Life Can Be Good in a Portfolio Life

This is an interesting article by one of our contributors, Johann Redelinghuys, which encourages us to think in different, innovative ways about work and retirement…

…In London, a retiring chief executive would collect several board appointments, take on the chairmanship of a suitable charity, perhaps do some teaching at a business school, throw in a little travel and golf – and then be satisfied he had created a “portfolio life”.

Then the idea caught on, and spreading one’s talents and interests into several distinct career “streams” became appealing to people well before retirement. Bright, well-informed professionals came to like the flexibility and challenge of a more expanded lifestyle. Working at a “portfolio life” became a better known way of packaging one’s years.

The concept and term – a portfolio life – was first coined by Charles Handy, renowned author of such books as The Empty Raincoat and The Age of Unreason, when he was working for Shell Oil and doing a stint as a lecturer on strategy at the London Business School. He named it a “portfolio life” to convey a sense of several streams of concurrent work. Although it sounded like an interesting and an appealing new way of doing things, it had, of course, been done for centuries.

Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, an engineer, a sculptor and an inventor. King David was a soldier, a poet, a musician and a king. In modern times many high net-worth people have been living with their careers exactly like this. In Business Day, Wendy Applebaum was described as a “philanthropist, entrepreneur, wine farmer and horse breeder, besides serving on several boards”. Ernie Els is not just a golfer. He is a property developer, wine estate entrepreneur and active supporter of the cause of autistic children. South African members of parliament have full-time duties when parliament is in session. But then in the recess they can have their fingers in all kinds of other pies.

Many, quite ordinary people who still have full-time jobs, do other things as well – home renovations, or investing with a spouse in a home-based business, or nurturing some covert idea for an entrepreneurial business. Of course, artists and musicians and writers have been doing freelance work all the time simply to make ends meet. These people earn a living by working at several different concurrent job streams.

It’s interesting that this trend is occurring at the same time that many countries are experiencing high levels of unemployment. Unemployed graduates are now a fixture on the social scene. The problem with finding jobs is that, despite everyone’s best efforts, there are not enough full-time jobs to go round. Or the people who are looking for them don’t have the skills or experience needed. The security and benefits of a good full-time job are not to be doubted, but for increasing numbers of people this will remain an unattainable dream.

But, if it is perfectly possible to make a living without having a full time job, shouldn’t we be coaching people to embrace a portfolio life and make it a respectable and accepted lifestyle?
We have been so conditioned to believing that one proper full-time job in a good company is the only way forward that we fail to see this viable alternative.

Tina Brown in New York, writing for the Daily Beast describes, “The Gig Economy” and says, “No one has a job anymore. They’ve got gigs, a bunch of free-floating projects, consultancies and bits and pieces which they stitch together to… hang on to the apartment, pay for healthcare and find the school fees. Now that everyone has a project-to-project freelance career everyone is a hustler.”

Well, not everyone. And a portfolio life is not for everyone either, but it does have a number of benefits for some. Firstly, it is a way of managing risk. In these uncertain times job security is no longer a given and having several balls in the air will give you something to fall back on if your main income is threatened or falls away completely. But even more importantly, many people feel hemmed in and frustrated by doing just one thing.

The unbundling of working lives is a worldwide trend of benefit to people wanting more from their lives and also to potential cost-conscious employers. Perhaps it is time for more of us to consider it as an alternative to a single full-time job?

About the Author:

Johann founded Redelinghuys & Partners, which was bought by Heidrick & Struggles, the international leadership consulting business, where he is now a partner. He has been involved in career management and executive search all his life. He is the chairman of the South African company and heads up its board practice working with chairmen and CEOs focussed on CEO succession, strategic leadership review and board evaluation.

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