I’ve been through three generations of work, so far, in my lifetime. The bootstrap era, the authoritarian era, and the era of free agents.
The Bootstrap Era: When I was young and jobless, seemingly talentless, and officially skill-less, my grandparents would describe the world of work: You go where they’re hiring, you do what they’re needing, you do what your boss wants, and you never bite the hand that feeds you. Those were the rules. If you got out of the military, like my Uncle, and “they were needing” computer scientists, you did that. You didn’t ask what you loved to do, you didn’t search yourself for the answer like all the morality plays of the time where the promising kid runs off to be an artist only to learn that his place was in his father’s footsteps. You asked what “they” were needing. It was never specified who “they” were, of course – “they” were the unacknowledged nexus of corporate, military, and political interests – but for my grandparents, loyalists who didn’t bite the hand that fed them in the great war, “they” were just “society” – or “the world”. If you were like me, 17 years old, your talents cast aside for the necessity of a job, any job, and when those talents surfaced – they had no explicable ‘resume’ of acceptable contexts to prove themselves, you went where “they were hiring” and “started at the bottom” and “worked your way up”. Supposedly, a job sweeping or tossing fries at a burger joint would result, with enough hard work, in a respectable position like assistant manager some day, and if ever “they were needing” managers, you might just, if you kept to the rules, become that (and get a house, wife, car, retirement plan, and all the things that give one’s life meaning). But the world *did not*, in fact, work that way. By the time that advice was given, the world had already changed. Fry cooks didn’t become managers. Managers came from a special centralized school, and needed at least a college degree. To my grandparents, college was for the well to do, the ones with trusts funds, so this just didn’t compute. Keep scrubbing those floors, and somehow loyalty will make you ascend. But the era of loyalty being rewarded as such had died with the pension fund.
The Authoritarian Era: When I was a bit older, I got a succession of jobs working in a business shirt and tie. My parents ‘ generation were the source of advice then: don’t make waves, please your employer, and give the corporation what it wants. But did it know what it wants? The mythical system of boss and bootstraps was gone, to be replaced by the near anonymity of the faceless attitudes steering a corporation. Reputation (which came from everywhere and nowhere) was everything, because it was a system of waiting for rewards in exchange for which you provided uniformity, nobody sticking out or sticking up too much, compliance, and moral ambiguity. The idea was to maintenance the career, maintain the resume, keep dirt off your name, and look for ways to climb. But the needs of the corporation are limitless, and demands often increase in response to the talent one brings, and they do not in fact necessarily allow one to remain uniform and quiet – they often sense and demand the exploitation of talent in a variety of ways that challenge character and potentially transform individuality and personality. The results, also, are not always clear cut. You might succeed at producing exactly the results requested, and wish you hadn’t. For example, you might be asked to educate internal execs on the use of a new software package designed for them by an outsource company, but those execs might find the software package they purchased does not in fact deliver much of what they had understood or been promised when they purchased it, and then the corporation is actually unhappy with the result, and looks upon the diligence and fulfillment with ill favor instead of appreciation and satisfaction. The moral ambiguity means right and wrong are relative to the outcome, not necessarily fulfilling what is asked. A corporation is often confused about what it wants can provide no assurance of the means of success. The corporation, too, had come to combine so many disparate communities and interactions that it could act almost like a body without a head. It could cry out for talent but reward mediocrity, only to punish mediocrity with layoffs shortly thereafter, retaining the talent and then demanding more mediocrity, which would be employment suicide. By the time the parental advice was given, authority had already become so ubiquitous that it was disconnected from purpose, and the system was taking on its greatest sources of talent from contractors who could draw the occasional firm, logical line in the sand: “Yes, we can do that; it’ll take more money or more time, which do you prefer?” But at least you got results – in the contractor, leadership – authority – came attached to competence and purpose. The system was already rewarding not people who did what they were told, but Free Agents it brought in from “the outside” – that magical place that the people came from that always seemed to save the day – people who thought less in terms of loyalty and authority than of competence, clarity, and excitement.
The Era of Free Agents: Daniel Pink, of “Free Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live,” has said that Free Agents are “free from the bonds of a large institution and agents of their own futures. They are the new archetypes of work in America. It used to be that the bargain between employee and employer was that the employee gave loyalty and the employer gave security… The bargain now is that the individual gives talent and the organization provides opportunities.” What’s a Free Agent? A Free Agent is a professional contractor. Don’t think of a staff agency temp, once again cowed and controlled by two companies not one, no benefits, badly robbed of more than half their billable rate. No, a Free Agent contracts to bring in expertise, buys his own health care, funds his own retirement plan, and negotiates his own rate, which has to cover his taxes, benefits, and the rest. He bills back expenses and, at some point, in a worst case scenario, he is able to cut the cord if the corporation doesn’t hold to their end of the contract. Free Agents can work for Fortune 500 companies, for another one-person shop, on-site, remotely, travelling, locally, part-time or full or flex, and at nearly any level or type of talent or expertise. There are variations on this: some companies hire “contract employees” which basically means project workers with full employee benefits that drop off upon completion without further obligation. But in a troubled economy, hiring in any capacity has its own risks and headaches. You can’t build the core of a project team out of staff agency temps, though. There are risks and headaches to bringing in 1099 contractors – one example: a lot of them are suing – successfully, because in most respects they’re treated like employees and argue they should be entitled to benefits – and now the IRS is cracking down with new rules on the contractor/employee distinction. It’s a dilemma, all right. Free Agent Source is a company that connects Free Agents with Client companies but with a corp to corp contract (no 1099), and keeps contractors in benefits and provides them a W-2 without taking half of it – Free Agents set their rates with the Client and FAS keeps a small, transparent portion to provide back office services, legal, accounting, etc. You can bring in just about anyone in any capacity as a Free Agent that way, without the problems attendant regular employment, staffing agencies, or 1099 contracting. But regardless of that being our solution, there’s a shift of culture, here, as Pink was suggesting. Whether the fabled economic “Recovery” comes one day, or the Kingdom comes first, there’s strong indication that this way of working may remain the fastest growing trend. Why not? When you’re up, it still makes as much sense as when you’re down. The Bootstrap Era is gone, and the results of the Authoritarian Era are mixed at best, and just not practical anymore (if they ever were).
Your view of the legitimacy of each successive shift will depend on what era you personally are currently living in. One of the things I hope to achieve is to live always in the next era. As an entrepreneur (a solopreneur – another new skyrocketing trend well before the bust), isn’t that the goal? To live with vision, with insight into where we are going, not mistaking the past for the present, but staking (a little exhilirating risk, to be sure) on what works rather than simply on what is and what was? Well, that’s certainly a key to prosperity for a lot of people whose version of Free Agency is self-employment. It’s an exciting time for work. Maybe I always liked to drum to my own tune, but that’s getting rewarded a lot these days – it’s what companies (like Google) actually say they’re looking for. Look at Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube. One of the many signals social media sends to business is that talent and conformity are often inversely related. This is good news. This is the work I wanted to do when I was a kid – work where the person doing it defines it as much as the recipient, and where the line between recipient and provider is a little fuzzier.
I don’t fault my elders, incidentally, for living in their time. It’s just that now a lot of us are taking apart the clock and asking whether it really was always the inevitable way that things worked. Time itself will tell, but some of us are already forging our own solutions.