The Rise of the Portfolio Career

February 15, 2019
Rebecca MqameloFuture of Work

As students, we’re familiar with the experience of juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet — babysitting, math tutoring, photography, part time summer jobs. They’re all part of that stage of young adult life where income always falls just short of expenses, and our only hope for survival is the ongoing hustle.

The basic definition of “the hustle” is finding creative ways to afford living. According to Urban Dictionary, it requires “the courage, confidence, self-belief, and self-determination to go out there and work it out until you find the opportunities you want in life.” It involves identifying gaps, capitalizing on basic skills, and sometimes taking up the less-than-optimal tasks that only make sense because you have nothing to lose. Most young people can relate to the hustler mentality in some way, but we seldom consider how it shapes our future careers.

Rather than viewing the hustle as an uncomfortable yet necessary part of growing up, what if we took these lessons learned in the art of getting by and applied them to how we approach our professional lives?

Job market trends point strongly in one direction: the future of work is uncertain, fragmented and demanding. In his book, Job Shift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs, William Bridges states that the lack of job security in today’s workplace means that we are all temporary workers in some way. The emergence of the portfolio career is a clear indication of this trend.

A portfolio career, by definition, is one which consists of multiple part time jobs. Sounds familiar? Instead of weekend gigs and temporary positions, however, a portfolio career could be a full time commitment which comprises a balance of freelance work, consulting, personal projects, board membership and other activities that demand expertise under flexible conditions. It’s important to note that it is not the same as multitasking. In fact, most people who’ve embraced the portfolio career do it precisely because it gives them more autonomy to direct their focus where they want. Time management and organization are thus crucial for personal accountability and success.

More and more people are turning to portfolio careers, or the “gig economy,” as a long-term lifestyle choice which provides them with the autonomy to choose how they work. Some seek a better work/life balance. Some do it for the opportunity to use and develop multiple skill sets. Some do it for autonomy so that they — rather than some corporate employer — control their fate. Some do it to follow divergent passions or for personal growth. Some do it for the pace and constant change. And some do it as a second career after retiring early from full-time employment, simply seeking a new challenge and greater fulfillment.

For whatever reasons, the portfolio career is on the rise and has become a more viable option through the boom of the freelance, remote work market.

So what does this mean for those of us at the beginning of our careers? Here’s some advice on how we can prepare for the future of work today:

Diversify your skillset. The top two skills in demand, unsurprisingly, are tech skills and soft skills. People who know how to work with data and use technology to their advantage, yet also display the emotional intelligence to work well with teams and navigate complex social systems, will always come out on top. Employers care less about your degree, and more about the tangible skills you can offer and the work experience you bring to the table. If you’re in high school or college, now is a good time to pick up online courses in programming, business, design and communication. It’s a small present investment of time and effort that can yield valuable returns later on in life.

Be comfortable with experimentation. One of the consequences of the portfolio career is higher turnover. Employees won’t settle for the same monotonous work if they can find attractive options elsewhere, so employers are being encouraged to provide opportunities for role experimentation outside of more traditional vertical trajectories. This establishes easier pathways for internal job moves that allow employees to take advantage of their changing skills and interests without having to undergo the risk of changing companies. Chances are, you will be working multiple roles within a range of industries over the next few years. Take advantage of each experience and use it to further diversify your skillset.

Personal branding matters. As the working environment becomes more automated, globalized and industrialized, personal branding will become a matter of vital importance. A professional resume will still be a must-have for every job seeker, yet this must be accompanied by an online presence that allows employers to see more of who you are. LinkedIn and other networks will become the main channel for recruiters to ask a person for an interview and online personal portfolios will become more common. Students are in the best position here because they start from scratch. Start thinking about the ‘package’ you present to potential employers, and how you can align your future opportunities with a common direction in your professional life.

Portfolio careers are symptoms of the macro trends happening all over the job market. While they don’t suit everyone, they certainly provide some tips on how all of us can optimize our careers. If you’re at the beginning of your professional journey, now is the time to sit down and brainstorm what your future of work might look like.

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Rebecca Mqamelo

Contributing Writer

Rebecca Mqamelo is a young South African currently studying Physics and Economics at Minerva, the San-Francisco-based university that is challenging norms in tertiary education with its emphasis on global travel and experiential learning. In high school, she was a national debating champion and international public speaker. When she isn’t writing articles, she’s interviewing the movers and shakers of the global blockchain community for the media platform she co-founded, On the Block. Her idea of fun is learning Russian and watching Kazakh films.

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