Launching a Free Agent Nation

Self-employed 'micropreneurs' are changing the working model of business, according to author Daniel Pink of Free Agent Nation. In a recent interview, Pink described the new paradigm and postulated that its growing number of converts also may signal a dramatic shift in traditional business education models. 

Launching a Free Agent Nation

The phrase“nine-to-five”conjures up the quintessential image of the modern workforce, with everyone arriving in the office simultaneously and everyone walking out in unison at the end of the workday. But that notion is rapidly disintegrating and being replaced by a wholly new kind of worker—one who operates from his home, sets his own hours, and chooses his own projects. Daniel Pink has dubbed these free agents as “tech-savvy, self-reliant, path-charting micropreneurs”— and he believes they will define the next century of business.

Pink also believes these new workers are redefining the traditional approach to education. Many will be students who were home schooled at the grade school and high school levels. And at the college level? Pink thinks the free agents of the future may decide to put off higher education, going directly from high school to the workplace, and choosing to attend college only intermittently to acquire specific knowledge. It’s an outlook that recasts the future of business and education.

Pink, who is based in Washington, D.C, traveled around the United States interviewing hundreds of self-employed and temporary workers to develop the premise for Free Agent Nation. He is a contributing editor for Fast Company magazine and a freelance journalist.

In your book, you forecast that fewer people will get college degrees in the future. Instead they’ll go directly from high school to the workplace. But if someone doesn’t have a degree, especially when applying for a management position, what kinds of qualifiers will employers consider to know this person is right for the job?
Part of it is going to be her portfolio of work from previous engagements. How do you measure whether or not an artist is any good? Well, you take a look at her portfolio. And I think that more and more “regular” workers, those who aren’t artists, will have the equivalent of a portfolio, whether it’s a piece they’ve written, a strategy they’ve devised, or simply the balance sheet of a project that shows they actually met their numbers. Those kinds of things are going to matter much more. Many times, degrees have only been proxies for that kind of information.

You’ve noted that for-profit universities are doing a good job of serving free agents, in the management field and elsewhere. What are they doing that’s different from what’s happening in traditional universities?
They’re accommodating the institution to the individual, rather than forcing the individual to accommodate himself or herself to the institution. That means they provide everything from classes online to classes at night to classes in many locations to a smorgasbord of offerings. In my view, many online education providers are very customer-centered institutions that are providing some value. I think a lot of community colleges around the country are doing this as well. It’s the higher level “prestigious” universities that are having trouble making the transition. At a certain point, people won’t be flocking to Ivy League colleges because of the mere reflected glory of the Harvard name. All institutions lose their luster after a certain amount of time if they’re not revived and rejuvenated.

But aren’t there always going to be students and employers who prefer the brand name of an Ivy League school education?
Sure. In the 1950s, the phrase “made in Japan” was the sign of a second-rate product; but in the 1980s, “made in Japan” was the sign of a great product. The value of these labels or imprimaturs changes over time. I don’t think the Ivy League imprimatur is going to lose all of its value, but I think it’s going to lose some of its value as it becomes less of a marker for what someone can do in the workforce.

What can Ivy League business schools—or any traditional schools—do to adapt to a changing work environment?
I think they need to have a much better sense of who their customers are and a much better sense of what the market demands. I think colleges and universities are going to have to deepen the long-term relationships they have with students. Right now their typical long-term relationships are built around alumni associations—and those are really built around nostalgia and affection for the alma mater.

There’s nothing wrong with that kind of relationship. However, colleges also can serve a more pragmatic purpose in a workforce where people are compelled to constantly, constantly upgrade their skills, constantly learn new things, constantly sharpen various aptitudes, and constantly find new connections and pathways to work and to other people. Some colleges and universities are doing this already. They offer tours, for example, where the professor takes alumni to Greece, and they all go through the ruins and learn about Greek history. But I think you can also see something like that occur when colleges help alumni develop new workplace skills.

PROFESSORS will need institutions less than the institutions need them. A great professor won’t necessarily have to affiliate exclusively with a PARTICULAR INSTITUTION.

Many business schools are hosting executive education conferences right now. Are these the sorts of events that enable schools to teach the skills you’re describing?
I think that conferences could be a big part of business for business schools or universities. These conferences usually are held with different degrees of formality, hooking up people who are alumni with other alumni in the same field. It becomes a one-on-one relationship, which is the oldest way of learning and a very important one. It’s a way that can be revived, and colleges and universities can provide some of that connection.

I also think alumni magazines can be a source for that connection. Most people read alumni magazines to find out which of their classmates are doing what. Imagine an alumni magazine being less a celebration of how great the school is and getting more into service journalism. For instance, Money magazine publishes articles that describe “Seven Ways to Do This” and “Eight Ways to Do That.” I think that could be a significant supplemental service for alumni magazines. Along with having a business school professor’s theories profiled in a magazine, these magazines might include a sidebar that says “Ten Ways to Apply Her Theories to Your Career.”

Earlier, you mentioned online classes. In the future, how important will distance learning be for business professionals?
I don’t think distance learning or online courses are any kind of great panacea, but they’re useful supplements. People have a much wider variety of options today. More and more, they’re going to look to the particular mix of education that’s right for them, rather than simply accepting whatever standard education arrangement is inherited. People will be able to pick and choose. They’ll tailor their education to what works for them. Certainly online courses and distance learning will be a big part of the mix.

