How to Talk Free Agent

A glossary of terms that define our new Free Agent Nation.

New ways of working yield new ways of talking about work. Here’s a vocabulary primer for independent professionals — a sampling of words and phrases featured in my new book, Free Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live (Warner Books, April 2001).


COBRA Baby: A child conceived and born within the 18-month period during which employers are required to offer continued health insurance to departed employees (under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 — a law better known by its acronym, COBRA). Common reproductive practice of free agents, who fear large medical bills or the loss of health insurance.

E-tirement: A new stage in American working life; working as a free agent after age 65 full-time, part-time, or any time — and using the Internet as the platform for obtaining and completing work.

FAN Clubs: Small, self-organized, decentralized clusters of independent workers who come together regularly to exchange business advice and lend moral support. Like so many elements in the free-agent economy, these groups serve purposes both hard-headed and soft-hearted.

Individual Public Offerings: The new IPO. The upper echelons will begin raising money, much as big companies already do, by selling stock . . . in themselves.

Just-in-Time Politics: The political version of just-in-time manufacturing that will challenge the two-party system. Instead of building one coalition and keeping it together, Free Agent Nation will assemble the components to satisfy current political demands, do it in real time, and then move to the next task.

The Peter-Out Principle: Successor to the documented Peter Principle, which held that people would rise through the ranks of an organization until they reached their level of incompetence. The Peter-Out Principle suggests that people will move up the ladder until they stop having fun. When the fun peters out, talented people walk — and usually become free agents


Tailorism: The free agent’s approach to work is a descendant of Taylorism, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “One Best Way” method of mass production for the Organization Man era. Under Tailorism, free agents fashion their work lives to suit their own needs and desires — rather than accept the uniform values, rules, and structure of a traditional job. (Synonym: My Size Fits Me.)

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Free Agent Nation (Still) Wants You!