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Pronounced /pɔːtˈfəʊlɪəʊ/Help with pronunciation

The young man I was speaking to was clearly hugely enthusiastic about getting on in the world: “I’m determined to set myself up with a good portfolio,” he said. In years past, someone of his age with a portfolio would probably have been an art student, hawking his folder of drawings around from interview to interview. But these days, my young friend could be in one of several occupations that have nothing to do with art.

For portfolio has shifted sense in the nineties. Now it can refer to the varied set of skills one possesses that makes one employable in the new, thrusting world of part-time work, short-term contracts and everyday redundancies. Not only do we no longer have a job for life, it has become more and more common for us not to be employees of a single company at all, but to hawk our skills around from place to place, picking up work like a hungry free-range chicken pecking for grain. The more skills one has, so the argument goes, the more one is likely to find some nourishing titbit even when times are hard.

Nineties management-speak has coined a series of words to describe this situation. In addition to portfolio career, coined by Professor Charles Handy, and now a well established term, we have portfolio employment, portfolio worker and even portfolio nomad, which conjures up an image of peripatetic workers traipsing from workplace to workplace, carrying their portable employable skills with them.

There’s a been a word for this situation for several centuries, of course: freelance, originally a mercenary soldier who was not bound by ties to a particular liege lord, but who was free to travel to find work for his lance. The new portfolio career differs only in that one is expected to be a master of several different, if perhaps interconnected, lines of work at the same time.

The word portfolio came into English from Italian in the early eighteenth century. The original was portafoglio, something in which one carried sheets of paper. And this was its first meaning in English: a receptacle or case in which to carry loose papers, prints, drawings and the like, a meaning it still has. Much later it was applied to the set of one’s investments, no doubt seen as a collection of bits of valuable paper.

By the early part of the nineteenth century, it was beginning to be applied to a container that had within it the official papers of a government department. By an obvious extension it was soon applied to the job of the minister in charge of a department, as in “ministers were appointed to the portfolios of foreign affairs, war, commerce, justice and finance”.

Rather later, it proved necessary to appoint people to the British Cabinet without departmental responsibilities, who instead had a roving or variable assignment, or brought useful skills or experience to bear. They were dubbed ministers without portfolio, which has led to a perennial parliamentary joke about such persons being spotted carrying a portfolio (one recent minister without portfolio is even said to have had “minister without portfolio” written on his portfolio). I suspect that these portfolios were actually briefcases, which ruins the joke, but allows me to mention that brief here means an official or legal document, or a summary of the facts of a case drawn up for the information of lawyers, a sense not so far removed from one of the older senses of portfolio.

Such ministers without portfolio, exalted personages though they may be, have on occasion been seen as somehow lightweight, lacking in that deep engagement in matters of State expected of those with a “proper” brief. Let us hope that my young friend and those like him don’t end up the same way, or they may become victims of what has recently been called the stress portfolio, the collective name for the events and situations that cause worry and nervous tension in one’s life.

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Page created 28 Nov 1998