Fast Company

Free Agent Nation (Still) Wants You!

Should you still want to be a free agent? Fast Company's Dan Pink, the man who discovered Free Agent Nation, talks about life during a recession, the secret joys of working at home, and seven dirty words of the free-agent economy.

Dan Pink can't come to the phone right now. There's a melee in the kitchen involving his two young children, and he's masterminding a resolution. Once the crisis subsides, he'll retreat to his home office to schedule his book tour, work on his taxes, and crank out a few stories for Fast Company. All in a day's work for the nation's preeminent free agent.

Pink, who introduced the concept of Free Agent Nation to Fast Company in December 1998, is back again. His book, Free Agent Nation: How America's New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live (Warner Books), debuts this month. Fast Company will publish an excerpt in the May issue.

In anticipation, Pink thought that we should get up to speed on the new language of free agency. So he devised a lexicon of terms that every independent worker should add to their vocabularies -- from "COBRA baby" to the "Peter-Out Principle." He also CC'd Fast Company on a memo about the seven dirty words of the free-agent workforce, warning America's corporate managers to avoid crimes against language when talking to talented workers. Use the term "pay your dues" in conversation with a free agent, Pink says, and watch him run for the exit.

Today, Pink is home in Washington, DC, doing what free agents do: monitoring CNBC, checking out job-parody sites on the Web, walking the dog. We thought he might be hungry for adult conversation, so we called him up to chat about the true story of Free Agent Nation -- the stuff that didn't get in the book.

Every day, we read headlines about people being laid off. Isn't this really a rotten time to be a free agent?

Look, these are tougher times for everybody. But there's a danger in getting so obsessed with a particular moment that we lose sight of the trends. In good times, people leap into free agency; in bad times, they get pushed. Many people find that a former employer is their first client.

It's true that a falling tide lowers all boats. But free agents are in a better place to weather the storm, because they haven't lashed all their fortunes to one company. Lots of people who haven't been laid off think that they're better off buckling down and doing twice the work, but that's a fool's bargain. If you're a free agent and one of your five clients disappears, you can weather it.

What's different between this recession -- if it actually is one -- and the last one?

Think of the workforce as Charlie Brown and corporate America as Lucy. Ten years ago, in the midst of massive downsizing, corporations pulled away the football. But we have short memories. Recently, Charlie decided that he was going to try kicking the ball one more time. This time, the corporate parents were the tech companies. They were like the cool parents down the street -- the ones who let you stay up all night and play foosball. Then the dotcoms said, "Ha, ha!" and -- bam! -- we were flat on our backs again.

We're learning that the true and lasting legacy of the new economy is the incredible devolution of power and responsibility to the individual. Think about Netscape. You can't say that it will exist in 10 years. But most people will. When we look back, we'll realize that free agency is the true new economy.

If that's true, how is free agency going to shape our lives in the future?

For one thing, look at our houses. We've been seeing rapid growth in SOHOs -- small office, home offices -- over the past few years. Very soon you're going to see HOHOs -- his and her offices -- in a lot of homes.

As the baby boomers near retirement, instead of assisted living centers or condos in Boca, we might see ROPECs -- residential office parks and e-tirement centers. Shuffleboard courts won't do it for these folks. They're going to live to be 90, and they want to keep working.

Great. A bunch of boomer fogies in tie-dye clocking in from the sauna. Can't these folks just learn to golf like their parents?

Don't count on it. The average life expectancy is now in the upper 70s. More and more people are doing knowledge work. Your brain doesn't wear out in same way that your body does. Plus, these people have incredible experience. Retirement will soon be seen as an anachronism, and retiring boomers will constitute a potent demographic force. The U.S. labor force will stop growing in a dozen years or so. We'll need workers, but we won't be able to find them, even in Europe. Enter the e-tirees. I predict a ferocious demand for their services.

Some enterprising entrepreneur is going to figure out a way to develop temp travel agencies that offer working vacations. For example, Italy is going to run out of workers soon. Imagine older American workers going to help out.

Plus, it will be easier for people over 65 to be free agents because of Medicare -- they won't have to work for health insurance. That will be baby boomers' revenge. There will be a sizable demand for a pool of workers, and the only pool will the e-tirees.

Okay, Dan. Enough of this sociology. Let's get to the real questions. Do you ever wish you had a regular job where you could loaf for a couple days and still get paid?

Hey, if I wanted to loaf, I would have stayed in government. I love what I do; I don't really yearn to goof off. That joy is enough to keep me motivated --- that and the fear of starvation. Working for myself is mostly great, even if my boss is a demanding jerk.

But isn't it annoying for your wife to have you home all day? Haven't you ever heard of "for better or for worse, but not for lunch"?

Good question. Let me get her. Hold on. "Jessica!!! Can you come up here for a second? Somebody wants to know whether it's annoying having me home all day."

Jessica (after climbing three flights of stairs to the third-floor office): "Annoying? You? Not possible. Between your incessant complaining and your uncontrollable workaholism, you're a joy to have around, honey. Now I need to take the kids out on a little errand. We'll be back in October."

See? Not a problem.

But seriously, my wife and I essentially have a family business. She reads everything I write, reviews every contract I sign, advises on nearly every decision I make. And since she spends the bulk of her time taking care of kids, she has an adult in the house she can talk to throughout the day.

The truth is that this is how most businesses throughout history have operated. And as I cite in my book, even today, some 60% of enterprises in the world are family businesses. The industrial economy separated work and family. The free-agent economy is bringing them back together -- which is good for business and great for human beings.

That sounds great, but can a free-agent parent ever raise a corporate child? How will your darling offspring adjust to a job at Goldman Sachs if they grew up thinking "work" was Daddy in his jammies in front of the computer?

First, why would I ever want our daughters to work at Goldman? Second, what makes you think I'm even wearing jammies? Actually, I think it's healthy for kids to see their parents work -- instead of viewing their parents' labors as some far-off, mysterious thing in which they play no part. At our house, every day is Take Our Daughters to Work Day.

What's the one secret free agents don't tell us cubicle dwellers?

I refer you to the Starland Vocal Band's 1976 hit single, "Afternoon Delight."

Q: Would you consider joining Free Agent Nation right now?
A: Yes -- This is a great time to be independent!
No -- I wouldn't risk the job security.
Neither -- I'm already a free agent!

Read More From Dan Pink: Land of the Free

Read the Sidebar: How to Talk Free Agent

Read the Sidebar: Watch Your Mouth

Daniel S. Pink (dpink@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company contributing editor.

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