I did a challenge then decided that I would find another one each year.

That first challenge was a physical one.  I rode a bike up a very long and steep mountain in France.  I’ve written about this challenge and the profound impact it had on me elsewhere and since then the challenges have included learning to weld, trying (again) to learn a musical instrument and this year I have taken up ballroom dancing (second lesson this evening). Perhaps one day I will summon up the courage to try to learn a foreign language.

Why do I promote this?  There’s no intrinsic benefit in taking on something new on an annual basis, but there is a benefit in continual learning.  One of the major health concerns for us as we live longer is dementia.  The Alzheimer’s Association have identified six pillars for prevention of that particular form of dementia:

  1. Regular exercise
  2. Healthy diet
  3. Mental stimulation
  4. Quality sleep
  5. Stress management
  6. An active social life

I’m particular persuaded that new activities forcing you to use parts of the brain you don’t generally use is especially good for you.

These, unsurprisingly, match the factors I have long recommended for people looking to achieve a healthy work-life balance.  A challenge a year could take care of a number of these six factors depending on what you decide to take up as your challenge.

Beyond that, pushing yourself beyond your known limits is one of the most life affirming things you can do, as I found on my cycle challenge.

Long before many of us stop working, we stop learning.  We’re just going through the motions for much of the time.  I’m not saying we’re sleepwalking through our jobs, and clearly there are some roles that require us to constantly think and learn, but for many the parts of the brain that are associated with leaning are minimally stimulated and I’m sure that the reason dementia is becoming such a concern is because we are living longer, and therefore are living for more and more years without sufficient mental stimulation.

So here’s me, standing on a big stage at the O2 with a microphone headset bullying you into committing to learn something new in 2016.  Watch out Tony Robbins. Next years’ challenge for me is to be you.



Time to down tools and relax

December 21, 2015

I’m so pleased that we are entering the holiday season.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. In the case of Jack Nicholson’s character in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, it made him much worse than dull.


During my working life I’ve seen the number of hours worked by white-collar employees gradually increase.  I’m not talking about the standard working week.  I’m talking about the additional hours referred to in employment contracts as “and any other times you are required” or something similar. These are the hours that you work late into the night, or early into the next morning, whenever a deadline approaches, because the alternative would be that next time there’s redundancies are in the offing your name might be on the list.

Don’t misunderstand me.  This is a fact of modern life.  I think it’s wrong but I can’t offer an alternative for a service based economy where people are the machines and being competitive requires squeezing as much out of those machines as possible. My issue is that employers on the whole, don’t appear to recognise how this relentless life is bad for business.

Workplace stress, anxiety and depression is at unprecedented levels accounting for 10 million sick days per year, that’s 43% of all days lost for reasons of ill-health. It has taken over from back pain as the top reason for absenteeism, reflecting our transition from a physical to a mental economy.

So while employers may not be moved to address the issue (and it should be stressed that the problem is far, far greater in the public than the private sector) at least this season gives employees the opportunity to turn off the technology and leave work alone until January.  That’s right.  Just put it down.  It can wait whereas your health can’t.  You need to be attending to your well-being all the time.

I’m not so naive to imagine that bosses and clients won’t try to make contact over the holiday period, and you may not want to ignore those calls, so at least try to contain dealing with those approaches to certain ring-fenced times, and relax as much as you can the rest of the time. Put messages on your voicemail and set up an “out of office” response on your email. Otherwise, coming back in January without having felt you’ve been able to re-charge the batteries will set the new year off on a bad footing.

Of course, you may be one of those people who finds being stuck with the family more stressful than work, in which case I suggest you volunteer to go in between Christmas and New New Year for your period of relaxation, after all, as we all know, nothing happens in the office then.

How a balanced life makes you better at work

October 26, 2015

I was asked to give a short talk last week.  “What rest means to me”, was the title.

A number of years ago I developed a training session on life balance, not “work-life” balance – work is part of life, not something separate – and the thrust of the session was to look at the components of a healthy, balanced life.  It’s my strong view that the people who are most effective at work, both in terms of sustainable performance and in building strong relationships with colleagues and clients, are those who have acquired balance in their life.

