Odds are your future is one of a portfolio of projects

If you’ve been reading Personal Due Diligence for any length of time, you’ll know that three themes have emerged out of my posts, and the posts of my colleague and friend Neil Morris:

  • uncertainty about jobs means students should choose their education with its intrinsic value in mind, avoiding debt while doing so;
  • the work world is fracturing, and real risk abatement probably comes from having multiple irons in the fire at once rather than trusting to the longevity of one job; and
  • down at the other end of the career ladder, another whole generation is being tossed off, and having to suddenly find its way much like those just out of school are.

On Saturday I read the latest post by futurist Thomas Frey of the Da Vinci Institute, entitled The Great Freelancer Movement: 8 reasons why your next job will be a project. It’s got a suite of fifteen data points drawn from government, large enterprises, and various studies, that are worth tapping into.

What Frey describes as the actual life of the millennials (the people Don Tapscott described as the “Net Generation”, who’ve spent their lives in a world where the Internet was simply present) is rapidly becoming the life of the tail end of the baby boomers and the leading edge of Generation X (the one between the Boomers and the Millennials) as well.

For many in the fifties and sixties who find themselves being handed the paperwork for an early retirement program or your basic firing and outplacement, there is no new job. On average, since 2007, it’s taken someone in this age bracket eighteen months to get a new, “permanent” position — often for far less pay and less prestige than their résumé says they should be holding.

This shouldn’t surprise you. All over the world, permanent full-time positions are turning into part-time ones, or highly impermanent “variable labour force” ones where you’re a contractor, not an employee.

Given, as well, the normal labour rules of engagement we’ve built into our laws — a contractor who is on contract for more than a certain length of time is a de facto employee and entitled to the benefits of employment, for instance — it also shouldn’t be a huge surprise that you can do a fabulous job, and still be told “the contract is over” (or “the internship is over”, or “we don’t have hours for you this week”).

As Frey reports, it’s not at all uncommon to see someone now who’s hitting their thirties — a time when you’d expect them to be mortgaged, perhaps with a first child, settled down — with a résumé with a few hundred projects and short-term gigs on it, unable to demonstrate any stability (no job, ever, that lasted), although they have a portfolio of accomplishments.

This is the new normal.

It’s why when my wife asks me what kind of job our daughter (23 this year, and entering her Master’s degree year) or son (19, taking a gap year after high school) are going to have I keep saying “they may never have a job in the sense you’re thinking of”. (It’s not a message that promotes marital harmony, but, then, I don’t have one in that sense, either.)

Meanwhile, two-thirds of my Facebook connections are now in that forced into early retirement, scratching out a living as a consultant, doing six things at once to make ends meet, or being shovelled from one job that lasts only a few months to another — four years ago, almost everyone I was connected to was in steady, full-time employment and typically they were at least ten year veterans of their current employer. How times have changed.

Uncertainty is what ever more of us will face. So there are some rules for the new world of work to increase your security.

  1. Beyond basic educational credentials (for which you should, if at all possible, pay cash, and study what motivates you), education is now a life-long event. But education doesn’t need to cost much. My daughter, in this gap year between her BA and her MA, has been working — and taking courses from OpenYale, OpenMIT, etc. in place of bar hopping or television watching in the evening. It broadens her mind, and forms line items for her résumé, under a heading she labels “self-study”. Best of all, it’s free.
  2. Certain industry credentials are essential: people who spend most of their time doing project work pretty much have to add a PMP (Project Management Professional) credential. If your field, or type of work, needs it, get it — it’ll end up meaning a lot more to you than adding an MBA would.
  3. More and more work is coming out of social commons setups. Attaching yourself to one of these — or instigating the founding of one — is a good way to do today’s networking, meet peers, tap into insights about opportunities, and find useful things to do. I know several people who pay to use a desk at places like the Centre for Social Innovation, the Beach Business Hub, the TIME Centre, etc. simply to be connected to what’s going on, rather than work from home.
  4. More and more work is coming out of startups that aren’t your basic for-profit, for-the-investors setup. If you’re not current on things like B Corps, distributed governance, co-ops, and the like, get there. Wellington, New Zealand, is spawning multiple global startups none of which are being built around the “let’s become billionaires” model — and New Zealand is a laggard in this regard, as was reported on Radio New Zealand’s Ideas August 11.
  5. Corporations are resisting the kind of open, “I own my own intellectual property and tools” world that comes out of all this networking, project-based life, and voluntary contribution to build skills. They like the variable labour costs that come from tapping into the portfolio class, but don’t know how to deal with people who like that lifestyle. Understand, therefore, that after you have spent several years living this way that you are probably “locked out” of the kinds of positions where “years of experience in our industry” and “proof of staying put” matter, or where “having the right progression of job titles” is part of your résumé. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and this is where the portfolio life comes up against its limits: you’ll be responsible for your own next dollar, rather than having a cubicle and a paycheque, for your entire working life.
  6. But the flip side is that fewer and fewer “organizational ladder” positions will remain, as larger enterprises (governmental, charitable, social service, for-profit, it doesn’t matter) move closer to a 1/3 core staff (full-time, career laddered, many forced out in their early fifties to bring in new blood from below), 1/3 permanent part-time (to limit benefits, especially health care and pension obligations), and the rest drawn from the floating work force: this is the layout forecast by Charles Handy back in the late 1980s to be maturing … hmm, right about now. On the other hand, more and more of the economy is moving into enterprises that are very small indeed (and never forget the wealthiest part of Europe [in terms of average wealth] is Italy’s Po Valley, where the typical enterprise size is 20 people or less, operating in networks to compete with the top global transnationals).

    “Specialization is for insects”, said Robert Heinlein. If you think about it, the typical career progression is very much a life of specialization: seldom does someone move from one function to another, other than in the early going, until they reach the top echelons. A portfolio life can give you a suite of skills that allow you to drag dollars and opportunities out of many different specialties.

    If that isn’t personal risk reduction, I don’t know what is.

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