Graduate market trends - Spring 2010 : Portfolio careers


In this article, Dr Barrie Hopson expands on the idea of a portfolio career in a way that can engage students in discussing careers (and may even make GMT readers reconsider their career pattern!). He explores the characteristics of different career patterns and their pluses and minuses. The themes drawn out raise some key questions related to fundamental changes in how work is organised and how organisations work. It is about taking ownership of careers and futures, lack of long-term job security in the labour market and the increased overlap of work and non-work life. How do we manage this and how do we create and define value in our lives – working as well as non-working? Dr Barrie Hopson is Chairman of Axia Interactive Media, Non executive director of Three Albion Place Ltd., Non executive director of Livehappier Ltd., writer1, presenter, consultant, entrepreneur.

So - What About a Portfolio Career? 

Graphic: person with briefcase

Are you horrified at the thought of a ‘proper job’? You know – the one that your parents desperately want you to have! Regular hours, security, maybe a pension plan and,of course, promotion prospects. If you are then you are not alone. You belong to Generation Y – those born between 1981 and 1995 -what some commentators have called the e-lancer generation. While it is always dangerous to generalise about any age group the research suggests that you demand flexibility, development and learning opportunities and you are also more likely to bring a social conscience to work.

In an investigation into what ‘Generation Y’ wants from the workplace, TalentSmoothie2 gathered data online from 2,521 survey participants. They found that Generation Y:

  • wanted a job that uses their strengths with personal development seen as central;
  • were most likely to resign if they weren’t excited by their job or weren’t developed in it;
  • wanted to be trusted to get on with their own work;
  • preferred to learn from peers, through coaching and mentoring, and through multi-sensory experiences. Recruitment based on their strengths resonated best with this group3.

 Many of you will have observed your parents making huge sacrifices in working all hours for a company that then makes them redundant. You will have noticed that often a parent is simply not around for important occasions because of work or being regularly stressed out. They are away from home for most of the time. And most important – they don’t really seem to be enjoying it. And you begin to ask yourself if this is worth it. Surely there must be another way? Well there is!

It’s increasingly common for people to say things like:

"I have three jobs. I’m a lawyer for several small companies, a professional cook and a food writer".

"I work in a restaurant four nights a week, run a small shop three days a week and bake products for my husband’s shop one day a week".

"I am a lighting designer, professional photographer and Reiki practitioner".

These are real examples of people who have portfolio careers. The term essentially refers to a person doing two or more different jobs for different employers.

What they have in common is that they all had difficulty in finding a single job or even a career that utilised all of their skills and allowed them to tap into all of their passions. They’ve all found, as indeed have the other people we’ve interviewed for our book, that there is an alternative to the 20th-century dream of finding ‘the one job that is right for you’. For many people that dream has become a nightmare as every job is now temporary.

People who opt for this work style like it because it gives them variety. Also, they don’t have all their career ‘eggs’ in one basket. If one job gets boring, they can focus more on the other ones or indeed even ditch the boring one. If they lose one job, they have other revenue streams to rely on.

In the US, the Electronic Recruiting Exchange is reporting that as many as a third of new entrants to the workforce are looking for alternatives to full- time, single-track employment.

We’ve discovered that maybe a million plus people have been and are developing portfolio careers without being aware that this style of working is becoming more popular or indeed has a name. It is a growing career pattern. In our book, Trish takes the prize for the most jobs – 8!

The other main career patterns you might choose from include:

The single-track career 

Graphic: person on a ladder

This is the one that your parents will recognise. The ladder symbolises this very well as we were all supposed to be motivated to ‘get on’, meaning upwards. We continued until gold watch time and then became a retired teacher, builder, manager, shop worker, etc. If we worked well and were loyal, we were promised a long-term job and that we would be ‘looked after’.

Single-track career pluses?

You got security, opportunities to be trained and developed, a predictable income, a feeling of belonging, recognised social status in that everyone knew what you did and where you worked. You had a job title.

Single-track career minuses?

Today, no organisation can offer a career or a job for life. Organisations are born and die or are reinvented, so there’s no secure edifice against which you can lean your ladder. People themselves now change more quickly.

Single-track careers are still possible but less so than they used to be – and job swapping between organisations is now often the only way of developing that work style. 

The serial career 

Graphic: person on a chequerboard

The serial career is symbolized here by a chequerboard, which shows that people can move upwards, sideways, maybe downwards, diagonally and so on. People who like periodic change favour this work style. Some individuals, no matter what they’re doing or how successful they’ve been, just need to change every few years. They get bored and need to move on. They enjoy learning new skills and working in new environments. In the past they might have been characterised as feckless, a dilettante or unreliable. They get very involved in a job or a career but don’t see it as something for life.

Serial career pluses?

You can experiment with a number of different jobs and careers. You choose your paid work according to what interests you, as opposed to what might help get you promotion or more money.

Serial career minuses?

Some people may view you as someone who ‘never settles down’. You may never achieve seniority in an organisation.

The lifestyle career 

Graphic: person on a scale

A lifestyle career is most apparent at present in Generation X (those born approximately 1964 – 80), although it’s certainly visible in the other generational groups. Barnaby works three days a week for a local authority and spends two days a week bringing up his two young children. Pam, his wife, also works three days a week (for an international oil company) and spends the other two days a week with their children. On only one day a week do the children go to a child minder. Barnaby and Pam are both clear that ‘you only get one chance to bring up and enjoy your kids and we’re not going to miss out on that’. Consequently, any major career progression or job changing will be put on hold until the children are both at school. They will then review where they are and maybe make some career changes at that point. Barnaby is more likely to move on, as at heart he is actually a serial careerist. Pam is more likely to seek advancement in the company, as at heart she is a single-track careerist.

