Embrace the inner slasher to thrive

First published in the Financial Times on 25th June 2013.

We should abandon the concept of a job being permanent

A slasher is not just a type of horror movie, but also a new category of entrepreneur. It describes someone with a portfolio career – a photographer/journalist perhaps, or a programmer/property developer. I believe it is the way ahead for this generation.

After all, most of us will need to work and earn for 50 years or so because of rising life expectancy and lack of pension provision. To pursue a single-track career for half a century risks boredom – which I think of as almost the greatest enemy. Moreover, technological change means many roles will become redundant – necessitating retraining in a new vocation anyway.

And a 30-year retirement is a recipe for stagnation, idleness and misery. The only solution is to embrace the concept of life-long learning and a slasher existence of combined careers almost from the beginning.

Of course, many specialist fields need complete focus on a single profession: it’s difficult to be a part-time heart surgeon. And I’m not suggesting that a founder running a growing business with 500 staff should have lots of other jobs as well.

Meanwhile, certain professions naturally involve a range of activities: academics, for example, with teaching, researching, writing and so on all part of the package.

But obsessing about one thing for 25 years or more can be wearing. In the meantime, it’s sensible to prepare for a second act, which will probably involve several part-time activities. That is the nature of the modern world. The record numbers of self-employed and part-timers in the workforce reflect these shifts.

Freelance and part-time work can make sense for both employers and employees. Companies increasingly seek to contract out tasks, and avoid taking on permanent staff. Traditional job security and final salary pensions have all but disappeared, at least in the private sector. We should abandon the concept of a job being permanent, and instead see each position almost as an assignment.

Individuals who contract can enjoy flexibility and variety, while being less dependent on one organisation for their entire livelihood. I never liked being defined exclusively by the  company where I worked.

Managing a portfolio career takes some juggling, as it is by no means for everyone. You may even get accused of being a “jack of all trades and master of none”. But online, mobile communications mean you can stay connected and multitask in a way that was previously impossible.

As I’ve written recently, it is no longer necessary to attend an office in many organisations since working remotely is becoming increasingly common. A majority of new businesses are started at home as a side activity to a day job. Some will become a full-time and growing pursuit, but others will remain modest enterprises that operate as an income supplement.

Many entrepreneurs go plural after selling their business and realising capital. They take up several appointments as a part-time or non-executive director, mostly in companies in which they are an investor, or sometimes serve as a trustee at charities that interest them. The hope is that they can cross-fertilise their knowledge between the various companies where they have ownership. I’ve had parallel involvements with a number of different businesses for some years. Depending upon the circumstances, one might contribute as an adviser, mentor, steward, custodian, referee or consultant.

Albert Camus wrote about the “wager of our generation”. I think our great wager is a bet that career structures in the 21st century must be more flexible and project-based. The old model of work is dying. Countries such as Spain and Italy that have rigid employment systems suffer massive levels of worklessness and poor productivity as a consequence.

To wait passively for the perfect job is to court unemployment and disappointment. Instead, we must each construct a series of overlapping initiatives, using our skills and networks, which can deliver diverse experiences and probably a higher standard of living. Such a way of life can be more stressful and appear riskier; but it helps make us more resourceful and usually excludes irritations such as routine, commuting and office politics.