Career Advice

Is ‘Polyworking’ Here To Save Us From Our 9-to-5 Doldrums?

Photo: W+G Creative
With our worlds shrinking down to the basic necessities (work, eat, sleep), the early days of the pandemic underscored, for many folks, just how much time and energy we devote to our jobs...and whether it's really worth it. For plenty of people, that value proposition ultimately didn't hold up, leading them to leave their roles and seek other opportunities in what’s been called the Great Resignation. But for others—especially members of Gen Z newly entering the workforce—the collective shift in priorities may have prompted an even bigger question: Is any single 9-to-5 job really worth all my time? And why should it have to be?

That sentiment may be part of the reason why more folks are now turning to something called "polyworking," or choosing to hold multiple part-time jobs, rather than a single full-time one—not as a means to an end, but ostensibly, as a permanent thing. The term "polywork," which, as a hashtag, has amassed 4.2 million views on TikTok, was coined by a professional-meets-social network of the same name that launched last year (and soon after, announced a $3.5-million seed round). According to a blog post from the company's founder Peter Johnston, Polywork (the social network) was created with the idea that today, "we are all more than our [singular] job titles" and that folks who do lots of things need a space to fully represent themselves and their interests beyond the basic LinkedIn parameters of job title, school, and past experience.

The traditional 9-to-5 work infrastructure may be weakening in favor of something much more flexible and multifaceted.

But there's also some evidence that polyworking could be taking root more broadly, independent of the social media network behind the term. In a survey of 1,000 human-resources professionals conducted last year by Fiverr and Hibob, 54 percent said that workers leaving their companies were not leaving to take on new full-time jobs, but instead, choosing to work for themselves as freelancers, founders, or small-business owners. Paired with data surrounding the rapid growth of the gig economy (which is anticipated to include as much as 50 percent of the U.S. working population by 2027), these insights reflect a weakening of the traditional 9-to-5 work infrastructure in favor of something more flexible and multifaceted.

Of course, the concept of freelancing or gigging in multiple areas is nothing new. People have held more than one job at once out of financial necessity for as long as capitalism has been around, and that's undeniably a factor driving the polyworking push now, too. In fact, according to a 2021 Census report, the share of people in the U.S. holding multiple jobs to make ends meet has been ticking up for years now, with folks pulling in an average of 28 percent of their income from a second job.

But, according to career experts, the forces pushing folks toward polyworking are more nuanced than what money alone can explain. Take, for example, the possibility of better crafting a career and work schedule that aligns with your different interests and skill set, says burnout expert Erayna Sargent, founder of workplace burnout organization Hooky Wellness.

This kind of variety really registers for folks like Zoey Gong, who was once a registered dietitian in a hospital, but is now a chef, food writer, cookbook author, painter, and entrepreneur, among other things. "From a mental health perspective, polyworking is really freeing," she says. "If I am bored or tired of writing, I pick up my paint brushes; if I am stuck with a painting, I open my laptop and work on my new event-space business. My mind is always stimulated this way, and I'm able to be more creative."

Of course, that scenario reflects a polyworking ideal, and taking on multiple roles could just as quickly lead to burnout. For that reason, the concept of polyworking has also garnered some serious flack from folks who see it as nothing more than a glorification of "hustle culture" (largely prompted by a low-paying job market).

Below, career experts break down why they believe more folks are and will continue polyworking (outside of financial reasons), as well as the very real risks of ditching the single-job norm.

What career experts suspect has driven more folks to "polywork"

For starters, the pandemic put a premium on our time, says Sargent. “Our own mortality was placed front and center, which was a reminder that we have a limited amount of time here on Earth. So, the question became, ‘How can I really use that time in a way that leaves me feeling fulfilled and proud?’” Naturally, part of the answer to that question might involve what you do outside of gainful work. But for some people, it was just as important for them to reprioritize their working hours and reconsider how they might fill them with a role (or roles) that they enjoy or from which they draw meaning.

“I’m now seeing people who have the traditionally esteemed Fortune 500 job shifting to polywork because it better fulfills their needs for creativity and freedom.” —Rachel Montañez, burnout coach

Sargent suspects that this idea has likely caught on, in particular, with Gen Zers and Millennials (to whom the Polywork platform caters) because of broader workplace shifts pre-dating the pandemic. For some time now, the famously job-hopping Millennials have been pursuing work in a different way than their predecessors, searching as much for fulfillment as for a steady paycheck—and Gen Zers may be embracing a similar tack. In fact, the Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey found that Gen Z respondents choose their employer based on the prospects of good work/life balance (32 percent), learning and development opportunities (29 percent), and an ability to derive meaning from their work (21 percent).

“I’m now seeing people who have the traditionally esteemed Fortune 500 job shifting to polywork because it better fulfills their needs for creativity and freedom,” says career and burnout coach Rachel Montañez. “They feel like they can’t possibly get everything from one place.”

