Unattached: The Next Era of Knowledge Workers (Part 2)
This is part 2 of a 3-part series, Unattached: The Next Era of Knowledge Workers. In Part 1, I wrote about “Making the Case for Fractional Work,” which includes examples of how companies and employees can approach project-based work. In part two, we’ll take a broader look at how the workforce has evolved in a post-pandemic era. I also suggest reading Part 3, How to Go Fractional.
Part 2: Fractional Work in a Post-Pandemic Era
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
When adults ask this question, they general expect to hear a single “dream job” in response. Doctor, you might say. Scientist. Astronaut. Teacher. Dancer. President.
While there’s nothing wrong with these answers, it leaves little room for exploration or invention. Regardless of who’s asking, the subtext tends to be pretty universal: “You have (only) one path. Pick something.” Put another way — if this question were to appear on a midterm exam, it’d be listed as a fill-in-the-blank question, not a free response.
And this is perhaps why the most universal question from grown-ups to kids is also among the most problematic. Because right from our most formative years, we’ve been conditioned to believe that we must anchor on only one career outcome, and this line of thinking makes it harder for us to learn how to pivot.
As I wrote in part one of this series, fractional work is all about working on multiple projects at once, often with different groups of people. In my case, I work a little bit with tech education nonprofits in NYC, a little bit with venture capital firms, and a little bit with tech startups in emerging tech like crypto and AI. Last Thursday, I spent my morning wearing bubble slippers in the dark at a web3 coworking space, then spent the afternoon around a boardroom table with 30 top leaders and city officials in NYC tech. Needless to say, for the fractional worker, context shifting is key.
In order to equip the next generation of knowledge workers to operate in a fractional capacity, we must reshape the way we think of our careers. What if the way we work isn’t actually an “either, or” outcome? What if, rather than narrow our aperture, we instead challenged ourselves to broaden it?
In this post, I’ll discuss how some of the constructs of professional work no longer make sense, and why we need people with a broader range of skills more today than ever before.
Old Rules Don’t Make Sense for New Work
To succeed as a fractional worker, you need one core skill: Versatility. This is a relatively modern concept to the world of work.
While there will always be certain careers that require specialization (see: doctors, lawyers, rocket scientists), for many of us, the lines blur a lot more than we may have once imagined. (Which, by the way, may make you feel like you’re doing it wrong. Trust me, you aren’t.) Instead, we drift. We carry our opera singing background into a job in employer experience at a startup. We take our product manager training and apply it as a social worker. We stay in jobs for shorter cycles, we’re unafraid of mid-career pivots, and we’re increasingly allowing ourselves to blend our quirky hobbies and unique interests into our professional lives.
But it didn’t always used to be this way, which in part accounts for some of the advice we used to get. After all, our parents are just passing on what their parents taught them. In my case, my parents’ parents — all born in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1920s — likely internalized quite a few things about the benefits of steady work and a consistent paycheck. (Also: Burying gold bricks underneath your front steps, just in case.) Maybe that’s why median job tenure levels for men over 35 peaked between 1960 and 1985, netting out around 12 years. My dad took that to heart, adopting a “career job” mindset and pulling in 30 years at Ford Motor Company in a supervisory role for an auto plant of engineers. Compare that to tech workers of today, who are hard-pressed to stay in a role for over two years.
Then there’s the 8-hour workday — another hat tip to Henry Ford. It’s thanks to the early assembly-line workers of the 1920s that most of us still work jobs from 9 a.m. — 5 p.m. to this day. Interestingly enough, Ford’s shift to the five-day workweek was actually a reduction from the previous precedent of a six-day work-week. He made his change in part due to the technological advancements that factory work provided. It makes you wonder — in a time where we can work from anywhere (and any time zone), and we already know we’re only really productive for three out of eight hours a day, is it time for a new model?
Unfortunately, by the time I graduated into the working world in the recession of 2009 with a degree in journalism and no entry-level magazine or newspaper jobs to be seen, I quickly learned that old rules don’t apply to new work. In that recession, I watched my dad’s job dissolve due to outsourcing and panic across the automotive industry. Some of my friends began to ride along the coattails of some of the emerging tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. And I realized that “one path” wasn’t going to work for me.
The world was changing faster than ever. Rather than get a steady writing job at a local newspaper, I landed the only thing I could: A content role at a tech consultancy. Before I even got my start, I had to teach myself how to pivot.
We’re Better When We’re Broader
My story is hardly unique. A 2022 study reported on by Bloomberg found that more than half of college graduates do not work in their field of study. That means that at least 50% of college graduates out there today have a secret “stealth skill” of work that they studied deeply in college, even though they may not directly apply that skill in their day-to-day jobs.
Writing is my “stealth skill.” For a long time, I thought writing was the only career path I’d ever pursue, but after a couple of years in the tech industry, I learned that a lot of other things piqued my interest as well. Importantly, that course-correction didn’t erase the measured skills I acquired through my four-year journalism degree, countless writing projects, and multiple internships at newspapers and magazines. Quite the opposite, actually. Instead, it enhanced the way I completed jobs in sales, marketing, and other go-to-market functions.
To this day, writing continues to be a primary mechanism for how I convey ideas, and the interviewing frameworks I learned as a practicing journalist equipped me to learn how to ask questions to people across a wide variety of domains. When I was 22, I applied these skills to write about very important hyper-local news. Today, I use them to interview founders and builders in web3.
Each layered skill carries with it its own set of lived experiences, observations, and shortcuts. So the more we learn and experience, the more we can draw upon those skills in other contexts. This is part of why I’d even go so far as to say that fractional work drives better outcomes. As an independent worker, I keep space in my brain for a “living” set of problems and solutions from other employers, which means my pattern matching is off the charts. I can immediately lift an experience from one company and adapt it in real time for another. These quick iterative cycles don’t just mean every one of my clients benefits from what I’m learning with the others — it also means we’re learning faster, together.
David Epstein refers to this skill as Range, and in his book on the same topic, he makes the case for why we need generalists in a world full of specialists. In his book, he cites countless studies to show how it’s breadth, not depth, that catalyzes change across nearly every industry. Here’s something that struck with me:
“In high-uncertainty domains — where the fruitful questions themselves were less obvious — teams that included individuals who had worked on a wide variety of technologies were more likely to make a splash. The higher the domain uncertainty, the more important it was to have a high-breadth team member.”
In other words — the more uncertainty, the more we need people with range. And let’s face it: Our world is more uncertain than ever. Try as we might to train for a precise job or career path, the world is moving too fast for us to anticipate what comes next. Advancements in AI alone over the past three months have completely upended some elements of the traditional education system. We need to consider the possibility that the job you train for might not exist by the time you enter the workforce. Maybe what we need is as many experiences as possible to hone our inner radars.
Collectively, we’ve learned there are a lot of benefits of fractional work. In a bear market economy, employers don’t need to pay full-time salaries for access to A players. Companies can also de-risk new hires (which is even more important if you’ve never met in person) by starting with project-based work. By contrast, employees gain access to flexibility and autonomy that’s nearly impossible to find if you’re embedded in one organization, not to mention the optimization that comes from being able to work exactly on the things you’re best at, at whatever times of day your productivity shines the most.
In a highly digitized world controlled by algorithms that pull us deeper into silos, we need bridge-builders to connect the dots. Fractional workers are the glue that invites perspective and fresh ideas. The weavers of the modern age.
In the final post of this series, I’ll discuss how knowledge workers today can begin to think about their jobs as a subset of skills to empower them to go fractional. Read Part 3, How to Go Fractional.