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Corporates must fall

A SMALL but not insignificant segment of my generation has decided, quietly, that corporates must fall. This generation, I define broadly and roughly, as between 28 and 40 years of age.

And by corporates, I might as well include other formal institutions, such as government and established nongovernmental organisations. These professionals, some about to hit the middle-management rung, others having risen quickly to an unfulfilling apex, are deciding to do their own thing. This is a development in line with the global move towards work arrangements that can be defined as portfolio careers. It’s a phenomenon that was best chronicled by Charles Handy, the most important, if not the only, “business guru” Britain has ever produced. His advice: “I told my children when they were leaving education that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses.”

The portfolio career, one defined by working independently for multiple clients, possibly in different fields of work, has not taken off to the extent Handy predicted. He foresaw lean organisations co-ordinating the activities of vast numbers of free agents who are contracted according to commercial demands.

The portfolio worker may blur the line between a steady income earner who organises his or her own time, and an entrepreneur. For some, independent work is, in fact, a step towards building an old-fashioned organisation.

Last week, I took up office space in Rosebank. It is an escalator away from Motherland Coffee, one of the preferred hangouts of independents, freelancers and entrepreneurs. In that small space, you will find plugged-in professional nomads looking for coffee and a certain kind of atmosphere. Not that bricks-and-mortar coffee shops have a monopoly on this kind of environment. There’s Coffitivity for the homebound, a website from which you can download background sounds — the familiar coffee shop chatter, barely audible but engaged conversations, the whir of coffee machines and clinking cutlery. It cites research claiming a moderate level of ambient noise is conducive to creative cognition.

It’s a tough calling, this portfolio business. You need to work with limited or no administrative support and, of necessity, must have a wide range of competencies. Thankfully, the information and sharing economies have brought working hot spots, virtual secretaries and offshore graphic designers to ease the burden.

As I walk to lunch from Rosebank to Parktown North, down Tyrwhitt Avenue and 7th Avenue, there is much construction all around me. A welcome sight in a country with staggering levels of unemployment and stagnant growth. Is this not what is needed at this juncture — buildings, plants and factories — and bright, young professionals to lead them?

Are the ambitions of portfolio careerists big enough to make a difference in a troubled society? It could all come down to hopping from incubators to networking events without much result. And if too many people walk away from battles that should be fought in the corporate world — such as racism, sexism and toxic environments — we lose the opportunity to change established institutions for the better.

But enough with the doubt. I don’t think the portfolio class is made up of people who woke up one morning and succumbed to that much-beloved phrase of exasperation: I just can’t. There are passions, ways of being and ambitions that cannot be easily accommodated within the four walls of institutional life.

What’s also clear is that many traditional institutions are not thinking hard enough about how to create attractive working environments for many creative, impatient and productive individuals. And if traditional corporate life is not working out for my generation, imagine the strife when the crop that is still at tertiary institutions hits the market.

First published as column at Business Day on 10 November 2015.

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