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Students entering work can find the perfect fit for a ‘portfolio’ career

A full-time job is not key for many in Generation Y

It won’t come as news to many, but when it comes to careers it can be tough at the bottom. With arts graduates struggling to recoup the cost of their degree over a lifetime of work and others stacking shelves and working as kitchen porters, a “portfolio career” may be the way to grasp the slippery bottom rung of the career ladder. And, without even knowing it, you may already have one.

The term was hit on as early as 1989, by Charles Handy, a philosopher specialising in organisational behaviour and management who ascribed it to people who held a number of paid roles, rather than a single “permanent” position.

It’s a concept that has grown rapidly since, aided a great deal by the advent of the internet. 

“We’re seeing more and more people describe themselves as portfolio workers,” says Dr Barrie Hopson, co-author of 10 Steps to Creating a Portfolio Career. “I think it would be very difficult to have a portfolio career without the massive increase in digital technology. People can only do three or four different things because of their computers.”

It’s something to which I can attest. Having paid my way through my Masters by moonlighting as a social media consultant and online copywriter, and then holding down these roles while working as a freelance at two different news organisations – and finishing off my dissertation – I feel confident in saying portfolio worker sits safely at the top of my CV.

All from the comfort of my laptop and, despite being hard work, it was an experience I found greatly fulfilling.

It is a sentiment echoed among a great many young people, says Sue Young, Head of Careers Service at Goldsmiths, University of London – an educational institute with a focus on the notoriously low-paid arts and media industries. Just the word “career”, she says, can be enough to put off students – who might see the concept as stifling or irrelevant – from visiting the careers centre.

“The job-for-life concept is almost completely gone,” she says. “Whereas previously people would have worked at BT for 40 years or M&S for 50 years, that just doesn’t exist anymore. With Generation Y [the under 30s], there has also been a rise in people who don’t want a job for life – it’s a positive choice.”

With the percentage of people in part-time work doubling since 2008, it looks like a job title that’s here to stay. Even the conservative CBI seem to think so. It recently released a report which predicted that by 2020, companies will have shifted shape to have a smaller core and a large periphery of freelancers and portfolio workers.

Dr Hopson acknowledges a portfolio career favours a certain kind of person. “The kind of people who would not find it easy are those who like order, strict timetables – you can forget those – and those who like to make a distinction between paid work and leisure. If you’re the kind of person who likes to come home at 5 o’clock and that’s it, you’re going to have difficulties.”

The fact remains, the vast majority of graduates will not walk into their dream career. A portfolio career can offer a practical way to get a leg-up: working part-time to gain skills and contacts while also generating income. At Goldsmiths, careers advisers offer a range of services, including an enterprise bootcamp to help students think entrepreneurially about how to fund their future. “If you’re studying art and want to be a fine artist, we’re not all going to be Damien Hirst,” says Young. “But the portfolio career can offer the choice of ‘actually there are lots of things I want to do, I can work two days at this and three days at that and volunteer on a Saturday night. Hey, this is brilliant!’”