In 2013, I left a lucrative full-time job because it had become impossible for me to work the schedule that was expected of me and also care for my family in the way they needed.
It was the second time in six years I had found myself in this position, and this time around I had a sense that I would probably never return to traditional corporate life. I didn’t know exactly what was next for me, but I knew it wouldn’t be another salaried job at a single company.
I have always considered myself a working person. My work is a huge part of my identity and like most people, not working has never been a financially viable option for me. I loved my work, I loved my colleagues, I loved the paycheck and the benefits I received simply from showing up and working. If I wasn’t doing that, what was I to do?
I quickly discovered I was not alone. Whether by choice or by circumstances over 42 million American workers are “free agents,” meaning they work for themselves, are freelancers or temporary workers, or they work a part-time schedule.
I started asking myself what it meant to be a “free agent.” Was free agency better or worse than being traditionally employed? Why were so many people working this way today, an increase of 56% since 1997?
The research I started doing, combined with my natural interest in the literature around working women and working parenthood, has led me to one conclusion. Work, as we traditionally think of it, is being turned on its head. In fact, as the distinction between work and life becomes ever more blurred, the elusive notion of work-life balance is looking like a quaint relic of days gone by. As our traditional notion of work erodes in the face of 21st-century economic and social realities, new paradigms around work, life and productive use of time have begun to emerge.
While there are many possibilities for how work and life will transform in the years to come, right now the biggest phenomenon I see is something I call “The Portfolio Life.” The Portfolio LIfe mashes up the concept of portfolio or “slasher” career with a flexible lifestyle that values activities that don’t necessarily pay off in traditional salary, but which provide other economic or lifestyle benefits.
The value of this type of work is not always so easy to calculate. You may be working for less cash and more equity; you may be doing “less prestigious” work in order to have flexibility of schedule your family demands; you may be transitioning to a new type of work and developing a network or a set of skills that may provide lots of cash in the future; or you may be working on something simply because you love working on it and gives your life meaning, hence it has intrinsic value. The goal of Return on You is to help individuals make sense of the changing nature of work, and to understand that there are alternative paths to “success” than the traditional money-power-status route. Return on You is about understanding the real value of our time and recasting the conversation around success so more people can realize fulfilling, successful lives.
In the pages to come, I will be exploring the economic, social and cultural factors that are driving this trend and expand the thinking around the concept of Return on You. I will interview individuals about their experiences. And I will articulate some best practices, tips and advice that can help anyone who is living — or wishes they were living — a productive independent working life.
Please chime in in the comments with your experiences, ideas and suggestions as we pursue this idea together. Or take my survey.