BOOK REVIEW: Free Agent Nation: The Future Of Working For Yourself, by Daniel H. Pink
List Price: $14.95 (Available from Amazon for $10.17)
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Business Plus; 1st edition (May 1, 2002)
Reviewed by Yank Elliott, MBA
Free Agent Nation is an important book with an Amazon.com sales rank of 28,070. Daniel Pink, the author, is a contributing editor at Wired Magazine, where he has written about topics ranging from grassroots solar power to the rise of Wikipedia. He has also written about business, technology, and economics in The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and other publications. He speaks in many places, including CNBC’s “Power Lunch,” ABC’s “World News Tonight,” NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” And as an independent business consultant, he’s advised start-up ventures and Fortune 100 companies on recruiting, business trends, and work practices.
A Free Agent (the term the author uses for someone who is “self employed”) himself, Dan held his last real job in the White House, where he served from 1995 to 1997 as chief speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore. He’s also worked as an aide to U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, an economic policy staffer in the U.S. Senate, a legal researcher in India, and a latrine builder in Botswana.
He received a B.A. with honors in linguistics from Northwestern University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. He is happy to say he has never practiced law.
I’ve picked up several ideas for articles from Daniel Pink’s writings for Fast Company. He stays right on the cutting edge of new technology and new thinking and manages to portray these to the public well ahead of normal media. This book reinforces ideas I’ve had for a long time about getting out of the normal mindless workplace. One of the beginning ideas taught to me in my very first college management course was Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the time Maslow took sort of a second place to the teachings of Frederick Taylor with his time and motion studies.
Many problems encountered by large corporations right this minute derive from their inability to understand the change in worker attitudes away from Taylorization toward Tailorizing their workplace to their own needs. The US economy has advanced in a monumental way from the conditions existing at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when Taylor’s ideas prevailed. The basic economic needs at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy have mostly been met giving workers the freedom to pursue fulfilling their individual dreams, Maslow’s self-actualization.
Mr. Pink also dwells on the idea that not everyone will be able to be in their own business, but he says even if free agency is not possible for someone on a full time basis, every worker should try to have a part time free agency in order to accomplish the highest point on the Hierarchy of Needs for themselves. So, what does Daniel Pink say about the Free Agent Nation?
The book is the result of over a year on the road and face to face interviews with working people. It traces the transition from Organization Man to Free Agent. This book is in stark contrast to the ideas in William H. Whyte, Jr.’s Organization Man where workers traded loyalty for job security. Pink’s book traces people who were on an upward management track but quit their corporate jobs to be their own free agent doing the things they had been managing others to do. Sometimes these free agents are re-hired by their former companies to do their old jobs as consultants—a common free agent occupation.
Free agency is the result of several factors. One is that, given a choice of how to work, seven of ten Americans would choose self-employment. Free agency is not just a style of work, it’s a way of life—a better way of life. Free agents are clear of the restraints of some mindless corporation and are in control of their own destinies. They completely define the new type of American work.
A sign of the extent of free agents is that the largest private employer in the US is the temp agency, Manpower, Inc. It is difficult for government employment reports to track this type of free agency accurately. These people don’t fit census job descriptions, and they are like bees flitting all over the place from one employment to another whereas “normal” employees tend to remain in the same place. Some studies show over 26 percent of workers as self-employed. More than 40 percent of men say they have been self-employed at some time in their careers.
One description of a free agent is “portfolio worker,” where the worker has a portfolio of clients rather than a single employer. An idea of the government’s classification problem is this: The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data show nine million independent contractors while the annual survey of independent employees by Aquent Index says there are 33 million independents, nearly one fourth of the total workforce! This means free agents outnumber all manufacturing workers as well as all government employees.
Free agency has many benefits. One study showed 66 percent of people forced into free agency by corporate actions like downsizing said they would rather work alone than be a wage slave. Full-time free agents earn an average of 15 percent more than similar company employees, and
independent professional free agents are twice as likely to earn over $75,000 per year as similar W-2 employees.
The lowest rank among free agents is that of Temporary Employees (TEMPS). These people are often hired to fill temporary staff requirements with the same skills as regular employees. The problem is they usually receive less pay and no benefits. This makes them second class employees.
It will come as no surprise to home-based entrepreneurs that they are a major component of free agents. Government estimates don’t come close to correctly estimating the number of home-based operators. Some are sidelines, others are in the “cash” economy, and there are other reasons why these businesses are missed. Their importance can’t be ignored, however, because several research groups predict over 37 million home-based businesses to be in operation. Most home-based businesses are classified as micro businesses. Some are committed to being small with no growth plans; these are being called a “nanocorp.” A nanocorp is either a personal preference or a competitive strategy.
So, what caused free agency?
1. When cottage industries disintegrated at the beginning of the industrial revolution, workers traded loyalty to large corporate employers for the security of a job. When downsizing and other corporate actions reduced security, the loyalty also went away.