The components of a balanced life are:

  • Healthy eating
  • Sufficient rest and sleep
  • Exercise
  • Spending time with those that love and support us
  • Exercising the brain in way other than through our work
  • Entertainment and pastimes.
  • Community or voluntary activity
  • Finding moments of peace, contemplation or spiritual nourishment.
Helping you work rest and play? It's a long time since this was the considered the key to a balanced life.

Helping you work rest and play? It’s a long time since this was the considered the key to a balanced life.

Making a life that includes as many of these as possible are, for me, more important that simply “rest” as a way of recharging.  I do not believe that someone who works incredibly hard, but has very little else in their life except for relaxation and sleep is likely to be able to perform well in their career over the long term.  External activity grows us and makes us more rounded people, and we bring all of that into our work.

Relaxation is important, but not less or more important than exercise. Volunteering for a charity enables us to do things that express care and valuing of others, while going to the cinema or a football match is a way of valuing and giving ourselves attention.  Being with friends and family is essential for a healthy life, but no more so that spending time alone.

Some of these components are to do with the body, some the mind, and some the soul.  I don’t want to get all spiritual on you here, but don’t underestimate the importance of ideas like inner peace and humility;  they are very grounding.

I’m not advocating that people incorporate all of the above into their lives.  Not everyone wants to get involved with a charity, not everyone is able to pursue a sport or exercise. I simply invite you to think about what you do to keep yourself physically healthy, engaged with those around you outside work, and mentally agile.

A full, varied life is a life that stimulates.  Recharging the batteries does not simply come from being passive.  A change is, as they say, as good as a rest.

Why Volunteer?

October 19, 2015

It’s five thirty am and I’m writing this from a thronging Luton Airport departure lounge. It strikes me that if I picked any house at random in the south-east of England, I’d almost certainly find it empty, the occupants being here at the airport with me. If only I’d chosen to be a burglar rather than a coach, I’d be minting it.

I’m travelling for a few days in my capacity as a trustee for a small charity. I must stress that this is not a glamorous task, in fact I’d really rather not be doing the travelling, but volunteering for the charity more generally is important and fulfilling, and as with most activities, there is good and bad. You just need to make sure that the good outweighs the bad.

I'm looking for a volunteer. Hands up!

I’m looking for a volunteer.  Hands up!

Volunteering is one of my recommendations for a healthy, balanced life and it’s good for work on a number of levels.

No job perfectly matches our skills, interests and values. Taking on the right voluntary role allows you to derive satisfaction where work may not offer it. As a sole trader, my charity role allows me to work with others and to take on leadership opportunities.

For someone in employment or looking for a job, having an alternative source of achievements can certainly enhance career prospects. A recent example was that of an accountant, qualified overseas who was struggling to find work in the UK owing to a lack of local knowledge and experience. My suggestion was to find a charity that would allow her work on a part time basis. She gets experience, they benefit form her expertise and skills.

If we’re lucky our job allows us to learn about something we are genuinely interest in, but that’s not the case for everyone, and even if it is, most people have wider interests than their job caters for. Working for a charity allows me to develop my interest in this other area.

In a similar vein, there are activities we enjoy doing, but opportunities for those activities are not always available in the job we have. Charity work may be the answer, enabling us to do some of the things we like outside of employment.

Ideally our values would be shared by our employer and in the work we do, but that’s not always the case. While a charity usually stands for clear enduring values making it easy to support if you share those values, a company’s values are often less clear, and they change depending on economic circumstances and the beliefs and ideals of its leaders. It’s common for a person to join a company whose values in terms of purpose and behaviour they share, yet after a period of time those values diverge and the person finds their beliefs at odds with those of their employer. Finding a charity that allows us to live more authentically according to what we feel is important can solve that problem.

I know many people reading this will be thinking, “that’s all very well but if you have a busy job there’s no time for volunteering”. They’re right, not everyone can or wants to give their spare time away, but if you are one of those people, I encourage you to think about the wider benefits you might derive from voluntary work, not just for your personal well-being, but also for your longer term career goals.