The term “portfolio career” is bandied about a fair bit, however, many are confused because it has two different meanings. The terms are fairly new in the employment vocabulary, and their increased use is a consequence of the changes in the workplace and employment relationships that have developed over the forty years or so.
Up until the mid to late 1970s a person would enter the world of work and, if they wanted it, could reasonably expect long-term job security. There were many employers, commercial and not-for profit, for whom, unless you committed some sackable offence, you could work your entire working life and retire at the end with a handshake and a gold watch.
A strong, stable economy in which non-western competition was not much of a threat, and the slow pace of change meant that reasonably well-run, decently resourced organisations were fairly invulnerable. Globalisation and technology have changed all that.
Nowadays stable employment is far from guaranteed. The concept of the job for life no longer exists in any sphere as all organisations are constantly looking to stay relevant and competitive. In an economy where human resources are almost always the most expensive cost on the balance sheet, and the easiest to adjust, the employee – employer relationship has changed from one of almost paternalist responsibility on the part of the employer, to that of a simple business transaction. The employer buys the services of the employee for as long as those services are required.
The most common use of the term “portfolio career” refers to a collection of part-time jobs a person may do at any one time. That might include jobs in which a person is formally employed, jobs for which they work as a contractor, activities for which they operate on a self-employed basis or voluntary positions. Since a person’s skills may be of some use to an employer for part of the time, and since employers no longer see a need to “own” the skills required to deliver its products or services, those skills are hired for just the number of hours a week they are needed. The human resource has been outsourced just like many other components of the business operation have been. Employers can no longer afford to have their staff working at anything other than optimum efficiency, and they carefully monitor their use of that particular asset to ensure they are achieving best value from it.
A second, less frequently used application of the term refers to the notion that a career is the process of gathering skills, knowledge and experience over time, and that we go through our working life offering employers this “portfolio” of skills which we are constantly updating and adding to. This concept of a portfolio career acknowledges an important aspect of the world of work today – that we as individuals are responsible for our career development, and to succeed we must always be looking out for opportunities that will keep our skills relevant and marketable. Over the years I have had several clients who have found themselves at a point where their capabilities have become obsolete, and this has made it very difficult for them to find work. Like an artist’s portfolio, it must be up to date and relevant.
Another terms is “serial careerist”. I came up with this term some years ago to describe myself. I can’t say for sure that I invented the term – there are ample uses of it on the internet and I doubt they all got it from me, but I like to think I got there first.
A serial careerist is someone who changes career, not just their job, their entire career, every few years. There have always been serial careerists but the conditions outlined above have made it an imperative for some, as whole careers disappear in very short periods of time. Just look at how the music industry has changed in recent years.
A further factor here is societal change. We may not have quite become hedonists, but young people are perhaps more thoughtful about how they use their time. Working at something they don’t enjoy is less acceptable that it might have been for previous generations. Boredom thresholds are lower than they were, possibly as a result of today’s fast paced, tweet dominated world. Change and moving on are how we live now.
These are the conditions into which my children are now entering the workplace and I am observing it with a sense of excitement and trepidation. Their careers look like they might be much more interesting than ours, but it also seems it will be much harder for them to progress vertically in a world where careers are horizontal processes. How this will impact on their ability to maintain the standard of living they grew up with remains to be seen.