Portfolio Careers – Taking Your Work In A New Direction

by on October 26, 2010

Portfolio Careers – Taking Your Work In A New Direction


Upon leaving my corporate career, one question that I often received was what I was going to do now that I was leaving my everyday position.  At that time, I wasn’t all too sure myself, but I suspected that I would stay active in some form of “career”.  Many friends and acquaintances expressed to me, they could never see themselves stop working.  Others, due to economic conditions, stated they could not see themselves focusing on a life where they were not working.

Certainly the 21st century, for a wide variety of reasons, (Baby Boomer ideas toward retirement, the recent economic downturn, people living longer, etc.), is challenging traditional ideas toward retirement.   While certainly there will be those who will look forward to (and will achieve), a time of well deserved relaxation and life without work, others will crave something different.  One option open to those is the concept of the “portfolio career”.

The concept of the portfolio career was proposed by British economist and business consultant Charles Handy in his book “The Age of Unreason”.  It is a way to reframe the place of work in one’s life so as to open up the possibilities of a more balanced life.  While the concept is beginning to have more of a benefit to those in the workforce who are younger than 50 years of age, it is particularly focused to those entering midlife.  It encourages the individual to create a portfolio of paid and unpaid work.  Additionally, it also acknowledges the fact that as we get older our desires to have more input into how we spend our time increases.  It is a prescription to acknowledging as we age, there are many different ways we can stay active.   Examples of components that make up portfolio careers include:

Career Continuation – As implied, it is one staying on the same career path they have been on.  While one may put off retirement, this path also includes being involved in a similar position that takes advantage of the skills you have developed.

Career Change – Building on the concept of career continuation, this approach involves taking the skills of a past position and using them in a very different industry or organization.  Or it could mean moving into both a very different position and career role.  An example of this may be a human resources professional, who moves into being a business school instructor or an individual who loves to travel moving from their first position into a second career as a tour guide.  The possibilities are endless provided one has the motivation to explore new directions.

Interim Assignments – For those unable to obtain a full time position, temporary work or contingency assignments afford one the opportunity to work for shorter, defined periods of time.  Many of these assignments are obtained through the help of an agency who will help one seek out and alert them to such opportunities.

Project or Contract Work – This approach may involve working for your previous employer or an employer who offers similar type position as your first career, but needs your skills to focus on a particular project or assignment for a short-term or part-time basis.  This is similar to the Interim Assignment, except you usually make the connection on your own.

Self-Employment – This includes becoming a consultant, acquiring a franchise, or buying or starting a business.  It provides you an opportunity to work in a line of work you may have always desired but did not have the time to devote to before.

Volunteer Work – Many positions exist in this line of work for the government, in not for profits and in service organizations.  Additionally the health services field often makes use of volunteers.  While this work is unpaid, it many times can be the way to make contacts with others who may have available paid positions which make good use of your skills.  However, you may not reach that point without having made the first step to offer your services so as to make the initial contact.

Charitable Work – While similar to volunteer work, it can also include doing fund raising activity for a religious organization or not-for-profit.

Board Memberships – These make use of your previous administration skills, help you to be actively involved with different organizations, and usually don’t take up a significant time commitment.

Home Work – Providing your services at a private residence to help someone with cooking, cleaning, maintenance, or parenting type of activities.

Study Work – Using the time as an opportunity to pursue a new degree or certification in a line of work that falls into any of the previous categories.

There are several advantages to a “portfolio career” concept.  They include:

•    It allows one to taper off from full-time employment gradually, instead of suddenly as they move to the next portion of their life.
•    It allows one to work simultaneously on a combination of options.  This is of extreme advantage if one area of one’s work suddenly ends and does not leave them without any sort of employment or activity at all.
•    It provides excellent preparation for work life in the 21st century.  While in the past it was common for an individual to work for one company in the same career for many years, that scenario is becoming less and less common.  The “portfolio career” approach has one building a career track that is right for them and takes into account their multiple interests.  It again, also allows for a fallback if one of the tracks they are focusing on should be ended prematurely.
•    It allows for the opportunity to pursue income streams while at the same time building in balance with activities centered on charitable work or educational pursuits.
•    It allows one to define themselves through a set of activities, as opposed to only a job title, (eg. “I’m a financial analyst, I’m a computer programmer, etc.).  Defining oneself via a job title only often causes inertia in moving forward when opportunities in the field one has been working aren’t as prevalent as they once were.

Therefore, the next time you wonder what you would do if you stopped working, or if you are at a point where your work has ended (voluntarily or involuntarily), open yourself up to the realization that there are choices out there for you.  However, you must take the initiative to go out and pursue them.  No one is just going to come and offer them to you.  Remember, it’s your life.

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