And a job market that’s decidedly in favor of employees right now means they certainly don’t have to. “Given that the current demand for talent completely outweighs the supply of candidates, it isn’t surprising that polyworking is becoming a trend,” says Carly Mednick, co-founder of recruiting firm Monday Talent. “Gen Zers have identified that their skill sets can be used in a number of different ways, and they are pursuing non-traditional paths [like polyworking] to take advantage of this.”

Given that younger generations have had less time to become established in the traditional 9-to-5 workforce, polywork may also feel less like a departure from the norm than it does an equally feasible alternative for these folks. After all, pre-pandemic data from a survey conducted by Deloitte in 2019 found that four in five Gen Zers and Millennials preferred gig work over traditional work, and 2020 data from Statista found that 50 percent of Gen Zers and 44 percent of Millennials had participated in freelance work, while the numbers for Gen Xers and Baby Boomers were just 30 and 26 percent, respectively.

When the pandemic arrived with its stay-at-home orders and threw office workplaces for a loop, it's no wonder that the (already growing) freelance and gig economies stood to benefit. “Working from home really accelerated this idea [of polyworking] because there wasn’t this set-in-stone expectation of being in an office,” says Sargent. “This gave many people more control over how they could use their time.” Simultaneously, the growing popularity of flexible work schedules has only contributed to that sense of control, making it easier for folks to conceptualize a world where they could fit not just one, but perhaps two or three jobs into a workday.

That was precisely the case for Julia Lemberskiy, who fell into polyworking after losing her executive role at Uber amidst layoffs in 2020. "I reached out to my network for opportunities, and many exciting ones emerged," she says. "Due to no longer being bound to a physical office, I was able to take on multiple opportunities at the same time." (Among them were the chance to become a managing director at a marketing agency, real estate investor, and principal of a venture capital fund, among other things.)

The potential fallout of polywork gone wrong

All that said, polyworking is not without its pitfalls. Sometimes, more just means more—and with additional job titles or gigs may come more responsibilities than you can comfortably fit into a workweek. “One of the most commonly accepted drivers of burnout is workload, and just by nature of signing up for multiple jobs, you are increasing said workload,” says Sargent. “So, if you don’t go into it with an awareness that you will have to manage your time differently, then polyworking could lead directly to burnout.”

That becomes a particular risk when you assume that you can multitask your way through polyworking, says research psychologist Larry Rosen, PhD, author of The Distracted Mind. “What we know from research is that multitasking is a myth,” he says. “Aside from walking and chewing gum or some other automatic task, doing two tasks at once doesn’t work.”

Instead, what tends to happen is task-switching, or moving back and forth from one thing to another. This increases the time it’ll take you to do both tasks due to something called “resumption lag,” says Dr. Rosen, referring to the amount of time it takes you to get back into the first task after being pulled away by the second. While any singular full-time job often can and does require multiple tasks—say, sending emails to a client and creating a presentation—the difference between the tasks involved in two or more distinct roles is likely to be far greater, upping the time it takes you to move between them.

"I often find context-switching very exhausting and time-consuming," says Lemberskiy of tackling elements of her various roles one after the other. The more time a person loses in that scenario, the more anxiety can bubble up, given how critical time really is in any polyworking situation, adds Dr. Rosen. This isn't just a scheduling issue, either—if you're paid by the hour or per project, your time literally is money. And downtime context-switching between projects can cut into your earnings.

Though it’s certainly possible to avoid that spiral by having firm boundaries at each role and a clear time-management plan, there are still a few other downsides of polyworking to consider—in particular for folks whose multiple jobs are all part-time roles. Namely, you could find that you have “less opportunity to specialize, particularly if you’re working across different industries and jobs,” says Mednick, and “you could be overlooked for promotions or other growth opportunities,” says Montañez.

You may also miss out on key benefits like health care offered only to full-time employees, which is a crucial financial consideration to weigh. While the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has made it possible for millions of Americans to get insurance coverage on their own, it can still be costly. The national average monthly cost of an ACA plan in 2020 (without subsidies) was $456 for individuals and $1,152 for families of two or more people. While some Gen Zers may have parents with health insurance (and thus can have coverage until they turn 26), for other folks without that privilege (including Millennials, who are now older than 26), polyworking might make it harder to attain good health-care coverage.

Ultimately, polyworking might make the most sense for young people, not just because these folks may be more open to a non-traditional work path or more keen to fill their days with various fulfilling tasks, but also because they’re often more able to do so—without incurring bigger career or monetary hits, that is. “Gen Zers are in what career theorists call the exploration stage, so polyworking may just be a way to test out different jobs and companies to see which path feels the most aligned,” says Montañez. The idea being that polyworkers would eventually choose one job, and stick with it.

But, that could also change if workplaces begin to respond to the polywork trend, helping to solidify part-time and gig work as a culturally valid and financially feasible end goal. And just as the 9-to-5 workday grows less common amidst the rise of flexible work schedules, so, too, could the full-time worker.

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