What we’re finding is that the work–family dimension is not the only factor promoting this work style. Some people wish to travel, do voluntary work abroad or return to being a student. Other people want an undemanding job that pays for them to pursue a hobby which can’t support them financially or that they don’t choose to support them. Tina and her husband Martin enjoy their paid work but what really excites them is cycling. They have just returned from a 6 month cycling trip around New Zealand. They have both got jobs again but are saving for a 9 month cycling tour of India in about 2 years time.

Lifestyle career pluses?

The opportunity to combine a range of paid and unpaid work that’s important to you. Paid work doesn’t dominate your life. You have a more balanced lifestyle. You can always shift into a different career pattern if your lifestyle changes.

Lifestyle career minuses?

Career advancement is likely to suffer. Promotion can be seen as a headache rather than an opportunity. Financially there may be a price to pay, as even today it’s not always possible to get a part-time job with the level of flexibility that’s required.

Some commentators argue that it’s possible to have a range of career patterns and stay in the same organisation4. So, you could embark on a single track, start a family and become more lifestyle oriented, then discover some new possibilities in the organisation and become a serial careerist. You could only be a portfolio careerist, however, by having one of your jobs in that organisation.

In making career choices never underestimate the value of trial and error

You will make mistakes in choosing what to do and how to do it. The good news is that you will live longer than any previous generation and will have plenty of time and opportunity to reinvent yourself at any stage. Herminia Ibarra5 says,

"We learn who we are – in practice, not in theory – by testing reality, not by looking inside. We discover the true possibilities by doing – trying out new activities, reaching out to new groups, finding new role models and reworking our story as we tell it to those around us…To launch ourselves anew, we need to get out of our heads. We need to act".

She advises:

"Devote the greater part of your time and energy to action rather than reflection, to doing instead of planning".

So – get out there and experiment!

The attractions of a portfolio career

Many people love the fact that you largely have your independence even if you’re working for a number of different organisations. Plus you have relative freedom from corporate agendas and politics. You can use your unique combination of strengths. You can follow multiple passions. It’s often easier to say ‘no’ to a request or demand. You constantly develop and learn new skills.

There can also be more leisure time. You might even want to add an existing hobby or passion to your portfolio. Michelle is a city events organiser who discovered Pilates after having bad back problems and decided to train to teach it. She says she enjoys the blend of two very different jobs, allowing her to express who she really is. She also earns more than she would by doing her city job full time. I hasten to point out that we do not guarantee this!

Interestingly, a major longitudinal study, Creative Graduates Creative Futures, undertaken between 2008 and 2010 of the early career patterns of more than 3,500 graduates in practice-based art, design, crafts and media subjects, qualifying in 2002, 2003 and 2004 from 26 UK higher education institutions showed that 48% of them already had portfolio careers. Typically they were combining employment with self-employment, study or developing their creative practice. Interestingly they aspire to creative careers and achieving a good life/work balance, their career goals aligning with their subject disciplines and their career plans most influenced by a strong desire for new learning and the pursuit of creative practice above high earnings. Of course these graduates might be more likely to experiment with their careers than some other graduates but even so this is a real indicator of how things are moving in the job world.

But a portfolio career is not for everyone

You will have to spend a lot of time networking and marketing. Initially, there are often real financial risks until you’ve acquired your portfolio. There can be a loss of employment benefits, such as pensions, health care, paid holidays, childcare, etc. You may be unwilling ever to turn down work offers or accept less desirable work because of financial uncertainty. Sometimes there can be a lack of a regular routine along with feelings of isolation.

Having said that not a single person that we interviewed would consider returning to a more traditional career pattern. They particularly loved the fact that they could blend work and non – work aspects of their lives according to their current life priorities.

So - where to start?

It helps if you are an excellent time manager and organiser, able to work well under pressure, comfortable with little separation between your work and the rest of your life, a risk taker, self directed, high energy, assertive, comfortable being your own boss, not hung up on financial security, a networker and marketer, someone who can work to deadlines and who learns from their mistakes. You need to be a self-starter and preferably not a perfectionist. Breathless? Welcome to the world of portfolio careers.

The book and our website6 promote portfolio careers as a very real option today with many pluses for organisations, as well as for individuals. We’ve written the book because we’re excited about helping people to realise ‘there is another way’ to earn money, derive meaning and hey, even to sprinkle a little magic into our working lives. You can and should be the architect of your own future.

And how do I answer the dreaded question, ‘And what do you do?’

Simple. I say, ‘I have a portfolio career’, then step back and wait for the questions that follow.


1. Latest book, written with Katie Ledger is ‘And What Do You Do? 10 Steps to Creating a Portfolio Career’, A&C Black, 2009.

2. Talentsmoothie. ‘Tell it like it is’, 2008

3. These results have been confirmed by an international in-depth survey of this age group by Don Tapscott in his book Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World (McGraw-Hill, 2009).

4. Cathleen Benko and Anne Weisberg, Mass Career Customisation: Aligning the Workplace with Today’s Nontraditional Workforce (Harvard Business School Press, 2007).

5. Working Identity (Harvard Business School Press, 2004).

6. If you go to our Portfolio careers website you will be able to download the first chapter for free which tells you much more about portfolio careers.


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