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.

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.


The bell-curve shaped career ladder

January 4, 2016

We tend think of careers as a process of climbing, and at the end of it we are at our highest point on the ladder.

In fact that’s never been the case and according to HM Revenue and Customs data average wages now peak at around 40 – 45 years old. In other words salaries are now highest for the average worker at around the half way point of their career. For some, salaries decline gradually after then, while for the average they fall away significantly so that someone still in work over the age of seventy will be taking home much the same as someone in their early twenties.

Our career trajectory is not a line that goes up from bottom left to top right, but more of a bell-curve.

Career Ladder

Career ladders look more like this…


…than this

This data is based on all levels.  I couldn’t find specific information for management roles, but my guess is that the pattern is similar.

If we lose our job or decide to leave, the likelihood is that at best we will find a job at a similar salary once we reach this age group and beyond.  Mostly however, we will need to make compromises and accept a lower salary.  In other words, after our mid-forties we are climbing down the ladder.

The prospect of climbing down the ladder for over twenty-five years of working life is demoralising. So what can be done?

First, accept the situation.  This is the new reality and not everyone can keep progressing in a world where people are working for longer and company structures are getting flatter. There are simply not the positions to be promoted into, and so progress stops earlier than in the past.

Next consider these options:

1 Go self-employed. Become a consultant and sell your expertise.  The likelihood for many is that earnings will still go down but fulfilment will go up. For some, working in a lower level job is humiliating, while being one’s own boss, even if that means less money, is preferable.

2 Learn new skills in order to broaden your appeal and make you more employable.  This may help to keep the salary higher than otherwise. Besides, learning is is good for the brain.  As we age, brain-training becomes more an more important.

3 Change your values.  Instead of thinking within the framework of money and status, look for fulfilment and meaning in your work. Doing something new and different makes for a more interesting life.  Work is not just about money and status, it’s a way to stay healthy in our twilight years.  It means getting out, interacting with people and thinking. Physical, social and intellectual activities are the key to a healthy balanced life.

There it is. We work for longer than ever before and our earnings decline from about half way through, but surely that’s better than years of watching daytime tv?

How much work do you do for nothing?

November 16, 2015

Here’s a viral that’s going round…

If the amount of time and work that goes into trying to win business makes the endeavour so uneconomical for small suppliers that they stop pitching, the outcome is that they miss out on business, and the client may miss out on the best supplier.

When I first saw this I thought it good that the advertising industry is fighting back on behalf of creatives and consultants.

Then I showed it to a friend who works for a consulting business and he thought otherwise.

Of course the film is ridiculous in many ways but the idea of whether a supplier should be expected to put time and intellectual know-how into a proposal that will likely not result in a fee is worth considering.


Now it’s possible that this self-selection is a good thing, after all, a big project will need significant resources. It would be a disaster if half way through an important change programme the consulting business was forced to admit that they were not well enough resourced to continue with the project.  But is it fair for a freelancer with limited time and resources be expected to make an up-front gamble like this in the hope of winning even a modest amount of work?


Let’s accept that the resources expected to be put into a pitch reflect the size of the project. Should we be worried about the losses incurred by those who are unsuccessful?  The question is, are clients expecting more than necessary from suppliers at the pitch stage?


This is where my friend and I differ.


His view is that this is simply a cost of sales – marketing.  Any agency or individual consultant will expect to win some and lose some.  If they lose too many then they are doing something wrong and need to improve.  Furthermore, they absorb the cost of pitches in the work they successfully win.  The model I have always used is that a third of my time goes on marketing, a third on working and about three quarters on cycling (maybe that’s where I’m going wrong).


My concern is that clients expect too much and encourage potential suppliers to compete at too high a cost to themselves for work, thus making it a much riskier proposition for small agencies and individual freelancers.


What do you think?  Are clients expecting too much and raising the barrier too high for small businesses at the pitch stage?

How Uber is breaking through the barrier to entry

October 5, 2015

In the world of business there are two reasons for barriers to entry.  One is to protect the customer, the other to protect the business or livelihoods of owners, employees or practitioners.

There are very good reasons for the first; protecting the customer. In this situation barriers to entry ensure that our limbs are amputated by properly trained and regulated surgeons, for example.

There are less good reasons for the second; protecting livelihoods. Everyone is entitled to make a living, but not to artificially inhibit others from doing so if they are suitably competent.

In the past licensed London taxi drivers were protected by a very strong barrier to entry. “The Knowledge” was a guarantee that when you stepped into a taxi you would be taken to the place you asked to be taken to.  The test was rigorous and notoriously difficult to pass. This also meant that once acquired, a licence to ply ones trade as taxi driver, able to pick up passengers off the street, was a valuable asset and it was rarely abused for fear that a complaint would lead to the licence being revoked. This in itself protected the customer whose safety, it could be argued, was less secure if they used an unlicensed minicab where the driver might be unknown.

London Taxis forming a barrier to entry.

London Taxis forming a barrier to entry.

Minicabs can only pick up passengers when they have been booked in advance.  They cannot tout for business on the street – a great advantage for taxis when someone needs a ride at short notice.

Then came satnav.

With the introduction of this technology one of the key arguments of the taxi driver became obsolete.”The Knowledge” no longer represented a benefit to the consumer.  Now all that riding around London on mopeds and learning archaic test routes was for one thing only – to enable a qualified taxi driver to be hailed down off the street and, with that, to maintain high prices.

Then came Uber.

Uber offers the knowledge (satnav), safety (rigorous identity checking, a record of the journey, and driver training) and speed of response.  True, it’s unlikely that you will pick up an Uber as quickly as a taxi if you are standing on a busy street corner in central London, but for most other trips an Uber car is more responsive than a conventional minicab or a dial-a-taxi services. What is more, they are considerably cheaper than taxis and because of this the taxi drivers’ power is massively reduced.

Taxi drivers are resisting Uber desperately, and they have some powerful political friends who are helping them but they can’t hold back the tide.  The barrier to entry into the business of immediate response private hire has crumbled.

Whether you are setting up a business, launching a new product or going for job interviews it’s critical that you understand what the barriers to entry are or could be.  Starting a business or launching a new product with low or no barriers to entry is risky because it means anyone can easily enter your space and take your customers.

As a prospective employee the concept differs slightly. In this situation the question is “what do I have that makes me the strongest candidate for this role that other candidates perhaps don’t have?”  That could be to do with skills, personality, experience, or knowledge. Whatever it is, make sure the potential employer knows because this represents the barriers that your competitors for the job will need to overcome.

Most important, remember that things change and one day those capabilities that helped you to secure the job may no longer be relevant, so keep moving with the times by developing you skills and knowledge.  For business owners, the innovation that made your product or service better than the competition when you launched may be replicated in some way so you need keep innovating and developing your service to stay ahead of the competition.

In other words, don’t be the old London taxi driver who has suddenly been wrong footed by technology. Be an Uber, offering yourself to the marketplace with a new, better way of solving an old problem.