The Portfolio Ideal Worker: Insecurity and Inequality in the New Economy

Megan Tobias Neely*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


The white-collar ideal worker norm helps to explain why social inequality persists in the workplace, yet the concept reflects corporate workplaces of the mid-twentieth century. This article identifies emerging cultural ideals for white-collar workers in today’s economy by examining the experiences of high earners in financial services. Despite its glorification of flexibility and independence, scholars have shown how the “new economy” produces different forms of inequality at work than in the post-World War II era. Drawing from interviews with 48 hedge fund workers and field observations at workplaces and industry events, I bring together well-known features of work in the new economy to update the white-collar ideal worker norm to reflect changes in the organization of work. I call this the portfolio ideal because it captures how white-collar workers must make ongoing investments in resources and development to create a portfolio of skills and experiences that allows them to navigate the turbulence of the neoliberal new economy. As portfolio workers, hedge fund workers identify as independent workers, value a passion for the work, take risks to get ahead, and invest in social capital. Although it appears to be disembodied, the portfolio norm reflects implicit assumptions about gender, race, and social class. By shedding light on cultural responses to job polarization and income inequality, this research helps to identify a shift from a more collective work arrangement to one that is individually oriented, which transfers the risks of employment from employers to workers.
Original languageEnglish
JournalQualitative Sociology
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)271–296
Number of pages26
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Ideal worker
  • Social inequality
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Social class
  • Work and occupations
  • Labor market uncertainty
  • New economy

Cite this