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.
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.