2. The means of production has once again become cheap enough for an individual to afford them without the help of a corporate employer. This has produced a kind of Digital Marxism where the individual employee can afford production facilities on their own.
3. Long-term prosperity allowed individuals to consider work as a way to provide meaning to life rather than just money. 85 percent of Americans living today have no personal knowledge of the Great Depression and its attendant economic hardship.
4. The life of a corporation has become so short that most workers will outlive at least one or two of their previous employers.
The Free Agent Nation has redefined the Protestant Work Ethic to include having individual freedom, authentic self-expression, individual accountability for one’s actions, and defining success on individual terms, meaning money isn’t always success. Free agents have also changed the familiar Peter Principle stating p
eople will rise in an organization until they reach their level of incompetence. Free agents now recognize the Peter-Out Principle: when they stop having fun at work, they leave to go out on their own.
A new Free Agent contract is not loyalty for security—it is now talent for opportunity. Vertical loyalty to the company is now horizontal embracing colleagues and customers rather than any corporation. In exchange for control over their own time free agents often work many continuous hours in exchange for saying which hours or days they will not work. Free agents are the New Economy 7-Eleven: they may be empty at times but they never close.
Free Agent Nation (F.A.N.) has its own clubs. F.A.N Clubs had their origin in Ben Franklin’s Junto of 1727 which became the first American public library. The purpose is to form regular discussion among free agents with similar interests bound by an informal agreement rather than a legal one.
Old Economy organization charts were organized vertically, while the Free Agency New Economy chart is fluid and horizontal. This encourages trust as the platform upon which to operate the New Economy. It’s like the Golden Rule.
The F.A.N. demands a different infrastructure. Satisfactory places to do business are similar to a Starbucks coffee house—simply a place to meet with other free agents with perhaps a wireless facility for your laptop. Office supply stores, printing shops, and similar structures provide the same kinds of infrastructure—and perhaps business opportunities for some of you.
Free agent economy differs from that of the Organization Man by replacing power of capital with the power of talent. The relationship has become emotionally complex requiring agents and coaches to place talent where it is needed. The old industrial economy separated families from work while the F.A.N. causes a blending of the two. Family businesses now account for around 60 percent of all employment in the world.
Business laws in the US were designed for the days when everyone worked their entire lives for a single employer. This is no longer true, so all these laws are becoming a hindrance to development of the new economy. Health insurance paid for by employers makes no sense now because most of us are free agents and have no employees. Another outdated legal area is tax law; small businesses are punished by double taxation for Social Security, limited deductions for health insurance, and the unbearable burden of complying with the maize of IRS regulations. Finally, local zoning laws often actually prohibit the legal establishment of a small business.
The dark side of free agency is the TEMP side. Because most have no benefits, these workers are often called TEMP slaves. Unfortunately these people never will be able to consider the Maslow pinnacle.
Free agency may also bring the end of retirement as we know it. Its replacement is e-tirement where seniors will continue to use electronic technology to pursue work on some basis. They will be encouraged by great wealth—it is expected that baby boomers will inherit over $10 trillion from their parents.
Possibly the most profound change to be brought about by the F.A.N. will be replacement of our present mass public education system. Home schooling, already on the rise in many places, will encourage self-education and use of floating neighborhood tutors resulting in education more in tune with the free agent economy. High school will be completely replaced and the value of college will be diminished. Good riddance!
Free agency will also impact commercial office space. The present tool shed model with desks and equipment will be replaced by two quite different models: a quiet place for serious work and a place similar to a pub where community relationships can be nurtured. A considerable number of former tenants will be using HOHOs, His Office/Her Office in the same home. Financing for this new economy will evolve into something similar to the way many performers are putting together packages of their works which are purchased by investors. The investors get a percentage of the package income and the performer gets a steady wealth stream.
In the future free agent economy, midsize businesses will nearly disappear. Those who can benefit from economies of scale will get unbelievably large while most business will be of the small free agent kind.
If you are already a free agent, the ideas in this book should be of value helping you understand that you are part of a new lifestyle that is becoming pervasive in the All-American culture. Free agents represent a new Can-Do Spirit among all American employees. The full extent is not recognized by the government, allowing the phenomenon to grow virtually without restraint. If you are already a free agent, or you are considering becoming one, realize this is a culture about the meaning of you. You are accountable only to yourself for whatever success you may achieve.
There is a valuable resource guide at the end of the book. It lists and describes steps necessary to start your free agent life, survival steps, sources of health insurance, how to start a Free Agent Nation (F.A.N.) club for you and free agents with similar interests, and books related to free agency.
Free Agent Nation contains all the discussion and resources you need to reach the highest level of personal spirituality represented by Maslow’s Self-Actualization.
© Yank Elliott. All rights reserved worldwide.
Yank is a home-based entrepreneur and freelance business writer living in Hurricane Alley, North Carolina, USA. His Website is (www.alternate-choice.com). Contact Yank at firstname.lastname@example.org.