One thing that’s become clear in the past few tumultuous – and for many, traumatic – years is that it’s easy to feel like there is no control in our lives. Control is a basic psychological need that helps people feel like they have agency, from how they live to where they work. One area where people have tried to wrestle back control is around work.
As a Rice University business school professor and author, I’ve examined through my research, teaching and readership the complex relationships between employees and their employers for nearly two decades. The aftermath of the pandemic is the latest iteration of a timeless negotiation between labor and management over control that took on added significance these past few years.
The pandemic accelerated a development that began years ago when workers realized they needed to take on more responsibility for directing their careers. This major shift reflects a potentially exciting but also unnerving reality for millions of workers.
For decades, employers had the upper hand in negotiating terms with employees. People exchanged unconditional loyalty to an employer for lifetime employment and a secure retirement. That model started to erode with an increase in corporate restructuring in the 1980s and 1990s. With the prospects of a secure job and comfortable retirement more elusive, employees switched jobs to regain some control. They sought the promise of a higher salary and a better work life. In the past decade, the average tenure at an employer dropped nearly 10%.
During the pandemic, a tight labor market allowed employees to use job mobility to feel greater control over their lives. Additionally, the freedoms afforded by remote work offset some of the losses of control caused by the pandemic. But the reality is that while changing jobs leads to a short-term boost in job satisfaction, that feeling is usually only temporary.
In a post-pandemic world, a new model is emerging that reflects concerns of a slowing economy and more uncertain future. Employees are increasingly rejecting the belief that a single job can satisfy all of their financial and psychological needs. Instead, people are turning to building a portfolio of simultaneous roles to create their career.
With “career portfolioing,” employees become free agents, relying increasingly on themselves to carve out a meaningful and rewarding professional life. They put together a mosaic of positions to collectively fulfill their aspirations around income, advancement, skill development and enjoyment. They are no longer subject to a longstanding relationship with a single, lifetime employer, or dependent on a strong job market.
One sign of the rise of career portfolioing is the increase in side hustles. In 2021, 34% of Americans reported having a side hustle, and over 60 million people planned to start one. As inflation rose, side hustles provided extra income in the face of soaring prices. But people also turned to side hustles for new learning opportunities (28%) and to find more enjoyable work (38%).
In research I’ve been conducting on side hustles in the sharing economy, I am finding that many people take these gigs to compensate for limited control in their “traditional” jobs. Although gig work comes with its own set of challenges – lack of benefits is a key one – people feel liberated by greater control over where, when and how they work. Switching on an app shifts allegiance from one company to another. Turning off an app ends the workday in an instant. People rely on side hustle