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Slashing: A new generation of chameleon workers

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Translation by:

Charles Clark

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Forced to adapt to a shape-shifting job market, young people are stacking up jobs while still finding fulfilment and meaning. The correct term for this improbable work philosophy is ‘slashing’. All you have to do to become part of this tribe is add a few slashes in your CV. Is this what the future looks like? Not necessarily.

In the morning and for the better part of the day, Pierre-Pascal sparkles in his suit. Impeccably dressed, he works in business development, one of these new fashionable jobs that pays well but that also takes up the most of his time. Except that, when he gets home at the end of the day, he doesn't veg out on his sofa. Instead, he steps into his new trainers and becomes an entrepreneurial club developer, “a cooler environment” in his opinion. On the weekends, he does voluntary work for the organisation Ticket for Change. Lastly, time permitting, he indulges in his “passion” of giving massages in corporate settings.

"The chameleon workforce"

Pierre Pascal is not a machine, just part of a generation who has adopted a new word to define people who work multiple jobs. This young man in his thirties is also known as a “slasher”, a word taken from the slash key on a keyboard. The term was coined in 2007 by American journalist Marci Alboher in her work One Person/Multiple Careers, in which she describes a group of people adept at “multiple jobs” or “poly-activity”. The number of slashers has been on the rise ever since. In France alone, there are no less than 4.5 million slashers, which amounts to 16% of the working population according to official figures from the Salon des Micro Entrepreneurs (SME).

In the span of 10 years, slashing has already profoundly changed the way we work. For a generation that grew up with the Internet, the status fits with a professional life devoid of routine, taking place in coworking spaces with a laptop and 101 bosses. This trend can be explained by the fact that many professionals in France took on freelance work as soon as the possibility of enrolling as an ‘auto-entrepreneur’ (officially self-employed, ed.) opened up in 2009. Others who defend the “uberisation of the professional world” prefer to highlight an increasingly precarious job market in which the existence of “poly-activity” is purely an economic necessity; they need several jobs to make ends meet.

“When I see the state that some of my colleagues are in, I tell myself that I was right not to follow the status quo. I don't have enough fingers to keep count of those that have suffered from burnouts, whereas I have developed a genuine emotional tie to my work.”

Going from assistant director to teacher to TV game show writer, Marielle Barbe is a living example of flexibility in the workforce that is synonymous with the modern professional world. She divides her time as a consultant/coach/trainer/author, is in her forties and defines herself as a “fully-fledged slasher”. And she’s completely comfortable the way she is. So much so that she wrote a book called Profession Slasheur (Slasher Profession in English, ed.), which has become a reference point in the field. In it, she recounts her uncomfortable journey as a woman who “thought she was capable of anything but had absolutely no self-confidence.” Then, one morning, she stumbled upon an article about slashing.

“It changed my life,” she tells Cafébabel, “When people asked me what I did for a living, I never knew what to reply. But after reading this article I was able to give myself a title – a slasher – and it became my mantra.” Today, she describes her book as being a practical guide to understanding what she quaintly refers to as “chameleon workers”. According to the author, slashers are first and foremost a societal phenomenon; a movement that has entered an era she calls “complete lives”. “This is the reality of tomorrow’s professional world. Companies will need to start recruiting multi-tasking profiles,” she says.

Generational revenge

Marielle speaks about the evolution of the job market in the country where it all began – the United States – to prove her point. “While the number of slashers in France is estimated to be around 4 million, there are already 30 million in the US,” she says. Across the Atlantic, the number of self-employed professionals increased by 12% between 2010 and 2015. According to the OECD, young people under 30 will undertake 14 different lines of work in the span of their lifetimes.

But while career counsellors predict a nightmare, Marielle Barbe sees an incredible opportunity. “Young people are finally going to be able to seek out their raison d’être. No more stereotypical career paths, no more haves and have-nots.” For Marielle, slashing will allow people to find their dream jobs once and for all.

Isabelle, on the other hand, was a slasher before slashing became widespread. Pushed by her parents to study medicine, the young woman decided to rush into a general course without many job opportunities on the horizon. At 35, she is still juggling several jobs at once. She is a certified coach in neuroscience, a transcultural therapist for expats, a psychosocial supervisor, a workshop organiser… She also travels a lot from Brussels to the UK or even the US. “When I see the state that some of my colleagues are in, I tell myself that I was right not to follow the status quo. I don't have enough fingers to keep count of those that have suffered from burnouts, whereas I have developed a genuine emotional tie to my work.”

Pure products of their time, slashers are also in the process of seeking revenge on a generational truth. In Isabelle’s case, opposing her parents meant that she could blossom. “I think that my generation witnessed the lassitude that came as a result of our parents’ careers. Mine came home from work tired, stressed, frustrated… We don’t want that, we want to live a life that’s worth living and do a job we enjoy doing,” the coach explains.

