The Evolution of Work – Portfolio Careers

We all know that the world of work has changed significantly in recent years.  The days of a 50-year career with one company, a gold watch and a fond farewell are but a distant memory for most of us.  The average duration of a job is decreasing, resulting in careers consisting of multiple, shorter jobs for more companies. So where is this going?

The world of work is evolving, and we’re seeing the mergence of what some people call “portfolio careers” – a succession of overlapping, flexible positions that over time provide income, job satisfaction, and (perhaps most importantly) opportunities to practice and learn new skills, which in turn prepare you for the next step in your career.

We’re starting to see some of this already.  Many people are starting second jobs, consulting or other things that they can do outside their “regular job”. Mid-career scientists are thinking of ways to ease into retirement, starting to build consulting careers on the side while still employed in a traditional job.  Companies are springing up that specialize in finding second jobs for those interested in doing something different in the latter part of their employment lifetime.  (For example, Encore Solutions).

We are also seeing a significant increase in the use of contract, or temporary, employment at all career stages.  No longer a stop-gap or short-term solution, this is becoming a permanent solution for some people.  Instead of working directly for a scientific company, scientists become employees of a placement agency, which sends them out to a company for a few months, or a couple years.  Fringe benefits, if available, come from the contract agency and not the scientific company.  The contracts are renewable, but also easily terminated if the client company changes direction and no longer needs those skills.  No expensive severance packages, they just don’t renew the contract when their term is up.

Just as the major responsibility for remaining employed has shifted from the benevolent company (who took care of you for life) to the employee (your job security is your ability to find another job), traditional benefits such as retirement planning, paid time off, and so on are also going away and will slowly become the responsibility of the employee. We’ve seen some of this already, as companies offer benefits “cafeteria style”, and employees can select which ones make sense for their situation.

This shift will be difficult for some people.  Those who are used to the “security” of a permanent job, and the benefits attached to it, may not want to take responsibility for more aspects of their life.  The ebb and flow of a portfolio career will also be hard for some people to get used to – planning for downtime between jobs will become a necessity, as will the ability to work harder when multiple, overlapping jobs require your attention simultaneously.

This shift in attitude – from rigid, sequential movement through full-time employment to a more fluid, overlapping, consulting, as-needed offer of services, is already starting to happen.  Employers are starting to see the value in this new, flexible model, and it’s only a matter of time before employees start to as well.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007).

6 Responses to The Evolution of Work – Portfolio Careers

  1. annmh says:

    The notion of portfolio careers hit me within two years of college graduation. So many interviewers kept explaining “this position is advertised as a full time job but the project should only take X months”. “Are you interested? Can you support yourself this way because I really could use the help.”

    There is a drawback to employers that use employees this way. Multiple positions on a resume have become the mark of instability at the work place. Resume is tossed before it is reviewed. Total catch can.

  2. annmh, i agree with is the bad impression if we mention multiple position in the resume and some time rejected by the companies or they hire on the contract basis max one year.

  3. kimmie says:

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  4. This post certainly captures the new ‘realities of work’ for many people around the world. As organizations struggle with the need to adopt increasingly flexible work practices, they expect employees to be willing to accept more flexible work arrangements. Hence the portfolio career model.

    However, in many countries cultural mores are yet to catch up with these new realities. The result is continuing tension as people seek to reconcile traditional views of work and its place in their lives with the fractured identities that may be the inevitable result or consequence of concepts such as portfolio careers. It will be worth keeping an eye on where this trend may eventually lead.

    Thanks for the heads-up.

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  6. dideli says:

    Well, statistically every person these days change his/her employers about 8 time per life. In this case we really need to prepare ourselves for maintaing our work portfolio from the very beginning.
    I’ve started from backup-ing all my files and data from the past projects into online storage (, so I could easily reference to any of it in a future. I’m using EspressoWork service, because it doesn’t limit the number of your projects and also lets you showcase your best achievements together with your actual CV/resume at your personal web page, which is very useful in my case.

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