Where did all these free agents come from?
Conventional wisdom says that the inexorable logic of the information economy is powering this change: some gigantic capitalist centrifuge has scattered people to the periphery through downsizing, outsourcing, and virtual corporation-building. In the middle of a hurricane, the logic goes, you're probably going to get wet; in the middle of the Digital Age, you're probably going to become a free agent.
As it turns out, that isn't quite right. Some people have become free agents by circumstance and against their will. Most, however, are free agents by choice. "Three-quarters of the people in nonstandard work want to do this work," says Edie Rasell, an economist who directed a study of free agents for the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, DC think tank. In other words, the proud citizens of Free Agent Nation are voting with their feet.
How did free agents get their name?
"Free agent" is an imperfect term to describe what's happening in the world of work today. But it's easier to pronounce than "condottiere." Condottieri (that's the plural of this Italian noun) were soldiers who traveled across Europe in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, fighting on behalf of any sovereign who could pay them a decent sum and lead them in a worthy battle.
When this way of fighting migrated across the continent from Italy to England, the Brits gave the soldiers a new name: "free lances." Have lance, will travel. Rather than align themselves with any single entity, the free lances roamed from assignment to assignment — killing people for money. Thus was born the concept of the "freelance," the forerunner of today's "free agent."
Who's the poster boy for Free Agent Nation?
Free Agent Nation resembles the movie business, both in form and in evolution. And just as the old economy generated a raft of celluloid icons — such as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit — so Free Agent Nation has developed its own pop-culture figure to embody this new life: Jerry Maguire.
In that movie, Tom Cruise is a triple threat: he plays an agent who represents athletes who want to become free agents — and declares himself a free-agent agent. At his company's annual conference in Miami, Cruise's character has a free-agent epiphany: "I hated my place in the world." (Wearing masks.) So he writes a mission statement called "The Things We Think and Do Not Say." (Being Authentic.) He takes his manifesto to an ersatz Kinko's. (Part of the new free-agent infrastructure.) Then he passes it out to his colleagues and thinks to himself, "I was 35. I had started my life." (Work is personal.) His motivating force? "I was remembering the simple pleasures of this job." (Work is fun.) And Jerry Maguire's free-agent mantra: "Help me help you!"
A version of this article appeared in the December 1997/January 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.