The Rant

'Portfolio Careers' Are BS

Let’s not pretend that an endless stream of contract jobs is fulfilling rather than ulcer-inducing

Photograph by Getty Images/Vetta


I’m a marketer. I love spin. But sometimes it’s so off-base, you just have to call bullshit. And here’s one of those times: portfolio careers.

What’s a portfolio career, you ask?

Pick your way through the following sound bites, courtesy of a recent article on Forbes, “Why I Love Having a Portfolio Career (And You Could, Too).” This is one of many such posts you’ll find on the Web, describing a post-employment world in which you flourish in a multitude of temporary and part-time positions, and, oh by the way, no employer-provided benefits.

The pitch?

“Your career involves multiple identities ... Your income comes from part-time, temporary and freelance employment or a personal business … You could be a wide-achiever, not necessarily a high-achiever.”

A "wide-achiever," as opposed to a "high-achiever." Hmm. Does that mean I ought to set the bar lower? What if I believe in setting the bar high? And how might going wide as opposed to deep coexist with “leaning in”?

To the author’s credit, she alludes to the fact that portfolio work may not be for everyone. It requires “mad skills,” the ability to “get it,” along with a tolerance for obsessing over cash flow. After all, when you’re not actually employed on a regular basis, you’re potentially teetering on the edge of financial disaster even as you work your pipeline, network like Sybil on speed and juggle your temporary gigs with ample infusions of caffeine.

Just bear in mind that when you do procure work, don’t count on anything. Sure, you may have a contract of some sort, but no employment relationship exists.

In other words, though you may be working alongside employees, if you’re an independent contractor, the employer is not required to comply with wage and hour laws, withhold payroll taxes or pay into social security. You have no medical benefits, and generally speaking, no recourse when it comes to unemployment.

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So, you tell yourself that anyone who’s worried about employment protections isn’t a good fit for the portfolio lifestyle. Fair enough. But the spin is so seductive!

"Variety rules: You’ll rarely do the same thing day in and day out. Some experts contend you’ll earn more money … Your custom career reflects your interests and strengths, while you collect transferrable skills that bolster your résumé … It’s simply easier to find and maintain a portfolio career than a single-track job."

Easier to find and maintain than those 20 years I spent moving from one management job to another in the corporate world? More money? On whose planet?

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But the real kicker is a reference by Kelly Services, which estimates that 1.19 billion are “free agents — “closer to 35% of the worldwide workforce.”

35% of the workforce? 1.19 billion people worldwide? Don’t those figures scare the bejeezus out of you?

Forget work-family discussions debating the benefits of Mom versus Dad as primary corporate breadwinner. There may not be a corporate breadwinner! Yet as I see it, the only way portfolio careers work for most of us is if the portfolio worker is married to a non-portfolio worker — one with a regular salary and, oh by the way, a few employment protections and benefits.

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Realistically, being a “slasher,” as some call it, may be fine when you’re in your twenties and traveling light, and looking to gain experience while zeroing in on your passions. Likewise, the part-time and temporary approach may suit you if you’re semi-retired, have medical insurance, other sources of income and you’re just picking up a few bucks while having a little professional fun.

But supporting a family on serial starts and stops? Putting a few kids through college when you hoped to be slowing down just a tad?

You may be alternating between exhausting months when you’re racking up 80 hours a week at multiple contractor jobs, followed by a plunge into extended periods with no income at all.

Is this appealing, much less sustainable? Not so much. Is this helpful to our attempts to find work-life balance, or better yet, work-life fit? Not at all.

As for me, I’m a lover of variety and something of a Jacqueline of all trades. I’m also a freelance writer and, in that capacity, I expect portfolio pride and prejudice, just as actors, musicians, artists and others who choose creative paths understand their work to be less than predictable.

But let’s not look at millions of people ousted from the traditional workforce with no alternative but to take what they can get, and deem them “portfolio careerists.”

Let’s stop the propaganda that we’re all entrepreneurial, and that if we don’t succeed in the Brave New Economy, it must be our fault. Let’s not pretend that an endless stream of contract jobs is fulfilling rather than ulcer-inducing.

More than 20 years ago, Charles Handy, the management guru behind the portfolio career concept, made a choice to cut loose from his successful corporate career. But 20% to 35% of the workforce is not cobbling together a living by choice, but by circumstance — in order to survive. That’s a far cry from celebrating the excitement of diverse positions and the magical thinking that we’ll transform them to our financial advantage. What we’re really talking about is a lousy economy, exploiting a surplus of skills in a buyer’s market, devaluing human assets.

Pissed off?

I am!

But not to worry, because we’ve got our reinvention mantra. We no longer need to refer to ourselves as “unemployed,” because we’re portfolio careerists, or better yet, consultants.

And some of us really are — at least some of the time — as we nurse our leads, craft our proposals, shore up our bids … and chase after monies owed. We’re stoically, stubbornly and occasionally happily producing work product, though we’re misty-eyed when recalling a regular paycheck and a W-2.

But we’ve learned to present our portfolio with panache: We replace waiter with “catering consultant,” babysitter with “childcare consultant,” dog walker with “canine consultant,” and roadside flyer distributor with “PR generalist” or, if you prefer, “communications consultant.”

It’s all about spin, right? And I love spin. I’m a marketer.

Wait. Let me clarify: I’m a marketing consultant.

Tags: marketing

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