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Have we all become Free Agents without realizing it?

In the last days of 1997, Daniel H. Pink published an article titled Free Agent Nation. Pink remarked that free agents already numbered up to 25 millions in the US alone, and their numbers kept growing. Free agents, according to Pink, reject the perceived nonsense of large corporations and instead seek authenticity through a new lifestyle where work becomes personal, bringing together what they do and who they are.

What’s a free agent? Anyone who works for himself or herself: self-employed persons, independent contractors and temps. Why do they choose to leave secure corporate jobs behind and strike out on their own? Well, herein lies the paradox, according to Pink: free agents actually feel more secure. Or, to put it in terms of portfolio management: why invest all your human capital in just one employer when you can diversify across many?

The Future of Work, as seen from 15 years ago, consisted in the large majority of us being self-employed, contributing our skills on-demand wherever the project or task at hand matched our personal beliefs and drive.

How did the Free Agent Nation vision withstand the test of time? Well, there are pros and cons, it depends on how you look at numbers, and it may even depend on which side of politics you are leaning towards. Here’s my opinion, based on my experience and personal bias, so feel free to correct me in the comments below.

There’s never been a better time to become a free agent. More work is being dematerialized than ever, communication and collaboration tools are cheaper and better than ever, therefore more knowledge work can be performed at a distance. There are now effective and efficient online marketplaces for skills, people and projects. Thanks to social media, it’s never been easier to build and promote an online profile and portfolio. And successive waves of downsizing in incumbent economies have greatly increased the supply of small consulting engagements, leading to what Tina Brown call The Gig Economy, Rob Horning the Every Person for Themselves economy, or Andrei Cherny The Individual Age Economics.

So why don’t I see more free agents around me? Is it just because governments are slow at creating “laws that reflect the new workplace reality“? Is it because of my vantage point, being employed by a large IT firm? Is it that, in many places of the world, being an employee is still more advantageous in terms of taxes, financial safety and access to social benefits? Is it that Free Agency may, in the end, not be the key to freedom, self-fulfillment and wealth?

My opinion is that those of us who still appear as employees on the outside have started becoming free agents on the inside. We now plan careers, education, projects as if we were free agents, or could become free agents soon, even though we work within the context of “traditional” employment.

Let’s look at the way we work today. We make sure our LinkedIn profile is up to date. We groom our network of connections on a variety of social networks. We maintain a certain amount of social media activity as a projection of our work persona. In short, we build our personal brand and personal portfolio. Or, in the words of Cherny again, “today each individual is ultimately responsible for guiding their own career and economic future. Today, everyone is an entrepreneur; everyone is their own small business“. Whether we like this trend or not, whether we see this as a threat or an opportunity, I think it captures the way many knowledge workers have come to think about themselves and their situation in the workforce.

In the context of education and training, a recent ComputerWorld article titled How to prepare for the coming IT skills revolution made the point that “the one skill every member of the IT workforce needs is career management” and insisted that “everybody is a free agent, navigating the corporate chaos, the people who are faring a little bit better are constantly cultivating their careers on a variety of fronts.“.These are themes you have probably already heard about if you are following John Mayerhofer’s SCN blog and feed on the Future of Education.

So what do you think? Is becoming a Free Agent something you desire or something you fear? Are you already a free agent, and if so, how is it working our for you and how do you like it? Beyond personal preferences and choices, what does the future entail for work models such as free agency and “regular” employment?

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      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Excellent blog Julien!  And congrats on your blog getting picked up by GigaOm as well.

      I think it's an exciting time with so many powerful tools and networks to grow your personal network and brand.  I hope people read and care about your blog -- it's important.

      Well done!

      Author's profile photo Jason Lax
      Jason Lax

      I remember reading about this trend right around 1998 and the example given at the time was that of putting on a major music concert where several teams with different skill sets came together to make the event happen. The internet was already making this easier by allowing data to be transmitted online instead of just via fax and telephone.

      At the time, the idea was very exciting and within five years I was a free agent.  While I enjoyed being a free agent, I'm not sure I run back to it so quickly. First, in addition to the work aspect, considerable time needs to be devoted to getting new business and, more importantly, making sure you get paid for the work done. Second, at the moment, I'm really enjoying working as a team at the moment and I don't think I'd have the same feeling of shared responsibility otherwise.  Finally, in the jurisdiction I currently live in, it makes more sense to be an employee than a free agent because of the social benefits and taxation, as you've mentioned above.  (There's also the nagging fact that homes tend to be smaller here and having a home office is more of a luxury.)

      If I might add anything, it's that workers today have more flexibility than before and being able to think and operate like a free agent is a useful skill even as an employee, especially for knowledge workers.  Success today means managing your time properly and often determining on your own what is more important and deserves more attention. It also means taking initiative by not always asking your manager what to do. Of course, knowing when to ask the question is also equally important.

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks Jason for sharing your experience as a free agent! This echoes other feedback I received from self-employed consultants.

      It's a very good point about needing an extra room in the house. Even as an employee, planning your new house  with a home office does not make financial sense. Even a small 10m2 home office at a reasonable €2K/m2 in my corner of Germany  means an extra €20K, i.e. more than 6 years of renting a flex desk in a co-working space every day of the week (assuming €250 a month)! And, let's be honest, working from home can be really boring too!

      Very good point too about today's work environment requiring employees to manage themselves to be successful. It sounds like having an experience as a free agent early on in one's career can be a definitive advantage in navigating the modern workplace.