In articles or literature dedicated to slashing, it is often mentioned that 18 to 35 year olds define themselves in opposition to their elders, as if the phenomenon came as a result of tipping a system of values on its head; a genuine disruption. “This new generation flees routine,” says Marielle Barbe, “Above all, it wants to shake off the post-industrial status quo of specialisation and careerism because it’s exhausting.”

For some, having multiple jobs, changing companies and asserting flexibility can even be seen as a revenge on their time. “With the financial crisis, we were often summed up as a lost generation,” says Isabelle. “When you finish your studies, you live with a huge weight on your shoulders. So to be able to blossom in several different occupations is also to stick your middle finger up at the general consensus, which is often toxic.”

In his suit and his trainers, Pierre-Pascal agrees: “As a slasher, I feel a real professional and personal satisfaction. To be able to vary activities gives you greater freedom and independence.”

Slashing is not always rainbows and lols

Independence, freedom, generational revenge… slashing makes anything possible, as long as we’re happy adding a couple of slanted lines on our CVs. That being said, slashers juggling three dream jobs isn’t really all that common. All you have to do is chat with your Uber driver or Deliveroo delivery person to understand that personal transport and sushi delivery aren’t exactly soul-fulfilling dream jobs on which to build a career.

According to a survey carried out by the SME, money is the real motivation for three out of four slashers. This brings us to another category of slashers, “the forced worker”, which seems to be the case for Nathalie. After being fired, the young woman needed to bounce back. So she threw herself into the world of sales for a car hire company. Paid on commission, Nathalie managed to recuperate the clients she had with her previous employer – an airline – for another smaller one specialised in freight.

Except that Nathalie came close to having a meltdown. While other slashers boasted personal fulfillment in their multifaceted professional lives, she only experienced toil and hardship. “Spending your time chartering planes isn’t super exciting. I wasn’t fulfilled. I just needed to get by. It’s impossible to earn a living exclusively from your passion.”

Like many neologisms, slashing carries a certain connotation. According to work sociologists, it’s an extremely positive connotation. According to Jean-Samuel Beuscart, sociologist and economist for the Parisian Regional Institute for Society Innovation (IFRIS), “slashers take note of the scarcity of stable jobs and turn their situation into an opportunity, a creative solution.” In this sense, a slasher is more likely to be a therapist/barista than a highschool supervisor/receptionist. Faced with a professional world where more and more unstable and atypical jobs (32% of jobs in Europe, according to statistics from Eurostat) are popping up, the younger generation have to make do. And in a context where the notion of paid labour is being question, they are forced to adapt. While a wealthy portion of society supports slashing, the majority of the younger generation feel closer to less glorified descriptions of their economic situation, like “the 1000 euro generation” or the “generation of fixed-term contracts”.

What’s more, all you have to do is leave the management and entrepreneurial sector (on which slashing was first based) to get a more critical view of things. From uberisation to remote working, there is a plethora of academic papers that touch on the subject of alienation of workers due to a working environment that is increasingly flexible and digitalised. Politically-speaking, on the left as well as the right, measures have been taken to accelerate instability. In France, for example, the introduction a self-employment status in 2009 and the creation of Coopérative d’Activité et d’Emploi (CAE) in 2014 both gave way to a paradoxical working status: employee/self-employed.

“It is impossible to earn a living exclusively from your passion.”

Marielle Barbe sets the record straight. According to her, the term emerged at a time when “people realised accumulating jobs became strategic thing; it allowed for career changes or creating small companies.” She backs her argument up with hard facts: 70% of slashers deliberately chose to have several jobs, 80% have one main job that takes up almost all of their time, and in 8 out of 10 cases, the second or third job is in a completely different sector than their main one.

For the defenders of slashing, though, it’s pretty clear: young people have a blast when they work multiple jobs. But is this the future? Marielle Barbe agrees, but wants to remind people that multiple jobs is far from being a new phenomenon. “Supplementing your income is nothing new,” she continues, “this has always existed and has been well regarded since the Renaissance, when slashers were called polymaths. Back in the day, they were known as Descartes, Copernicus, Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo.”

All interviews were carried out by Cafébabel except for the interview with Jean-Samuel Bescart. Quotes were pulled from an article in Psychologies magazine

Illustration by Bobby Watson (AKA Margaux Amaré)

Story by

Matthieu Amaré

Je viens du sud de la France. J'aime les traditions. Mon père a été traumatisé par Séville 82 contre les Allemands au foot. J'ai du mal avec les Anglais au rugby. J'adore le jambon-beurre. Je n'ai jamais fait Erasmus. Autant vous dire que c'était mal barré. Et pourtant, je suis rédacteur en chef du meilleur magazine sur l'Europe du monde.

Translated from Slasheurs : la vraie fête du travail ?