With the rise of the gig economy, people are finding themselves engaging in multiple jobs, often willingly and even enthusiastically. In fact, the alternative or contingent workforce accounts for all the net employment growth in the U.S. economy in the last decade, and individuals holding multiple work engagements are the fastest growing segments of this contingent workforce. Reflecting this trend, HBR has published articles such as “Why I Tell my MBA Students to Stop Looking for a Job and join the Gig Economy” and “Why You Should Have (At Least) Two Careers.”
Yet despite the increased frequency with which workers are holding multiple jobs, many workers find themselves struggling. We talked to 48 individuals who held between 2-6 jobs simultaneously over a five-year period to get insight into their experiences with holding multiple jobs. When we started our research, we originally expected that
majority of these struggles would be logistical in nature — how can people manage the demands of multiple employers? How do they commit to more than one job, and not feel depleted by the end of the week? But, what we found after studying multiple jobholders over the course of five years, is that the logistical struggles were real, but only the tip of the iceberg.
The most prominent set of struggles our informants faced was centered on how to feel and be seen as authentic when they wear more than one occupational hat. Because one’s occupation is such a core part of one’s identity, those engaged in multiple jobs may find themselves plagued with issues of authenticity: who am “I” really, if I’m all these things at once?
Our study uncovered three important pieces of advice for those who want to diversify their careers, but don’t want to lose their sense of self while doing so:
Be selective in the feedback you get, at least at first. One of the core struggles multiple jobholders face is how they are seen by their friends and family. Since holding one job at a time has long been the accepted norm for careers, others often do not appreciate, and sometimes even disparage, those who hold multiple jobs. Several of our informants reported being told they were a “dilettante,” “uncommitted,” or had “career ADD” when they expressed their interest in multiple career areas. This feedback can be extremely detrimental to your confidence if you are just starting to dip your toe into a new career pursuit. Accordingly, at least when starting out, you may need to be selective about when and to whom you reveal your multiple jobs. If you are just starting out exploring multiple jobs, it may not be helpful to fill Aunt Edna in on all the details of your multifaceted career just yet. Once you get your bearings, are comfortable that each of your roles expresses an important part of yourself, and feel confident in your abilities to fulfill each of your roles, then you can bring in a broader audience to your work endeavors.
Focus on each job until you gain confidence, but then forge connections. Holding multiple jobs can be overwhelming, and cognitively depleting. Therefore, it is critical for multiple jobholders to learn to manage their energy investments. Our research revealed that how this is done changes over time. When you’re starting out in a new area, you should treat each job as a distinct role that needs to be nourished. Try to set clear boundaries and ensure you are fulfilling each of your clients’ or customer expectations separately, and to build a confidence and legitimacy to each of your job roles. You may have to create specific rituals or routines to ensure that you are mentally there in each job and not distracted by your other jobs. But maintaining distinct and completely segmented work roles may become a burden in the long term.
Therefore, once you have gained a sense of authenticity to each of your job roles, start searching for a common thread across your portfolio. This thread may involve your work pursuits having a shared skill set, a common industry, or a unifying purpose. “I help women,” one of our interviewees said, finding a common thread even though her disparate jobs focus on very disparate aspects of women’s lives, from physical health to career success. “I am an educator and facilitator,” said another participant, whose work spanned both complex scientific knowledge and lifestyle coaching.
Finding a common thread will help you to sustain your multiple work engagements for the long term by helping you to create a sense of synergy between your jobs, and allowing you to move more fluidly between your work roles. When you have this common thread, investing in one area no longer becomes a detraction from another area of your career. Instead, the energy you put into refining your skill, networking in your industry, or finding new ways to achieve your purpose yields dividends. It will also help you better communicate with Aunt Edna and other skeptics who can’t understand this new way of working how you can authentically be a barre instructor and a lawyer, or a funeral director, a musician, and café owner (for example). “See each of your jobs as part of a larger whole,” as one of our participants advised.
Embrace yourself as being composed of multiple (sometimes distinct) identities. As multiple job holders progressed in their careers, they began to see themselves differently. Having multiple jobs was not only what they did but it also became a fundamental, and positive part of who they were. As one of our informants, Emilie explained, “When I began using the term ‘multipotentialite,’ it was my way of taking a behavioral pattern that is commonly looked down upon, and turning it into an empowering identity.” Accepting that it was okay to hold multiple jobs, despite being counter to cultural norms, allowed them to open themselves up to new ways of seeing themselves and ultimately allowed them to find deeper levels of authenticity in their work. In other words, their multifaceted identity served as a resource that helped propel them as they moved forward in their plural careers.
The bottom line is that, for plural careerists, being authentic does not mean being the same across time and context. People often assume consistency is a marker of authenticity. But, in fact, attempting to be consistent to a single self can actually become a barrier to authenticity. We are, as humans, many things. And working multiple jobs can help people to activate and enact the multiple dimensions of their true nature. One of our informants, Krista, articulated a fundamental mindshift that helped her to better understand how she was progressing towards a deeper understanding of her true self, even when it appeared as if her work identity was constantly being morphed: “[Authentication] is a dynamic process. It’s not like there’s this “me” and all you have to do is find “the right job” that maps onto the static image of “me,” like a tracing. You’re continually bringing “authenticity” into being, creating it in an ongoing and constantly changing way.” Regardless of whether you are holding one job or five, it is likely that you would also be better served if we focused on the process of authentication as opposed to the state of authenticity.