Whether they’re going back to business school part-time or taking online courses, you anticipate that many students of the future will be holding down jobs while pursuing an education. How do you envision the breakdown between the numbers of people who are in the traditional workforce and the numbers who are free agents?
I think more people are going to become free agents, but I think the whole arrangement will be very fluid. You’ll have a lot of people who are going to migrate back and forth between the Free Agent Nation and Corporate America. When you go to work for yourself, it’s not as if you have to renounce your citizenship in Corporate America. I think you’re going to have more people with dual passports.

The world of work is becoming even more idiosyncratic and more individualized than the world of education. People are creating their own career paths, fashioning projects and work arrangements that are right for them at that particular moment in time, disassembling them when they no longer work, and then creating some other sort of structure.

One common career path is graduating from college, working like crazy for an organization in your early years, having a family and deciding to go out on your own, and then entering the traditional workplace again when you have an empty nest. It really depends on a person’s own finances, values, and family structure. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, we now have—for the first time in a long time—fewer mothers with infants in the workforce. That could mean that during boom times mothers didn’t need to work for economic reasons, but I think it means that people are fashioning all sorts of different arrangements for themselves.

If you go down the block in your neighborhood, you’ll notice that everybody has a slightly different work arrangement. It’s more and more idiosyncratic. Instead of “one size fits all,” it’s what I call “my size fits me.”

USA Today recently published an article noting that there are fewer telecommuters in America than experts had predicted by this point. How does this conflict with your theory?
You know, we always tend to hear very hyperinflated predictions of what’s going to happen. When telecommuting becomes possible, you have people saying, “Everyone is going to telecommute!” Things don’t work that way. Especially in technology, the conventional wisdom is that we tend to overestimate what’s going to happen in two years and underestimate what’s going to happen in ten years. It’s the same with these work patterns. There’s no way everybody can become a free agent, there’s no way everyone can telecommute. But you’ll have more people.

I also think, after September 11, we had a surge of people who became interested in telecommuting. For one reason, there are people who are justifiably antsy about going to work in a giant office building. And two, people just want to be close to their families. They know life is not permanent.

Professors who operate as free agents are  going to be more HIGHLY REWARDED.

How does the concept of free agency operate in Europe and Asia? How is it different from the way it works in the United States?
Free agency is a little stronger in the U.S. for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I just think our cultural DNA is mapped much better to the whole free agent way of thinking. Individualism, lighting out for the territories, making a fresh start—all that is very American. In addition, our laws, as prohibitive as they are, enable this style of working to a greater extent than the laws of most other countries. The labor laws are fairly flexible; and, for better or for worse, we have a much less robust social safety net, so people are forced to make their own way. By contrast, in Europe there’s a bit more of a cultural transition. In addition, many of the laws and policies make it even more difficult to pursue free agency. That said, free agency is taking root in England and to a certain extent in other parts of Europe.

In Asia, it’s been really interesting. Japan has had a tradition of “the salary man,” which is analogous to the “organization man” in the U.S. Japan also has a tradition of lifelong employment, a sort of disdain for entrepreneurship, and the philosophy that the nail that sticks up gets knocked down. Partly because of those kinds of attitudes, Japan is groaning under the weight of a ten-year recession right now. I think Japan is struggling to put more free agents in the workplace.

There’s also the problem of the general aging of the population in Japan, isn’t there?
That’s somewhat true in the U.S. as well. I think what will eventually happen is that we’ll have to raise the retirement age. The Center for Disease Control in the United States reported recently that the average life expectancy for Americans is 76.7 years. In the first part of the century, the life expectancy was 40. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the bill in 1935 to make Social Security into law— when they made 65 the retirement age—life expectancy in America was only 62. However, I don’t think today’s baby boomers are going to want to retire at age 65.

Do you think people who’ve spent the majority of their lives working for an organization are going to choose to become free agents after they retire?
Absolutely. First of all, we’re essentially going to run out of working age people, so there’s going to be a terrific demand for talented older workers. Second, I don’t think talented older workers are going to want to work full-time. They’re going to want to work on their own terms. Older Americans don’t have to overcome the largest single obstacle to becoming free agents: a lack of health insurance. Because of Medicare, they all have health insurance.

Speaking of older workers, you predict that many of them will be going back to college—not after they retire, perhaps, but sometime in mid-career.
I do think you’ll see more older people on campus. I think you’ll see students going to college at different points in their lives, instead of once. It’ll be somewhat like the way people go to the doctor. It’s not as if you go to the doctor once and then everything is fine. You go to the doctor, then you go back for a checkup, and then you go back when you’re sick. I think it’ll be more like that.

An aging student population may be one change on college campuses in the next five to ten years. What other changes do you think will occur?
I think—I hope—that colleges will be under more pressure to bring their prices in line with their value offered. Inflation in the cost of education has been greater than inflation in the cost of health care.

What sorts of changes do you see for the profession of teaching?
I think you’ll see professors needing institutions less than the institutions need them. A great professor won’t necessarily have to affiliate exclusively with a particular institution. She can go out on her own and offer her own business course. I think professors who operate as free agents are going to be more highly rewarded. Right now, at most universities, professors seek tenure, which is the antithesis of free agency.

In general, what advice would you give college students pursuing a business degree in a world where so many options are open to them?
I think it’s the same advice I’d give to anybody else who’s in college, which is: Do what you love. Don’t do what’s expected of you. I think work can be a source of meaning and joy and purpose, and people shouldn’t necessarily think of it as a form of drudgery. Students should aspire to do great, meaningful things and not listen to all the naysayers who tell them those things can’t be done. I would say the same thing to someone who’s majoring in humanities—although someone majoring in business probably needs that advice more.