We imagined a new nation — one where cubicle life and office politics were swapped for coffee klatches at Starbucks. Its citizens could cut the umbilical cords from their corporate employers, instead embracing a more liberated sort of job security. They just had to buy into three alluring truths: freedom begat security; work was personal; and most important, by God, work was fun. In January 1998, Fast Company declared this new frontier “Free Agent Nation.”
It wasn’t a gauzy white-collar hallucination. “If we add up the self-employed, the independent contractors, the temps — a working definition of the population of Free Agent Nation — we end up with more than 16% of the American workforce,” wrote contributing editor Daniel H. Pink. And why not? Venture capitalists were throwing millions at half-baked ideas, IPO was the acronym of the moment, and every college grad was welcomed, it seemed, with a half-dozen job offers.
Seven sobering years after that cover story, the free agent phenomenon has achieved stasis. Free agency is neither the nirvana we imagined nor the sly code for “unemployment” that it became in the dark, post-dotcom days, when independent consultants crawled back to hierarchies and water coolers in search of a regular paycheck. Free agents are out there, everywhere. But today’s nation isn’t quite the same bunch as the generation we first identified. Some survived the tech bust with entrepreneurial DNA and solid business sense; others are victims of corporate layoffs who figured diversifying their work portfolio promised a steadier path. And the fastest-growing crop are the gray-hairs: The AARP says 16% of workers 50 and older are self-employed. “They’re thinking about old age differently than anybody in American history,” said Pink recently.
And what of those three inalienable free-agent truths? Well, sure, freedom can lead to security. But sharper skills and a diverse stable of clients are even more critical. “Part of my very deliberate strategy has been to have a mix of high tech, biotech, and financial services . . . a combination of small, medium, and large companies within those,” says Sue Burish, one of the free agents Pink profiled who’s now celebrating her 10th year as an independent business owner.
“Personal” doesn’t just mean “you are what you do,” but more, the strength of your network. “Before, if you had a strong resume or client list, that would be enough to open the door and get you the work,” says Deborah Risi, a Silicon Valley free agent also profiled in the piece. “Now it’s who you know and your reputation.” Networking sites such as LinkedIn have become essential collaborative tools for free agents, and the “Hollywood model” of tapping a trusted web of other free agents helps keep a solo business agile.
As for fun? It’s still great to love what you do, but in contemporary Free Agent Nation, love won’t pay the bills. Running a sustainable, profitable business requires that you perform three tasks: the job you’re hired for, aggressive marketing to scare up the next assignment, and back-office chores such as billing and accounting to ensure you’re paid for the last gig.
Even so, all of the original free agents we circled back with echo Burish’s sentiment: “Consulting has its own headaches, but I’d rather deal with those than the headaches of being inside [a company].” Of those we spoke with, all but one are still self-employed and claim to be reeling in more green now than they ever would have in a traditional job.
Surely Free Agent Nation was a declaration of optimism, if not hubris. Yet since it appeared, scandal, mergers, and outsourcing have deeply bruised workers’ faith in big companies. Employers are backing off commitments to health and retirement benefits. So those early free agents were, if anything, ahead of their time. Free agency isn’t a panacea — but its ideals can provide a career compass, whatever road we take.
“Free agents quickly realized that in the traditional world, they were silently accepting an architecture of work customs and social mores that should have crumbled long ago under the weight of its own absurdity.”
— Daniel H. Pink, “Free Agent Nation,” December/January 1998