In June 2021, the US Department of Labor reported that an unprecedented four million Americans had quit their jobs in April alone — the beginning of a phenomenon that news outlets called “the Great Resignation.” While we can’t ascribe a singular motivation to these resignations, for many workers — particularly those in the knowledge economy — this was an opportunity to reset and reframe their relationship with work. “These people are… leaving their jobs not because the pandemic created obstacles to their employment but, at least in part, because it nudged them to rethink the role of work in their lives altogether. Many are embracing career downsizing, voluntarily reducing their work hours to emphasize other aspects of life,” wrote Cal Newport in the NewYorker.
Some mocked these choices as a YOLO move, but even if they were, the impulse wasn’t entirely wrong. You do only live once. And after surviving a global pandemic, many younger and mid-career workers came to the same realization all at once: As much as you might love your work, work won’t love you back. Or, as writer Maris Kreizman put it, “The idea of meritocracy is a lie and the only thing hard work guarantees is unpaid overtime, not success.”
But believe it or not, there’s an upside to this collective collapse: It frees us from the straitjacket of narrow specialization and linear career paths many of our parents felt stifled by, and instead offers the opportunity to build vibrant lives that fit us better. We cannot make the same choices our parents made because we are not living in the same world. So we are making different choices. Ones that align with our actual needs and values, not the ones we’re expected to maintain. And with the prospect of working until we die — or at the very least, a solid decade or two beyond what our parents are planning — the mirage of retirement makes it feel even more urgent to find a model that is fulfilling and sustainable for the long haul.
This is an opportunity to redefine what “success” looks like using our own variables, and eschew the cult of ambition that has made so many folks miserable. The good news amid all of this disruption is that we get to toss out the status quo and design a new approach to career, relationships, and life that actually makes us happy.
The old playbook doesn’t work: Trothing your long-term commitment to a company in exchange for an identity, some financial stability, and a chance to climb the corporate ladder is no longer a lucrative trade. So what does an alternative model look like?
First, it disentangles your identity from your current job. To put it bluntly, you are more than your work. Derek Thompson, a staff writer for the Atlantic, argues that the decline of traditional religious affiliation in America has coincided with a plethora of “new atheisms,” including what he calls “workism.” That is, the idea that your work is the crux of your identity and life’s purpose. More disturbingly, defining your identity solely by your work means that “anything short of finding one’s vocational soul mate means a wasted life.” Your work can absolutely offer meaning to your life, but it should not be the meaning of your life. Instead, consider your identity through a wider aperture, taking your personal, professional, and relationship goals all into account to define your purpose. Otherwise, Derek cautions, “to be a workist is to worship a god with firing power.” Whew. Write that on a sticky note and keep it handy. Don’t leave your identity in someone else’s hands.
Second, an alternative model is one that redefines your future opportunities (and even your present ones) as a broad set of potential paths rather than a narrow, singular trajectory. As engineer and creative writer Jai Chakrabarti wrote in Fast Company, “There is no linear life, at least I haven’t found one I’d wish to live. Rather there are the meandering paths, all the pursuits of beauty that reward us with their own vistas of the world underneath.” He pushed back on the pressure he felt to continue his fast-rising engineering career and decided to take a break to earn his MFA in fiction, knowing he would return to computer programming at some point. “Growing up in Kolkata, India, I knew that my favorite Bengali writers all had day jobs. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who helped bridge Sanskrit influences with Victorian ones, wrote fourteen novels and collections of poems. He also wrote a series of essays on science and worked for most of his life as a tax collector.” Chakrabarti recognizes that there is space in his present and his future for all of his passions, and the ability to pursue them all, over time and in creative combination, gives him both fulfillment and optionality.
Third, this new model offers the option to meet your needs (financial, developmental, social, and professional) through a combination of sources, rather than depending on one job, company, or industry to provide everything in one offering. It is unlikely that companies are going to reverse their cost-cutting trends and suddenly offer the generous benefits of yesteryear. A more likely possibility would be lobbying for dramatic policy changes around benefits: separating health insurance, life insurance, short- and long-term disability, retirement accounts, and flexible spending accounts from the workplace and making them available — at accessible prices — to individuals. But even that is a medium- to long- term dream, and largely out of our control. In the short-term, this new model allows you to assess what you need and diversify how you address those needs to ensure you can take care of yourself (and, should you wish to have one, your family), now and into the future.
And fourth, this model provides flexibility when it comes to time management, transitions, and rebalancing your commitments. Forget about a parochial definition of work-life balance based on an equal split of your time between personal and professional. Instead, this is about the ability to make time for important things, however and whenever they show up. Rather than the stark binary of on or off, working full-time or taking a break to attend to other commitments in your life, a model that encourages a mix of activity streams — including the uncompensated labor you might be providing to your family or community — offers a more nuanced and inclusive definition of work-life balance.
Identity. Optionality. Diversification. Flexibility. These are the four pillars of the Portfolio Life.